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Forging ahead

Steven Friel looks at the latest anti-American controversy in the Muslim world and ponders how it will impact on a ground-breaking conference on Middle East and North Africa regional development

Cairo on the first anniversary of the the fall of Tahir Square Arab Spring demonstrations

Cairo on the first anniversary of the the fall of Tahir Square Arab Spring demonstrations Mohamed Elsayyed/

Many international law firms have sights firmly set on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, particularly following the 'Arab Spring'. For us litigators, there are many opportunities, including advising on asset-tracing exercises, chasing down the many millions of dollars stolen and hidden by corrupt former regimes, and advising on investment treaty claims. Meanwhile, our non-contentious colleagues are involved in much needed inward investment contracts.
The outlook is promising, which is the theme of a two-day conference organised by US-based international law firm Brown Rudnick in Tunis on 4-5 October 2012.
For the first day -- in liaison with the British Embassy in Tunisia and the Law Firm Network -- there will be a series of talks on issues such as legal capacity building after the Arab Spring, the region’s energy sector, the challenges currently facing investors in the region, and recent developments in dispute resolution.
On the second day -- in conjunction with the International Chamber of Commerce -- discussions will be led the chairman of the Tunisian bar on the 2012 ICC Rules of Arbitration, expropriation of assets, asset-tracing and recovery, and alternative dispute resolution.

Violent protests

What effect, if any, does the recent wave of anti-US protests in the region have on our efforts?
‘Those who should be held accountable, punished, prosecuted and boycotted are those directly responsible for this film’ -- so claimed the leader of Hezbollah, Sheikh Nasrallah, in a statement regarding the controversy surrounding the obscure film, Innocence of Muslims, made by Nakoula Basseley Nakoula.
The 13-minute film, which was produced in California, has set off waves of vocal and occasionally violent protests across the MENA region. In recent days, the film has been cited as an explanation for several attacks on embassies, military bases, and other US and 'western' locations, including a school and fast food chains. It has claimed several lives, including that of the US Ambassador to Libya and three of his staff.
Is the situation too unstable -- and the environment for US and western investment too inhospitable -- for the conference to succeed? When the reports of the attack on the US Embassy in Libya first emerged, commentators questioned whether the timing of the film’s release on YouTube was more than an unfortunate coincidence. The attack looked well planned and managed to overcome the defences of a well-fortified embassy.
Perhaps it wasn’t a spontaneous reaction to the perceived insult inflicted on Islam after all. There was a fear that the protests suggest the rise to power of anti-American and anti-Western Islamists, who consider themselves the only true alternative to Gaddafi, Ben Ali and Mubarak.


However, the conference organisers are more optimistic. We consider it highly unlikely that those who are keen to invest in and contribute to the economic and political development in MENA are going to be deterred by an outburst of the sort witnessed over the last few days.
The reason for this is obvious: Arab Spring countries have elected relatively moderate governments that have expressed an intention to share with their people the economic and democratic wealth that they have been deprived of for so long. The scenes of Egyptians celebrating in Tahrir Square and the liberation of Tripoli are hardly going to be washed away by the recent outbursts. If the Danish cartoons or the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie teach us anything, it is that the recent protests are not indicative of a fundamental shift away from the consensus of political Islam that has emerged over the last 18 months.
In short, we expect our conference in Tunis to go ahead, we expect it to be a success, and we remain hopeful that MENA will provide great opportunities for investment and co-operation.

Ravinder Thukral of Brown Rudnick’s London office also contributed to this blog

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27 September 2012

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