Firms are increasingly looking at Dubai as an attractive legal market, owing to its dispute resolution infrastructure, tech-forward policies, and growing trade ties with India.
Indian law firms have traditionally taken a conservative stance on international expansion. But as the country’s financial clout spreads overseas, law firms are setting their sights on key international business hubs to support this wave of expansion.
Dubai is the latest to see incoming law firm traffic from India, with at least five firms setting up shop in the United Arab Emirates’ capital in 2023. In August, Delhi-based disputes boutique AKS Partners became the latest Indian law firm to open an office in Dubai. Goswami & Nigam, Singularity Legal, Vidhisastras Advocates & Solicitors and Parin Legal have also opened offices in Dubai this year.
Law firm leaders say the UAE’s growing bilateral trade relations with India, pro-technology regulatory approach, and the capital city’s drive to become an international dispute resolution hub bring more Indian law firms to its shores.
“The work we expect in Dubai will encompass a wide range of legal matters, such as handling international arbitration cases, providing expert advice on corporate and commercial issues, and offering guidance on technology and cryptocurrency law,” says AKS’ managing partner Sonal Kumar Singh.
“We foresee significant business expansion in Dubai in the coming years, driven by the thriving trade between India and the UAE. Rising trade volumes will lead to increased demand for legal counsel in disputes and support for cross-border transactions, investments, and collaborations,” Singh adds.
GROWING ECONOMIC TIES
Bilateral trade between India and the UAE was $84.5 billion from April 2022 to March 2023. A Free Trade Agreement between the two countries that came into effect on May 1 seeks to increase trade to $100 billion.
India is also the UAE’s top trading partner for non-oil exports, accounting for nearly 14 percent of the UAE’s total non-oil exports worldwide. According to data from India’s Directorate General of Commercial Intelligence and Statistics, India’s April to October exports to the UAE rose 17.6 percent to around $18 billion for FY22. Imports from the UAE during the same period increased by 33 percent to $32.3 billion.
“The intensification of trade and investment activity between India and the UAE will further boost the demand for legal services in Dubai. This surge will encompass inquiries and requests for legal advice, contract negotiations, dispute resolution, and compliance matters. Our aim is to position ourselves as a trusted legal partner to meet these growing demands efficiently,” Singh says. The UAE’s regulation of cryptocurrency and general tech-forward policies also attract a lot of tech-focused Indian businesses to its shores, bringing more work to law firms.
“We see technology as the driver of the next phase of growth, which will also spur growth in ancillary industries like real estate, financial services and hospitality,” say Himanshu Goswami and Nishant Nigam, managing partners of Goswami & Nigam.
“These factors align well with the focus practice areas of our firm since we do a significant amount of work in cross border transactions, financial markets and new age tech like Ai, ML, NLP, Web 3.0 and the like,” Goswami and Nigam add.
AKS’ Singh agrees, adding that the firm “anticipates heightened demand for legal services in cutting-edge areas like technology and finance. Dubai has been a leader in technological and financial innovation, including blockchain, cryptocurrencies, and fintech. We are enthusiastic about the opportunities that the Dubai market offers.”
Another chief reason to invest in Dubai is the city’s growing reputation as a global arbitration hub, says Singh. Indeed, the Dubai International Arbitration Centre’s annual report for 2022 found that 340 cases were registered in 2022, compared to 276 cases in 2021, and 231 in 2020, which represents upwards of 20 percent growth per year. The report also highlights the nature of the cases registered, with 44 percent of the cases involving international disputes – not involving a party from the UAE – involving parties from 48 countries. The UAE has also continuously sought to improve its arbitration procedure and enforcement mechanism to make it more attractive to businesses. In September, the country amended its laws to improve arbitrator impartiality, emphasise clear recognition of virtual arbitration proceedings and create a larger umbrella of confidentiality over arbitration hearings and proceedings.
But setting up shop in Dubai does not come without its regulatory challenges, with various registration requirements, business structures and locations, categories of practitioners and foreign ownership restrictions.
The first challenge to setting up an office in the UAE was navigating foreign ownership requirements.
“While Dubai has made progress in liberalising foreign ownership, certain sectors maintain limitations. To ensure compliance while retaining control, we engaged local partners or sponsors as needed, aligning our approach with sector-specific regulations,” Singh says. Goswami and Nigam point out that there are also distinct categories of legal practitioners in the country, and only a lawyer who is a UAE national can appear in courts.
“An advocate/counsel is authorised to represent clients before the local courts in the UAE. This right is granted to Emirati lawyers. Non-Emirati legal practitioners can get registration as legal consultants, which authorises them to render legal advice to clients in the UAE, but not appear before the courts.”
An Indian firm needs to hire Emirati lawyers or engage with local law firms in order to represent their clients before courts in the UAE. AKS and Goswami and Nigam both say they have met these criteria.
LOOKING BEYOND DUBAI
The rush of Indian law firms to Dubai highlights the growing belief that India Inc. is now looking at Dubai as a strong avenue for growth.
“We see the Dubai market in particular, and the UAE as a whole, to really be a key driver of the next phase of the India growth story. The UAE has constantly reinvented itself to keep pace with the changing business and technology dynamics in the world, and now, we are witnessing a synergy between the technology edge that Indian companies and entrepreneurs bring to the world, and the regulatory and business environment of the UAE, which together can be the tech centre of the world in the coming years,” Goswami and Nigam say.
AKS’ Singh says that Dubai is only an entry point into a larger Middle Eastern market, and the firm is looking to launch offices across the oil-rich subcontinent as it looks to diversify.
“We anticipate a growing demand for legal services in Dubai and surrounding regions such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Oman, driven by the region’s economic diversification and the increasing complexity of business transactions. These factors offer numerous opportunities for us to effectively assist clients and open exciting prospects for us in emerging fields.”
“Having inaugurated our new branch in Dubai, the firm is also actively considering opportunities to expand into neighbouring regions like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Oman, Abu Dhabi, and others,” Singh adds.