Dubai International Arbitration Centre refreshes leadership in modernisation drive

Robert Stephen, former registrar of defunct DIFC-LCIA Arbitration Centre, joins DIAC as new management is finalised

Robert Stephen

The former registrar of the DIFC-LCIA Arbitration Centre, which was controversially abolished in 2021, has been appointed registrar of its successor as Dubai’s leading arbitral institution, the Dubai International Arbitration Centre (DIAC).

Robert Stephen’s arrival completes a major shake-up of the DIAC’s leadership that has seen a host of new appointments, including that of Jehad Abdulrazzaq Kazim, who joined as executive director in May, becoming the first Emirati woman to lead the DIAC. 

He will take up the post from the start of July in a move that will be seen as a significant development in the ongoing bid by Dubai’s authorities to win regional superiority for the Emirate and establish it as a leading international seat.

The unexpected demise of the highly regarded DIFC-LCIA had seen it merged into the DIAC along with the Emirates Maritime Arbitration Centre, thereby concentrating institutional arbitration into a single body, with the promise that the DIAC would undergo major reforms.

Stephen left Ghaffari Partners as chief operating officer at the end of April shortly after becoming a member of a high-level advisory committee to DIAC’s board of directors. 

He replaces construction lawyer Julian de Lange, who served as registrar for three months from January, before rejoining DAMAC Properties as its vice president for legal affairs. 

DIAC has invested heavily in its DIFC-based secretariat in recent months. In April, it hired Christoffer Coello Hedberg, former legal counsel to Sweden’s SCC Arbitration Institute, as a deputy registrar.

Stephen and Hedberg will manage a staff with solid law firm international experience drawn from leading civil and common law jurisdictions, including senior legal counsel Hayley Teixeira, formerly of Clyde & Co, and a roster of six experienced legal counsel: Peter Barna, formerly of the Madrid International Arbitration Centre; Sholto Hanvey, formerly of K&L Gates; Antonin Sobek, who worked with Stephen at the DIFC-LCIA Arbitration Centre; Akash Srivastava, formerly of White & Case and the AAA-ICDR; and local recruit Abdulaziz Anwar. They are supported by a team of casework administrators and paralegals. 

Stephen and his team will be managed by Kazim, former vice-president of legal affairs of Dubai Chambers.

Both Kazim and Stephen will support DIAC’s new Court of Arbitration, which launched in April this year, whose composition has done much to inspire corporate confidence in post-merger DIAC, being led by former SIAC president Michael Pryles as its president, and Freshfields’ global projects disputes head, Erin Miller Rankin, as vice president. 

A balanced and diverse composition of Emirati, Arab and international arbitrators, including Serle Court’s Rupert Reed KC and Twenty Essex’s Wendy Miles KC, makes up the 13-member body. 

A refreshed set of rules, launched last year, include new expedited procedures, emergency arbitrator provisions, the joinder of third parties and consolidation of multiple proceedings – a significant buff on the old rules, and arguably superior to those of the former DIFC-LCIA. 

The announcement of Stephen’s appointment came at the first in-person meeting of the new court in Dubai. Pryles welcomed Stephen, noting the secretariat had more than trebled in size: “DIAC has been fortunate in securing as registrar an outstanding candidate in Robert Stephen who is well known in Dubai and the United Kingdom.” 

Pryles told GLP: “DIAC has effectively undergone a substantial restructuring with a new board, advisory committee and court. It is no longer a part of the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and is independent. Its seat and activities are conducted from its offices in the DIAC. 

“Just as important, of course, are the personnel who do the work. The court now consists of a tight and outstanding group of arbitration specialists who collectively bring experience from across the Gulf region, Europe, Asia, Africa, North America and Oceania.”

Stephen added: “I am delighted to be taking up this appointment at an important time in the development of DIAC. Users, party-counsel and arbitrators are at the core of everything we do – 2021 and 2022 were challenging years, and the Centre has undergone unprecedented change. With the new Arbitration Court and recently expanded secretariat, I am certain that DIAC is well positioned to provide a much-improved level of service.”

Alec Emmerson of Arbitra International, who worked with Stephen at the former DIFC-LCIA, said Stephen’s appointment from July had been very well received: “He enjoyed an excellent and well-deserved reputation as registrar of DIFC-LCIA. He knows what is needed to develop a successful arbitral institution. There is no better person whom DIAC could have appointed.”

Emmerson added while there was a lot to do, not least resolving a backlog of casework, given the extensive support provided, “I expect to see Robert using his undoubted skills to help DIAC to achieve its full potential.”

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