ADG Legal Founder Peter Gray on Legal Reform and Development in the UAE

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The United Arab Emirates has been at the forefront of legal reform in the Middle East, but is it keeping up with how fast the city is growing in other sectors, such as construction and technology? The Dubai 2030 vision includes strategies to develop a progressive business environment further, attract more foreign investment, and enhance social equality, involving legal reform. How will the city reach these objectives?

Indeed, several significant legal reforms have taken place recently, and as a result, several million expats have relocated to the UAE to benefit.

The population of UAE in 2023 reached 10.17 Million, an 0.89% increase from 2022. This indicates that expat growth has been rapid since the onset of the pandemic. According to a global census, the Emirate of Dubai is expected to grow from 3.5m to 5.8 million people by 2040.

Several notable policies have contributed to the influx of new expats over the past few years. The introduction of the “Golden Visa” in 2018 marked a significant milestone in the UAE’s efforts to attract global talent and investment. The long-term visa system allows investors, entrepreneurs, specialised talent, and exceptional students to obtain extended residency permits.

In addition, the UAE made several amendments to civil laws that have brought about positive changes in cohabitation, marriage, divorce, and inheritance matters. Women were granted enhanced protections in divorce cases, and their child custody rights were strengthened, empowering them in family-related legal affairs.

The UAE revised its foreign ownership laws in 2019 to promote foreign investment and economic diversification. The changes allow foreign investors to own 100% of their companies in specific sectors outside designated free zones. This progressive move attracts global businesses, encourages entrepreneurship, and fosters an environment conducive to innovation and growth.

Prior to the pandemic, the UAE had already implemented a practical online court system. Since then, it has further expanded its utilisation of technology to provide a seamless remote experience. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid’s initiatives in Dubai to improve public services such as advancing from e-government to smart government platforms displays decisive leadership. The government uses technology to regularly improve its services to provide businesses and individuals with more accessibility. UAE’s litigation platforms offer this practically.

A number of specialised courts were established with the objective of efficiently resolving disputes administered by authorised judicial committees and experts. Currently, the majority of court proceedings are conducted online which provides litigants with the choice of remotely appearing in court. Litigants, lawyers, experts, and judges have universal access to court documents through a number of authorised applications. Authorities are able to administer proceedings remotely, submissions are made online and notifications(by default) are verified through email.

In addition, the UAE courts implemented an online public notary system to serve the public and included a private notary service that assists clients after working hours. This additional service provides round-the-clock accessibility.

These services have provided value by enabling prompt resolution, decreasing costs, and providing a seamless experience to all those that utilise them.

Reforms have extended to the digital economy. Recognising the rising challenges of the digital era, the UAE has enacted several laws to combat cyber threats and protect intellectual property. These laws safeguard against cyber fraud, protect personal data, and ensure responsible use of technology.

However, these reforms and the recent population growth have given rise to new challenges. As more corporate executives and multinational companies relocate to the Emirates, the demand for high-level advisory and representation will continue to develop.

Would a lawyer with extensive experience of the law in the UAE backed by extensive international experience embody the perfect synthesis of Eastern and Western legal expertise?

ADG Legal founder Peter Gray, a UAE-based lawyer with long international experience, thinks so. He shares his insights into the legal landscape of the United Arab Emirates and how the country’s leading law firms will shape the future of representation within the field.

Peter Gray, tell us about ADG Legal, and how your firm has established itself in the UAE?

As experienced lawyers who had worked with several law firms and enterprises, Mohammed AlDahbashi and I identified a unique opportunity in the market for a boutique law firm that would bring local and international expertise under one roof. Few international firms have significant local advice capability, and the number of local firms offering international advice is also low. Clients were also telling us that they wanted a firm which was commercial and responsive.

At the outset, it was not obvious that we would succeed, from a small base of around 10 staff. Today, we have a payroll of over 80 people. Our unique proposition has led to  ADG Legal becoming a firm that’s grown in prominence across the region in a few years. Our ethos lies in building long-standing relationships with our clients. We are a diverse and strategic team of problem solvers who focus on delivering personalised solutions to our clients.

ADG Legal was founded in Dubai and has expanded its footprint with offices in Abu Dhabi, Cairo, Alexandria and a representative office in London. Our strength lies in the diversity of our team, which comprises 26 nationalities. No one nationality dominates. Our lawyers possess unique skills and abilities and are exceptional human beings with diverse backgrounds, internationally, from the region, and the UAE. Most Thursdays we have an office lunch, which anyone may come to. Whenever I am there, I am reminded about the quality and diversity of our team.

