Doing legal business in Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The legal profession

Until 2007, Abu Dhabi operated within the UAE Federal Court which applies to all emirates except Dubai and Ra’s al Khaymah, which are not fully integrated into the federal system.

In June 2007, a new law came into force placing Abu Dhabi outside the UAE federal jurisdiction and into an independent local jurisdiction.

UAE federal law recognises three categories of lawyer:

  • practising lawyers
  • non-practising lawyers
  • lawyers in training

Lawyers must satisfy federal and local Emirate requirements to practice law in each Emirate.

Only practising lawyers can provide legal services in the UAE.

To obtain a practising certificate, local lawyers must:

  • be a UAE national
  • be at least 21 years of age
  • hold a certificate from an accredited university or higher institute
  • have carried out at least one year of continuous practical legal training

Legal system and courts

The UAE operates an essentially civil law jurisdiction heavily influenced by French, Roman, Egyptian and Islamic law.

Common law principles, such as adopting previous court judgments as legal precedents, are generally not recognised.

All emirates have secular courts to adjudicate criminal, civil, and commercial matters and Islamic courts to review family and religious disputes.

The legal system currently consists of:

  • lower courts
  • courts of appeal
  • a supreme court
  • an independent local public prosecution service

The legal services market

The UAE is a leading global centre for the legal profession and a key market for English law firms. Outside of the UK and Hong Kong it holds the highest number of English and Welsh practising solicitors.

The UAE is a member state of the World Trade Organisation and has scheduled commitments to liberalise its legal services sector under the General Agreement on Trade in Services.

Foreign law firms

Foreign law firms must be:

  • licensed by the Executive Affairs Authority
  • registered with the Department of Planning and Economy

Firms can apply for a license directly from the Executive Council of the Government of Abu Dhabi (the Executive Council).

To register a branch of a foreign law firm in Abu Dhabi you must:

  • have practiced law outside of the UAE for at least 15 years
  • have, in aggregate, at least 50 partners
  • register the branch with the Abu Dhabi Department of Planning and Economy
  • obtain the consent of the Executive Council

The application to the Executive Council must be accompanied by:

  • a statement of capabilities or a CV of the firm
  • a certificate from the official body under whose supervision the main branch works (such as the Law Society or Bar Association)
  • a resolution by the firm’s management to open a branch in Abu Dhabi, specifying the name of the resident partner(s) who’ll manage the branch
  • a certificate issued by a bank indicating the financial status of the main branch, which should reflect its ability to finance the activities of the branch in Abu Dhabi
  • an undertaking by the main office to underwrite the Abu Dhabi branch financially
  • a professional indemnity insurance policy that would cover parties that deal with the branch in Abu Dhabi and stating the value of the coverage
  • the CVs, academic qualifications and professional licenses issued to the legal consultants selected to reside in Abu Dhabi
  • a draft plan for training and qualifying UAE law school graduates to carry out legal consultancy work, including training them at the main office
  • a statement explaining the added value the branch in Abu Dhabi will bring to the Emirate of Abu Dhabi if the branch is licensed and registered
  • an undertaking from the managers of the main branch that the Abu Dhabi branch will carry out its activities according to the highest professional standards

The general secretariat of the Executive Council has the right to:

  • request clarifications and additional documents
  • communicate directly with the ‘supervisory authority’ in the home country to inquire about any aspect of the documents submitted
  • authorise any party it deems appropriate to visit the main office to ascertain the standards maintained by the same

Firms that already have a presence in Abu Dhabi can renew their existing licenses, as and when their existing licenses expire.

Feedback from UK firms in Abu Dhabi has been that the licensing requirements for social contribution and training of lawyers have, in practise, been very difficult to fulfil.

There are few practising UAE lawyers and taking into consideration the large number of international firms in the Emirate, all seeking to fulfil this requirement, it’s been a struggle to find UAE lawyers to train. As a result firms are concerned about the prospects of having their licences renewed without having fulfilled this requirement.

Requalification in England and Wales

England and Wales adopt a liberal approach to market access for foreign lawyers and law firms, and London is a global hub for legal services.

The UAE is a recognised jurisdiction for the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme (QLTS), and UAE lawyers can can requalify as solicitors in England and Wales.

The QLTS provides a fast track route by which qualified foreign lawyers can be admitted as solicitors of England and Wales. The QLTS ensures that a requalifying foreign lawyer meets the same standard of knowledge and skill required of a newly qualified solicitor of England and Wales.

For more information on QTLS and the application process visit the Solicitors Regulation Authority website.

Solicitors Qualifying Examination

The QLTS will be replaced by a new route to qualification through the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) in autumn 2021.

Read our guidance on the SQE for foreign lawyers