Duane Morris has opened an office in Muscat, Oman, through a joint venture with Al Mashaikhi and Partners Law Firm.
After focusing its expansion on Asia in Singapore and Vietnam and in Latin America via a Mexico City alliance, Duane Morris has moved its sights to the Middle East, opening its first office in that region in an effort to capitalize on the joint commerce between Singapore, Oman and London as well as the countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Duane Morris Chairman John Soroko said to "stay tuned" for additional international expansion from Duane Morris, though perhaps not immediately in the Middle East. He said any economist would say economic growth is occurring outside of the United States. For Duane Morris, he said, the focus is "in the developing rather than the developed world."
The joint venture will be known as Dr. Said Al Mashaikhi and Partner Law Firm — A GCC representative office of Duane Morris.
Dr. Said Al Mashaikhi will be a name partner of the joint venture, while Duane Morris London partner Jeffrey Rodwell has relocated to Muscat to serve as the managing director.
The GCC is a trade and economic alliance that facilitates regional commerce among six countries in the region and will enable the joint venture to provide legal services across the region, Duane Morris said. The GCC is composed of Oman, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and United Arab Emirates.
Duane Morris said it will coordinate its Omani involvement through the firm’s London office because Omani law is modeled on the British legal system and much of the cross-border transactional volume flows through London’s financial center.
Oman’s historic ties to Southeast Asia, including Singapore, will also be a benefit, Duane Morris said. In 2010, Duane Morris entered a joint law venture with Selvam LLC in Singapore, creating Duane Morris & Selvam LLP, followed in 2011 by a strategic alliance with Mexico City firm Miranda & Estavillo. Duane Morris also has offices in London as well as in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, in addition to its 20 U.S. locations.
The Omani Ministry of Justice gave final approval for the joint venture last week. It was a project nearly two years in the making, Soroko said.
The idea stemmed from Cherry Hill, N.J., office managing partner Hersh Kozlov’s work with Oman investment bank ICT, or Integration Capital & Trade, a joint venture between a U.S. investment firm and two Omani shareholders. The bank suggested Duane Morris open an office in Oman and connected it to local attorney Al Mashaikhi, who focuses his regional practice on banking and financial services clients, foreign investments, business law and foreign claims.
Al Mashaikhi served as the required legal sponsor for Rodwell to be admitted to practice in Oman and the surrounding GCC countries. Soroko noted that Duane Morris is not in the name of the joint venture because local law would have required there to be a "Mr. Duane or Ms. Duane or a Mr. Morris or Ms. Morris" living in Oman and admitted as a practicing attorney there.
Rodwell said he will be able to handle legal work throughout the region with the assistance of his colleagues in London, Singapore and the eastern United States. Al Mashaikhi’s law practice still exists and will handle local law. The joint venture will work on larger-scale projects. Soroko said the two individual firms will share in profits of work handled by the joint venture.
Duane Morris leadership said it was entering the Middle East at an interesting time after the Arab Spring, which saw a wave of political and social uprisings in several countries in 2010 and 2011. Rodwell said the result has been a major focus on infrastructure building, with more than $1 trillion budgeted for such projects across the GCC and more than $30 billion in Oman alone.
The focus initially has been on power and water infrastructure, with an increasing momentum toward social infrastructure such as health systems, schools and universities, Rodwell said. He said the countries have welcomed foreign investment into these projects.
Oman has also become a burgeoning market for U.S. investors, Rodwell said, since the 2009 free-trade agreement initiated between Oman and the United States. The laws are favorable to foreign investors, he said, noting investment projects in the country can be 100 percent foreign-owned. Petrochemical and plastics have been a big investment area, Rodwell said. Kozlov noted Oman also provides for intellectual-property reciprocity rights, protecting foreign investors’ IP in Omani courts.
While energy has been a big focus for the region and the investors coming in, Rodwell said there is a big push by Oman to diversify its economy. From Duane Morris’ perspective, the country’s U.K. ties, its financial services industry, sovereign wealth funds, infrastructure projects and a growing need for international arbitration all make Oman the right link between its London and Singapore locations.
Soroko said Bank Muscat, the largest bank in Oman, recently opened its first out-of-country branch and chose Singapore for the new location. Kozlov noted that Duane Morris has scholars in Islamic finance who are based in Singapore and capable of drafting Shariah law-qualified opinions.
The goal will be to hire more attorneys in Oman, including those who practice local law as well as foreign attorneys. Kozlov and Rodwell noted there are a number of foreign attorneys in the country from England, Australia and New Zealand, among other areas. Kozlov said the Oman launch will require Duane Morris to be that much more successful in London and Singapore.
Duane Morris appears to be the only U.S. firm to have offices in Singapore, Vietnam and Oman — three countries Kozlov said do a lot of business together. It is also one of only a few U.S. or U.K. firms with offices in Oman.
SNR Denton has a 15-lawyer location in Oman that was opened in 1981. The office focuses on banking and finance, construction and real estate, corporate finance, dispute resolution and energy, infrastructure and transport. Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle has about 10 attorneys in its Muscat office, which opened in 1997. The firm focuses on infrastructure, project finance and privatization.