One thing we are proud of as a firm is that we actively seek out young talented lawyers and provide them with a platform and the necessary support to gain experience and knowledge about different practice areas. We have a steady stream of interns that gain hands-on experience and are mentored throughout their internships. In addition, we also take on newly qualified lawyers and ensure they receive adequate supervision and support from the more experienced lawyers.

What challenges do law firms and clients face in the United Arab Emirates, and what advice would you give to new corporate executives and multinational companies looking for legal counsel in the UAE?

One significant challenge for clients is reducing the noise in decision-making. There is an abundance of law firms in the UAE that will pounce at any opportunity to represent a client, often by promising something they cannot deliver. Lawyers are persuasive, and clients sometimes end up with the wrong team. There is also a regional tendency for people to ask advice from those who may neither know the facts nor have the expertise. Frequently, I am told something along the lines of: “My cousin is a lawyer and thinks XYZ about the case”. Often it transpires the said cousin was pumped for a free second opinion, given only some of the story and practises in a different field.

I advise every client to consider available options carefully. The first step is to assess the market, and the second is to learn as much as possible about the firm they are considering hiring. Get to know who they are, where they have been educated, where they have practised law before, and who they have represented. How would they approach the case? Are they only considering the law, or are they looking at the commercials? If you win, will you collect any judgement award, for example? On the other hand, I would not rely too much on global brand names – many have a smaller presence in the region than they would let on, and there are firms whose Middle Eastern reputation and quality is significantly better or worse than the equivalent in London.

Clients should not be afraid of instructing multiple firms. We often are asked to assist a client’s international counsel – be they from overseas or the Dubai office of an international firm. In that way, clients continue with their longstanding relationships while obtaining the advice they need for the matter in question.

For corporate matters, an important factor to consider is how well-connected a law firm is in the region. By this I do not mean the concept of “wasta” but rather how well they know their way around the market. Can they introduce you to other service providers, and possibly business partners? A good firm does not just provide legal advice – it helps clients advance their business aims.

Are you looking at the Saudi market, given recent reforms?

We certainly are. The changes we are seeing, led by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, are unprecedented in the Kingdom’s history. Not only are we seeing vast construction projects, but a shift in society. Riyadh is now filled with international business people, working on projects and investments and enjoying the many high-end restaurants that have sprung up in the past few years.

I do not see this as a threat to the UAE, but rather as complementing it. It is also a very different place to the UAE – most people in the Kingdom are Saudi, whereas the UAE has a majority expat population, which leads to different dynamics.

Numerous legal reforms are taking place in the Kingdom to make Vision 2030 a reality. Only with expert representation and advisory can countries and multinationals looking to explore projects in the Kingdom succeed and get involved in these projects. We have access to Saudi expertise and are actively looking at opening an office in the Kingdom.

Our firm’s understanding of regional jurisdictions and integration through partnerships is essential for supporting our clients’ growth ambitions.

Another challenge is professionalism and confidentiality. We uphold the highest standards of professionalism, ethics, and client confidentiality, and our team is well-versed in our codes of conduct and ethical guidelines. This ensures that every client receives confidential and trustworthy legal representation, promoting a sense of security and confidence in their legal affairs.

In addition, at ADG Legal, our understanding of different international legal systems enables us to offer insights into different jurisdictions and assist our clients with navigating expansions. This knowledge facilitates negotiation between clients, local authorities, and counterparties, leading to favourable legal and business outcomes.

Law is a saturated market in the UAE. What does ADG Legal do differently than most traditional law firms in the UAE? Do you believe many lawyers are unqualified to represent the high-profile entities your firm so often represents?

The legal market in the United Arab Emirates has experienced significant growth over the years, and it is a competitive market with a considerable number of law firms and for good reason. The country has become an important business and financial hub for the Middle East, Africa and Asia, attracting international corporations and investors taking advantage of its various business benefits and incentives. As a result, there has been an increased demand for legal services, leading to a rise in the number of lawyers and law firms practising in the country.

The UAE has taken steps to enhance the quality and professionalism of the legal sector over the last few years. This includes implementing stricter regulations and licensing requirements to ensure that lawyers meet the necessary standards. Additionally, there are various professional associations and legal bodies in the UAE, such as the Legal Affairs Department of Dubai and the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department, that work to regulate and supervise the legal profession. In addition, to further ensure standards, the Ministry of Justice and local judicial authorities additionally regulate the legal profession. To practise law in the UAE, lawyers must meet specific educational and professional qualifications, including obtaining a law degree from a recognised university and passing relevant examinations.

