Drawn to Dubai: Kiwi lawyers and the Middle Eastern allure

Steven Henderson is one of the many Kiwi lawyers now practising in Dubai. He tells NZ Lawyer why the market has the ability to surprise and stimulate even the most experienced lawyers

Drawn to Dubai: Kiwi lawyers and the Middle Eastern allure
When Steven Henderson first arrived in Dubai at the end of 2005, half the current city wasn’t there yet – at least not some of its now famous buildings and landmarks.

“To say a lot has changed would be an understatement,” Henderson says. “I arrived during a booming period of development. The scale and scope of some of the projects that were being undertaken was just staggering.”

As a real estate lawyer, Henderson would know.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Having been in the United Arab Emirates just short of nine years, the Kiwi lawyer has been at the forefront of one of the modern world’s unprecedented booms. Dubai’s evolution from backwater to prominent global commercial centre has largely come in the last 20 years, but especially in the years since 2000.

Henderson says that being in this environment has been highly stimulating.

“When I first arrived, there was very much an emerging market mentality. Laws were still being established and, in some cases, there weren’t laws at all.

“Things were developing super-fast and then the GFC saw a number of projects being stalled and restructured, although even during this time there was still a lot of development that carried on. It has now come full circle and is back to being fast paced and frantic again.”

After university, Henderson got his first legal position with Russell McVeagh’s Auckland office, where he worked for eight years in the firm’s real estate team. It was only when his wife, a structural engineer, was head-hunted by a company in Dubai that the possibility of Henderson practising overseas came up.

“I contacted all the people I knew overseas and put some feelers out. Soon I got a role at Clifford Chance to set up their real estate practice in the Middle East, and then moved to Baker & McKenzie after a few years, where I am partner (and head of the firm’s UAE real estate practice).”

Considering the boom in Dubai’s development space, Henderson says the work he has been engaged in has been broad. “A lot of my practice is basically more traditional real estate transactions. Some of the massive Greenfield sites they have here mean you’re often advising on the development of master-planned communities that can be up to 25 square kilometres. I come in at the start to advise on the many facets of these projects, like how they are going to be structured. Apart from that, it’s a real mix. You’re involved with a lot of hotels.”

Being involved in such transactions can be challenging, according to Henderson. Part of that challenge is that Dubai remains an emerging market, where the legal framework is still young. A lot of laws are reactive, as opposed to proactive, and in the real estate space many have only emerged over the last three to four years.

Henderson admits it has been hard to make the adjustment.

“It’s a totally different legal system. It’s civil law. It’s a different approach, different mentality. It takes a while to get your feet under the desk and feel comfortable. I was lucky at the time, it sounds crazy, but the lack of laws helped in some ways because you just had to go back to first principles. If the law didn’t prescribe how something works, we would have to put a structure in place that did work.”

Living in Dubai, Henderson says, is always interesting. On the one hand, the depth of real estate projects means that the city is in a constant flux, but the quieter sides to the city offer their own attraction.

Henderson and his wife, along with their two girls, live away from glitz and glamour of Dubai’s hotel skyscrapers, preferring one of the city’s older neighbourhoods. Their house is close to the beach and parks abound.

“Family and friends back home think we live in the desert, but there is lots of greenery,” Henderson says. “The city is an international melting pot…The Emirati population probably makes up less than 10% of the city, so you have many people from different backgrounds and cultures. You could stick in your little NZ expat bubble over here, but we have friends from just about everywhere. My daughter has about 10 different nationalities in her small nursery school class. It’s great.”

Despite this, Henderson admits that it is hard not to miss New Zealand at times. He says it’s challenging not to be close to friends and family and he misses the clean and green environment of home.

And because Dubai is under a lot of development, it has nothing near the chilled out, relaxed atmosphere that makes New Zealand a great place to live all year round, he says.
This article appeared in New Zealand Lawyer’s latest magazine edition 6.2. Subscribe for more articles and detailed legal features.

Keep an eye out for next week’s story about another Kiwi lawyer who has jumped ship to the Middle East.

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