The Middle East: A 2024 market snapshot

Our Dubai office is the hub of Marsden’s Middle East & Emerging Markets practice and our team places partners, associates, and senior in-house legal counsel across the region. As 2024 gets underway, our experts have provided a snapshot of the regional legal recruitment market and what you need to know if you are thinking about moving to or within the Middle East.

The region continues to be buoyant, and both the United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are experiencing substantial growth. The last year has seen a number of leading firms either establish their offerings on the ground or solidify their existing presences in KSA, including Addleshaw Goddard, Clifford Chance, CMS, Dentons, Greenberg Traurig, Linklaters, Herbert Smith Freehills, Gibson Dunn, Kirkland & Ellis, Latham & Watkins and Mishcon de Reya. More entrants from the US are expected to be announced soon. Other firms, including Clyde & Co, Quinn Emanuel and Morgan Lewis have been bolstering their Dubai offices.

After a slow summer in 2023, firms were a lot busier by the autumn.  Associate utilisation rates are up, but not yet high enough to lead to an increase in hires. Replacement roles across Corporate practices have been filled by internal transfers rather than lateral hires, due to the decline in M&A in London. However in Projects, international firms are increasingly demanding regional experience.

There has been extensive movement in the partner market, and whilst established partners with proven books of business will always find interested parties, firms are open to conversations with Senior Associates/Counsel who may be blocked for partnership within their current firms but still possess a reasonable book of business to build upon. We are currently working with a number of leading firms on a number of opportunities.

Despite uncertainties such as rising interest rates, geopolitical troubles, and inflation, practices areas such as M&A, Capital Markets and Projects & Energy are strong across the Middle East.

  • In Corporate/M&A, the Middle East has seen a rise in M&A and IPOs, particularly in the energy sector. Giga projects such as NEOM are creating significant FDI opportunities, leading to an increased demand for M&A. Deal flow has increased, although deal values have not risen drastically. However, the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East has caused some firms to predict there may be a slight slowdown in activity and say that deals are taking longer to close.
  • There has been a noticeable rise in Litigation and International Arbitration. Specialists such as Quinn Emanuel have opened their doors in Dubai with two partners from King & Wood Mallesons. There has not (yet) been a huge uptick in associate hires, as they are not at full utilisation so cannot justify additions to the practices. This may change with some big cases being taken on by leading international firms in the region.
  • The push towards renewable energy in mega-projects in the UAE and KSA is creating recruitment opportunities, attracting lawyers with expertise in Projects, Energy, and Project Finance. Abu Dhabi is also emerging as an energy hub, with firms including Gibson Dunn and Brodies opening offices in 2023. Once the World Cup 2034 is confirmed (as is expected) in KSA, there will be a surge of infrastructure projects coming through to top what Qatar 2022 achieved. With the focus on projects there has been a growing importance for ESG and sustainable financing driven by events such as COP28 hosted in Dubai at the end of last year.
  • The introduction of data guidelines in the Middle East has resulted in a growing demand for expertise in Data Privacy and Protection. Reed Smith and Taylor Wessing have both appointed partners to focus on IP, technology and media in Dubai.

It’s a good time to move to the Middle East. With business booming, there is continued demand for experienced lawyers in both private practice and in-house. Career benefits include the opportunity to be part of small, high-quality teams doing cutting-edge international legal work; the chance to gain more client exposure and responsibility quicker in your legal career, leading to faster progression, and last but not least, the chance to earn tax-free salary packages. In addition, the recent introduction of the ‘golden visa’ (a long-term, renewable residence visa) is designed to offer the expat community further stability to living and working in the UAE.

We have current opportunities for private practice lawyers at all levels as well as senior level in-house roles across the Middle East. Please contact one of our experienced and well-connected team: Sonia Patel, Aaron Faith, Matthew Oakey, Laura Baker.