But pause for a minute. ADG Legal is different. We are not about credentials.

Our focus is on delivering results and providing effective resolutions over credentials. If a lawyer or a firm has a qualified high-performance team that is client-centric and professionally trained to deliver the best outcomes, their education and certifications become secondary.

How do you see the UAE continuing to reform its civil and corporate law? Do you believe that reforms in the future will tackle challenges such as privacy rights and discrimination?

As a global business hub, the UAE has a diverse population, and its legal system recognises the importance of international standards. The country has implemented laws and regulations that align with international conventions and best practices. Moreover, UAE lawyers are often involved in cross-border transactions and international disputes, necessitating an understanding of international law.

There has been a growing global focus on privacy and data protection in recent years. Many countries have enacted or strengthened laws to enhance individuals’ privacy rights and regulate personal data collection, use, and storage. The UAE has taken positive steps in data protection.

More than ever, the world is going digital, and businesses will need thorough representation to protect their intellectual property in digital spaces. The future of privacy rights in the UAE will likely be influenced by several factors, including societal demands for greater privacy protections, technological advancements, international privacy standards, and the UAE’s legal and policy development.

It is crucial to note that international law and concepts that arise in cross-border deals and disputes are specialised areas of legal practice requiring knowledge and expertise. From a practising perspective, lawyers in the UAE should have a solid understanding of both local laws and international legal principles. Recently, the rapidly growing use by the US of sanctions on foreign entities has been a stark reminder that people need to be mindful of how other countries’ laws and actions can impact even local businesses

The UAE is a country with an abundance of western expats, foreign executives, and multinational companies. How does being cross-cultured and an internationally educated and experienced lawyer help clients navigate and resolve their conflicts and disputes?

We are much more than lawyers; our philosophy is to help clients reach their goals and outcomes and do it correctly through the proper guidance, channels, systems and jurisdictions. We are their strategists, advisors, support network, and much more.

This is why we have such an extensive team of professionals because we can cover every aspect of advisory and practising law within our vast network of professionals.

Having international education and experience directly ties into this approach, as demonstrated through years of building our firm with globally reputed lawyers.

For example, on my journey to becoming a proficient UK legal professional, after studying at Cambridge University, I learned and gained invaluable experiences through working on high-profile cases. These experiences pushed me to develop the emotional intelligence required to manage and guide clients. They gave me a thorough understanding of leveraging the law to form win-win strategies for our clients. Today, we follow the same process of carefully compiling a strategy to execute desired outcomes.

Assisting international executives in the UAE involves having a solid understanding of local laws and regulations and being familiar with their home countries’ legal systems. This allows the lawyer to effectively bridge the gap between the two legal systems and provide comprehensive legal support.

From a legal, technical perspective, we have great insights across several fields of law.

ADG Legal was founded with white collar crime as its core practice. This is an area which nearly always requires a strong mix of local and international expertise. Mohammed and I both had long experience in the practice area and found that clients liked our style of working together, which we had done when at different firms. In a typical white collar case, a company is concerned that some of its executives have acted illegally – be that misappropriating company assets, bribing third parties, or acting in breach of sanctions, to name but a few.

Often, such disputes are complex and cross-border. As such, we work with some of the best firms around the world, both claimants and defendants. We then built up our local and international disputes practices, before adding other team members to provide a strong corporate practice.

Since then, we have grown sufficiently to describe ourselves as “full service”. We assist in employment law and advise on employment contracts, benefits, termination disputes, and discrimination issues while considering both UAE labour laws and the legal rights and protections available in the expat’s home country.

We have a leading family law practice which assists with matters such as marriage, divorce, child custody, and child support, considering the different legal frameworks and cultural aspects involved. In real estate, we guide expats through property transactions, lease agreements, landlord-tenant disputes, and property-related legal issues in accordance with UAE property laws.

We also have immigration advisory and navigate the complexities of visa applications, work permits, residency permits, and related immigration matters, ensuring compliance with UAE regulations and requirements. Typically, they work with corporate services providers in the region to help set up companies onshore or in the many free zones.

Our expert corporate team works on a range of projects, often opposite international market leading firms. We’ve built a strong reputation by providing legal advice and offering cultural insights, language support, and a client-focused approach that helps international executives and multinationals feel more comfortable and confident navigating the UAE legal landscape.

