Experiences in the Middle East: part I

Martin Davies is a Partner in Mishcon Private. He lived and worked in the Middle East over many years and now regularly visits the region. Martin advises leading families and companies in all aspects of international private capital, including significant corporate transactions and projects, substantial real estate and hotel transactions, and dispute resolution. Strategic planning for high net worth families and their companies is a key part of Martin’s practice.

I was brought up in Wales. There has always been a well-trodden path of doctors, lawyers, teachers and other professionals to London. Taking a place at King’s was the start of a career which has led me to all corners of the globe but with a primary focus on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.

When I was looking for ‘Articles’ (now known as a ‘training contract’) I chanced across a firm that had been set up a month earlier in Mayfair by a charismatic Welshman. He had the voice and charm of Richard Burton and was a brilliant lawyer and an inspirational mentor. He had met a future client – a very prominent Saudi prince, who later became King Fahd – at a hotel in London. Along I came, a fellow Welshman with music and rugby in the blood, and the rest is history.

A few months later, at Prince Fahd’s request, I moved to Riyadh to open up our nascent firm’s office there. I was dealing with very substantial inward investments to the UK in hotels, real estate and companies whilst representing British, European and American corporates seeking to do business in the Kingdom, negotiating licences with the Saudi Ministries to establish joint ventures.

It was a life-changing experience, working with senior members of the Saudi Arabian Royal Family and, as a result, most of the leading merchant families. Because of our connections and ability to make introductions, we were also approached to act by many major Western companies involved in projects, tenders and joint ventures. It gave me an insight into the thinking and culture as the country tried to progress, whilst at the same time keeping a lid on social and religious extremism of all kinds, especially in view of what had happened in Iran just a couple of years previously.

It was a formative time, working seven day weeks over a three year period living in Riyadh in the early 1980’s. The extremes of the role were dramatic: meeting ‘Kings and Princes’ and discussing exciting and high-value projects, then drafting up to twenty joint venture, agency or project finance agreements a week. I was living on the first floor of a villa above the office suites, and was supported by a superb former Sri Lankan Parliamentary shorthand writer as my secretary and a Sudanese driver who knew all the Princes (a knowledgeable and respected driver was vital in Kingdom then and still is).

After three years honing my drafting, negotiating, project management and diplomatic skills in Riyadh, I moved to Washington DC. I opened a new office there at the request of our first client, who had now become King Fahd, and his eldest son. President Reagan had just been re-elected, a very flamboyant Saudi Ambassador, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, had just arrived and the first Saudi astronaut, Prince Sultan bin Salman (son of the present King), had just completed his space mission. Princess Diana danced with John Travolta at the White House. King Fahd made a State visit to Washington which gave me a front and centre seat and a high profile. It was an exciting time in a beautiful city. After two-and-a-half years, I returned to Riyadh for another year-and-a-half before returning to London.

The Middle East, and Saudi Arabia in particular, is now very much part of my DNA. Today, as well as my wider global practice, I’m acting for the second and, in some cases, third generation of my original clients and I also represent families from Qatar and the UK as well as Saudi Arabia. Loyalty, trust and understanding have been established over the years. This is all the more to the fore as the ‘pyramid of succession’ enlarges and decisions have to be made about involvement and structuring of the family’s assets by several decision-makers rather than one original ‘patriarch’. The assets involved might not only be personal assets, but substantial corporate assets that are distributed across the world. Dealing with such issues is on my daily agenda and is something Mishcon de Reya excels at.