The Legal Has Landed

Dr. Habib Mulla is one of the Arab world’s best-known lawyers. But it is his role as chairman of the Dubai Financial Services Authority that has brought him to the limelight in recent months.

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By  Anil Bhoyrul Published  December 15, 2004

Interview|~||~||~|Things are a little calmer these days at the Dubai offices of Dr. Habib Al Mulla. Yes, the phone still rings every two minutes, and the stack of papers on his desk is large enough to keep him at work for 16 hours a day. But the legal eagle, widely regarded as one of the hottest lawyers in the Arab world, prefers it this way. “I don’t have the press hounding me anymore. I can sleep properly again. I can go the movies again. At last, I suppose have my life back,” he says. Mulla is of course referring to the chain of events in June 2004 that threatened to wreak havoc at the Dubai Financial Services Authority, of which he is chairman. The regulatory body’s attempts to turn Dubai into a world-class financial centre, with the launch of the Dubai International Financial City, were in danger of being derailed amidst allegations of impropriety at the very top of the organisation. The DIFC has been at the centre of claims that some of its executive board members had handed lucrative building contracts to companies they had connections with. Suggestions of “favours for friends” and “jobs for the boys” ran wild, and the dream of building a financial centre to compete with Hong Kong, London and New York was becoming a nightmare. Mulla then fuelled the fire by sacking the DIFC’s two chief regulators, Philip Thorpe and Ian Hay Davison, sparking off unprecedented international criticism. The decision was a huge gamble, but appears to have paid off with the DIFC now signing up several financial institutions, eager to do business in Dubai. “Everything is behind us. Everything is OK now. But at the time, yes it was difficult. It was very difficult. We had a very hard time from the press,” he says, adding: “You have to understand that the press always looks for the bad news. A few days after the incident we obtained letter of assurance from [Dubai’s ruler] Sheikh Mohammed. But the press didn’t write about it because there was nothing bad in it, so why should they be interested? If it’s good news it is of no interest.” The lawyer claims that, contrary to media claims at the time, there was no actual conflict of interest in the awarding of land contracts. But he admits: “There were certain formalities that were not fully adhered to or completed at the time. But there was nothing, which would have prohibited these contracts going to certain people. Things didn’t exactly happen as they have been described.” Mulla points to a new code of corporate governance that is being implemented. However, looking back he admits: “Yes, it could have been handled better. Especially the publicity. Some of the applicants wrote to us asking what was going on but now we see they are proceeding with their applications in the normal way. I hope we will be competing with London and Hong Kong.” He adds: “ We have very good potential to bring 100 financial institutions here. As for Hay Davison and Thorpe, they both contributed to the establishment; but what happened has happened. Ironically, out of this incident we have a very good regulatory system — all enshrined in law.” Surprisingly, Mulla’s role as chairperson of the DFSA is one of 17 different he has, sitting on a variety of different boards. However, his main role — and the one that pays the most — is as founding and managing partner of the law firm named after him, which he started in 1984. It is now one of the largest law firms in the UAE, specialising in corporate work. His own field is arbitration although he oversees most major cases the company takes on. It’s an impressive achievement for a company that was not even in existence a decade ago, and is run by a man who came close to quitting the profession before he started. As he explains: “I am a lawyer because I find the whole profession interesting. I like a challenge. “Everyday is something new. But the downside is that it is very hard work, always. Especially when you are starting out. I went to Harvard and my first few months were very tough. I really thought about quitting. I was there for over a year. Initially, it wasn’t just the work but in the first three to four months you study for 16 out of 24 hours and are still behind. I don’t know what I would have done if I had quit, but I was very close to giving up.” Many businesses will be glad he didn’t: Mulla’s client list spans the globe, and includes the likes of British insurance giant Norwich Union, Air India, the Al Habtoor group and HSBC. His most famous case came four years ago when telecoms giant Etisalat accused a UK teenager of deliberately going into its internet system to shut it down. Against all advice and expectations, Mulla took on Etisalat and won. “The teenager was in Dubai and was introduced to me through a friend. I met him and believed he was innocent. We didn’t just do court work but a lot of media work. We learned that you cannot just win a case by legal means. It was a very important case for us, and a truly great victory.” He adds: “The first thing is I have to be convinced. If I’m not convinced I won’t take the case. Winning is of course the most important part. Sometime we lose cases. But there are two types of losses: One is because you know you don’t have a very good case, [the other is] if you did the work but something went wrong like the court didn’t understand it. I have lost cases and yes it’s hard to take. But I enjoy winning. I feel I have achieved something.” Mulla has certainly had his fair share of victories, and admits he has a great deal of power, especially in the UAE. The downside is he only has one weekend a month free to spend with his family, as he often works into the early hours. “There are many good things about being a successful lawyer,” he says. He adds: “But to me, it’s not having a name but having a name attributed to achievements that matters to me. And yes, the money is good. But I make my money the hard way and I want to spend it a good way. Sure I would like a Ferrari, but I would never have time to drive it.” Another “perk” of the job is he is on first names terms with some of the world’s biggest business leaders, and through his work with the International Monetary Fund, also knows several finance ministers. He speaks highly of most of them, and singles out low-cost airline specialist Stelios Haji-Iannou for praise. “You look at how he changed the whole airline business. He is an amazing guy. I really admire people like him,” he says. Whether the same will be said of Mulla in the law industry one day remains to be seen. So far, the signs are good. His vision for the DIFC appears to be back on track, thanks not just to the vote of confidence from Sheikh Mohammed but the recent formation of the Dubai Ethics Resource Centre. At the instigation of Sheikh Mohammed, the centre will focus on establish a blueprint of corporate governance, one that will assure foreign investors that Dubai is a secure place to do business. It could take several years to be firmly up and running and have full legal status, but at least the process has started. Dr. Mulla says: “There are many things we could do to make sure the DIFC really takes off. And I think I am doing all of them. Come back to me in a few years and ask me then how it’s going, and I’m sure you will be very impressed with the answers.” But he adds: “The downside to success is work. I suppose I might look back in years to come and be grateful that I only had to work for 16 hours a day. I have a feeling that there are many more late nights to come.”||**||

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