Baker McKenzie sets up interim Dubai management team as it splits with local arm’s executive chair over Tweets

Global firm also seeks new office as it responds to controversy over top local lawyer's anti-gay views

Baker McKenzie is establishing an interim management team in Dubai as it negotiates a split with the high-profile head of its Gulf arm following controversy over his anti-gay views.

The global giant is also looking for a new office in Dubai as it seeks to agree a split with Dr Habib Al Mulla, name partner of Habib Al Mulla & Partners, which retained its branding when the two parties agreed to merge in 2013 in a pioneering deal.

The rift, which was first reported by Roll on Friday, followed a Twitter thread posted by Al Mulla in which he wrote in Arabic that the ‘problem with homosexuality in the West is not only in the ugliness of the act’, but that by committing ‘his evil act’ a gay person is 'disobeying the Creator’.

Bakers issued a statement last Friday (9 September) confirming that the firm and Al Mulla, who was executive chairman of its UAE arm, ‘will be parting ways’ and that a ‘separation process is underway’.

It added: 'Baker McKenzie strongly believes that however much we may disagree with the beliefs and personal views of others, we must find ways to disagree respectfully, encourage inclusive dialogue and to ensure an inclusive work environment for all. Any social media comments by Dr Habib represent his own views and not those of the firm.'

The split is likely to lead to a return to the situation before the merger, when Bakers provided international law advice and Habib Al Mulla offered local law counsel with a particular focus on litigation.

Al Mulla remains one of Dubai’s most high-profile and influential local lawyers, specialising in litigation and arbitration. He has held an array of government positions and, according to his Bakers profile, was the architect of the legal framework establishing the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC)’.

The original merger deal remains unique in that it provided an international law firm with access to the local courts.

Today, Bakers said its interim management team would ‘take the business forward in this vibrant, global market’.

‘We will continue investing in and developing our business in the UAE, building on recent hires in areas including M&A, employment, data privacy and tax,’ the firm said. ‘In addition, we have been discussing the relocation of our Dubai office for some time, likely to the DIFC, where many of our clients have their operations.’

For his part, Al Mulla said in a series of Tweets reported by Gulf News on Saturday that he would not apologise for ‘personal opinions’ that ‘represent my beliefs and convictions that stem from my religion and core values’.

He added: ‘Although we did break ways with Baker McKenzie, we will continue to operate as an independent firm and provide our clients with the same level of service they have come to expect. However, out of respect for the friendship, I will keep quiet and avoid commenting on Baker McKenzie.’

Bakers’ statement on the separation appeared above a link to its website’s diversity section, which says ‘inclusion and diversity (I&D) is foundational to our culture and strategic vision’.

‘We have more than 13,000 employees in 46 countries who speak 80+ languages,’ the firm says, ‘and we want to ensure that all of our people feel included and empowered.’

The affair illustrates the difficulty international law firms face reconciling the need to take a proactive stance on issues such as diversity and inclusion and human rights with the reality of operating on the ground in jurisdictions where those values are not respected or are regarded as being subversive by the authorities.

According to the Human Dignity Trust, ‘The United Arab Emirates criminalises same-sex sexual activity between men and between women. The gender expression of trans people is also criminalised.’

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