It’s clear that ADG Legal is bridging the East and West. Is your presence in the UAE also a strategic position that provides a geopolitical advantage to facilitate legal and business services to individuals and companies doing business in Africa?

Bridging the East and West and leveraging our strategic geopolitical position in the UAE to serve individuals and companies doing business in Africa is something we’ve prioritised since our inception. Africa is underrated, and when it comes to its global importance, often even under-cited. The stereotype is that Africa is a continent with vast natural resources without reliable governance. However, as the media becomes more decentralised, the world is starting to understand its importance to the future of our civilisation. Since the 15th century, the continent has been an essential resource to global superpowers. This has not changed; emerging superpowers have deep roots in the continent today. Thousands of Chinese, Gulf, and European multinational companies conduct business in Africa, and more African nations are gaining confidence to govern their countries independently. They are aiming to structure beneficial collaboration for intercontinental business. If Africa is united and its leading countries collaborate effectively, the continent could be the next global superpower.

Many of those businesses use Dubai as their base for African operations, because of its quality of life and unrivalled transport links. Emirati airlines fly to most of the major African capitals, as well as less-visited ones, such as Hargeysa, Somaliland. Where they do not, it is a simple matter to change planes in Addis Ababa or Nairobi as most other options are covered by Ethiopian or Kenya Airlines. Our geopolitical position in the UAE provides us with opportunities to facilitate business for many international companies hoping to penetrate African markets. We have built a pedigree and are the go-to legal firm for African business and policy in the United Arab Emirates.

We assist our clients in cross-border transactions and investments between the UAE, Africa, and other regions, including advising and facilitating project financing for infrastructure, energy projects, technology, and several other sectors in Africa. This may involve working closely with international financial institutions, local governments, and private entities to facilitate funding and navigate legal complexities.

Africa requires a deep understanding of different African countries’ legal systems, business practices, and cultural dynamics. Many of our clients invest confidently in the continent because of our knowledge of commercial law in each country. We, of course, are stronger in some countries than others. Still, we can assist clients with market entry strategies, investment structuring, due diligence, contract negotiation, and compliance with local laws and regulations. This can involve advising on joint ventures, mergers and acquisitions, licensing agreements, and other cross-border transactions.

African nations are often stereotyped as corrupt and unsafe, although untrue, as they face the same challenges most countries face around the world. As an overstated issue, ADG Legal takes extra caution in compliance and regulatory matters. We assist multinationals in navigating the regulatory frameworks and compliance requirements in many African countries. This includes advising on anti-corruption measures, trade regulations, data privacy laws, and other legal obligations to ensure smooth business operations and risk mitigation.

We are also putting our money where our mouths are. In Africa, we set up Meritus Developments which focuses on infrastructure developments in Africa. Meritus is backed by industry-leading investors, and beyond business, one of its priorities is to have a positive social impact within the communities it is involved in.

Over the years, ADG Legal has developed a network of local contacts and partnerships with law firms in various African countries. We have kept up with legal developments in key African markets, which is imperative in successfully providing legal services within the continent. Our relationships and partnerships are essential as they help us to understand the cultural, political, and economic landscapes of different African countries to advise our clients better.

Peter Gray, we understand you are an author. Can you tell us about your books, ‘The 99 Points For Investing In Africa’ and ‘The 99 Points For Investing In The UAE’? Are there any new projects that you’re working on?

My book ‘The 99 Points For Investing In Africa’ discusses the immense potential for economic growth and investment across various business sectors in Africa. I believe Africa’s future development will be driven by business rather than aid.

I did not want to focus on politics, poverty, or any cliche when writing. I wanted to write about possibilities, about the future. Africa is a diverse and complex continent with unique socio-economic and political challenges. However, my primary focus was exploring investment trends, highlighting key considerations for potential investors, and providing insights into every African country. In short, it is intended to be an introductory business book.

After receiving great feedback from ‘The 99 Points For Investing In Africa’, I decided to continue the series and published ‘The 99 Points For Investing In the UAE’, which was a team effort, with most of the firm contributing to it. Much like the initial book, the purpose of this book was to cover the basics of doing business in the UAE. The series aims to motivate and enlighten its readers.

What’s in the future for Peter Gray?

Good question. I’ve learned you never know what the future holds. That said, I hope it includes being able to help take ADG Legal to the next level, and at the same time working on newer initiatives, such as our African projects through Meritus.

I also have a few books in the works, including continuing the series. Perhaps, I will also write a story of one of my adventures in Africa, but let’s keep that under wraps for now. The next book will surely be full of surprises.

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