Morgan, Lewis & Bockius is set to open an office in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, with the hire of three partners from Vinson & Elkins.

The new location, which is awaiting proper licensing before officially opening, will initially have a structured finance and energy bent.

Ayman A. Khaleq, a structured finance and debt capital markets attorney with a particular focus on Islamic finance, and Jim Knight, a corporate and transactional attorney with experience in the energy industry, will spearhead the new location. As part of the lateral acquisition, Morgan Lewis is also hiring Vinson & Elkins London-based partner Lewis Jones, who has focused on international energy projects under English law. Jones also spent some of his time in Vinson & Elkins' Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, office, according to that firm's website. Morgan Lewis said Jones will be based in the firm's London office and spend a significant amount of time in Dubai.

Charles E. Engros Jr., managing partner of Morgan Lewis in charge of its international practice, said the firm was looking to enter the Middle East to fill out its international energy practice. The group from Vinson & Elkins just happened to offer additional capabilities that tied into other existing Morgan Lewis practice strengths, Engros said.

He said Khaleq is a finance attorney with a particular knowledge of Islamic financing, which Engros said was a skill set the firm was looking to add.

"His practice fits in very well with what we are doing in London, Moscow and Kazakhstan, which is focusing on financing by banks in and lending to emerging markets internationally," Engros said of Khaleq.

The team also brings a private equity and venture capital component that Engros said fits well with Morgan Lewis' existing work in those areas.

Last year, Morgan Lewis opened Moscow and Almaty, Kazakhstan, locations and added depth in London with the addition of dozens of lawyers from defunct Dewey & LeBoeuf. Those transactions had a strong focus on energy as well.

Morgan Lewis said the Dubai attorneys would work closely with the firm's London office as well as the other 23 offices across the globe. The firm said the team isn't limited to the energy and infrastructure transactions, debt capital markets, structured finance, private equity funds, cross-border mergers and acquisitions, and Islamic finance that will start off as the core of the location. Morgan Lewis said the team can also offer clients access to the firm's core litigation, labor and employment, intellectual property, and corporate strategy services.

"Morgan Lewis offers us and our clients a platform that we could not find with any other firm," Khaleq said in a statement. "The firm's diverse set of practices and broad geographic footprint — complete with a strong London office, full-scale capabilities in Europe and a unique ability to provide service in Africa and other key emerging markets — will allow us to serve our clients from virtually any location worldwide."

Of the four largest Pennsylvania law firms in terms of revenue and geographic reach, Morgan Lewis is the fourth to enter Dubai and the UAE.

Reed Smith opened an Abu Dhabi office in 1978 and a Dubai location in 2006. The firm has just under 20 attorneys housed across the two offices. K&L Gates launched in Dubai in 2009. It opened in nearby Doha, Qatar, in 2011. The firm has nearly 30 lawyers between the two locations. Dechert opened in Dubai and expanded in London in April 2012 with the hire of several attorneys from Dewey & LeBoeuf. The firm has 15 attorneys in its Dubai location.

All of the firms note their UAE practices are a home base for their work across what is known as the MENA region, or the Middle East and North Africa. The bulk of their practices are focused on international finance and corporate transactions. Those matters tend to have a particular eye toward the energy sector, but are not limited to that industry.

Engros said Morgan Lewis has done some work in North Africa out of its London and Paris offices. But he said the Middle East is really seen as the gateway for international transactions between Europe, Asia and Africa. While some law firms have begun to open in North Africa, Engros said there are no immediate plans for Morgan Lewis to enter the continent.

"I don't know yet whether that will emerge as a source of business that justifies having an office there for us," Engros said. "It's too soon to tell."

Engros said Morgan Lewis has identified space in Dubai but has not yet committed to a lease until the government issues the firm a license to operate in the country. The move was announced earlier than expected when word began to leak about the three partners' departure from Vinson & Elkins. Engros said Knight has officially joined Morgan Lewis and will split his time between the firm's London and Houston offices until the Dubai office opens. Knight, who went to undergraduate and law school in Texas, has significant ties to the Houston market, Engros said.

Khaleq and Jones have given notice at Vinson & Elkins but have not officially joined Morgan Lewis. When they do make the switch, they will work in London until the new office is launched. Engros said there was no specific timeframe for the office opening, but he said he expected it to open in the "relatively near future."

Gina Passarella can be contacted at 215-557-2494 or at gpassarella@alm.com. Follow her on Twitter @GPassarellaTLI.