Dust settles on Dubai arbitration reforms as DIFC-LCIA’s Robert Stephen joins boutique

Registrar of superseded centre lands at Ghaffari Partners as international opinion remains divided over shake-up
Portrait photo of Robert Stephen

Robert Stephen

The DIFC-LCIA Arbitration Centre’s (DIFC-LCIA’s) former registrar, Robert Stephen, has joined Dubai disputes boutique Ghaffari Partners as its second partner and chief operating officer.

His arrival at the boutique, which was launched by former Vinson & Elkins regional managing partner Amir Ghaffari in February, comes as the dust settles on a radical shake-up of Dubai’s arbitration landscape that saw the DIFC-LCIA superseded by a reformed Dubai International Arbitration Centre (DIAC) under new leadership.  

Stephen joined the DIFC-LCIA from Herbert Smith Freehills in 2017 and was regarded as one of the principal architects of its success.

During his tenure, he oversaw the administering of more than 400 cases at the centre – which was run as a joint venture between the DIFC Arbitration Institute and the London Court of International Arbitration (LCIA) – securing consistent year-on-year growth and helping to garner strong local, regional and international respect for the centre. He also administered the Dubai Financial Services Authority’s Financial Markets Tribunal.

Stephen is familiar with arbitrations across all the major arbitral rules, including the new DIAC rules, ICC, LCIA, and SIAC rules, ad-hoc proceedings, DIFC and English Commercial Court litigation.

He said: "Ghaffari Partners has had a remarkable start – it has been warmly received by the market, and the team has hit the ground running. I look forward to building the firm with Amir and working with such a capable team on some of the region's most sensitive disputes.”

Ghaffari added: "It was an easy decision to invite Robert to join Ghaffari Partners. He is a highly regarded arbitration practitioner and proven business leader who has the well-earned respect of the arbitration community for his work as counsel, arbitrator, and leading the DIFC-LCIA Arbitration Centre."

Meanwhile, GLP understands that alongside negotiations to transfer legacy DIFC-LCIA caseloads to the LCIA, most former DIFC-LCIA lawyers have now elected to make fresh starts elsewhere.

It is also understood that following positive work by, among others, LCIA chair and Clifford Chance partner Audley Sheppard QC, the LCIA is resolving outstanding issues with the DIAC, the two parties having reached an impasse last year over issues that included the status of the DIFC-LCIA casework team.

A small number of remaining staff will move to the DIAC, which refreshed its arbitral rules in March 2022 in a move welcomed by regional lawyers.

Opinion at this month’s London International Disputes Week, however, was divided over the impact of the Dubai reforms on its long-term popularity as an arbitral seat. Many senior lawyers instinctively feel the demise of the DIFC-LCIA will have a negative impact or be neutral at best.

However, a senior Middle East lawyer told GLP they expect the DIAC to evolve into a highly effective operator helping to close the gap between Dubai and current market leaders London and Singapore

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