Steven Henderson: Drawn to Dubai

by Aidan Devine11 Aug 2014
Steven HendersonSteven Henderson is one of the many Kiwi lawyers now practising in Dubai. He tells NZ Lawyer why the market has the ability to surprise and stimulate even the most experienced lawyers

When Steven Henderson first arrived in Dubai at the  end of 2005, half the current city wasn’t there yet – at least not some of its now-famous buildings and landmarks.

“To say a lot has changed would be an understatement,” Henderson says. “I arrived during a booming period of development. The scale and scope of some of the projects that were being undertaken was just staggering.”

As a real estate lawyer, Henderson would know. Having been in the United Arab Emirates just short of nine years, the Kiwi lawyer has been at the forefront of one of the modern world’s unprecedented booms. Dubai’s evolution from backwater to prominent global commercial centre has largely come in the last 20 years, but especially in the years since 2000. Henderson says that being in this environment has been highly stimulating.

“When I first arrived, there was very much an emerging-market mentality. Laws were still being established and, in some cases, there weren’t laws at all.

“Things were developing super fast and then the GFC saw a number of projects being stalled and restructured, although even during this time there was still a lot of development that carried on. It has now come full circle and is back to being fast-paced and frantic again.”

Henderson admits that his path to practising in Dubai has been slightly different to the route many lawyers with an eye to working overseas may have taken, where a lawyer practises in New Zealand for a few years before venturing off to London, Hong Kong or whichever city their heart desires and then returns home.

Instead, Henderson got his first position with Russell McVeagh’s Auckland office where he worked for eight years on the firm’s real estate team. It was only when his wife, a structural engineer, was headhunted by a company in Dubai that the possibility of Henderson practising overseas came up.

“I contacted all the people I knew overseas and put some feelers out. Soon I got a role at Clifford Chance to set up their real estate practice in the Middle East, and then moved to Baker & McKenzie after a few years, where I am partner (and head of the firm’s UAE real estate practice).”

Considering the boom in Dubai’s development space, Henderson says the work he has been engaged in has been broad. “A lot of my practice is basically more traditional real estate transactions. Some of the massive greenfield sites they have here mean you’re often advising on the development of master-planned communities that can be up to 25 square kilometres. I come in at the start to advise on the many facets of these projects, like how they are going to be structured. Apart from that, it’s a real mix. You’re involved with a lot of hotels.”

Being involved in such transactions can be challenging, according to Henderson. Part of that challenge is that Dubai remains an emerging market, where the legal framework is still young. A lot of laws are reactive, as opposed to proactive, and in the real estate space many have only emerged over the last three to four years.

This is an obvious contrast to New Zealand’s well-established legal framework, but Henderson says this challenge is part of what makes practising in the UAE an adventure. Because laws are new and their mechanism of enforcement, such as regulatory bodies, are continually evolving, lawyers have to be adaptable.

“The legal space is finding its feet, in many ways. There is still a difference between the black letter of the law and what you will often see happening in practice. You have to be immersed in the industry and know how things operate. You cannot simply read the law and advise strictly from that. It’s a lot more about how the law is interpreted and applied in practice.”

As stimulating as this environment has been, Henderson admits it has been hard to make the adjustment. “It’s a totally different legal system. It’s civil law. It’s a different approach, different mentality. It takes a while to get your feet under the desk and feel comfortable. I was lucky at the time; it sounds crazy, but the lack of laws helped in some ways because you just had to go back to first principles. If the law didn’t prescribe how something works, we would have to put a structure in place that did work.”

Henderson cites strata laws as an example. Until 2010, Dubai had no real laws governing the various arrangements there normally need to be between buildings housing properties with multiple owners. Properties were being sold to people without any real constructs around them. No strata laws existed. 

As a consequence, lawyers initially had to create these structures themselves, on a contractual level. “It was daunting, but I really enjoyed it, because you have to go back to basics and create a lot of these legal constructs,” Henderson says.

Living in Dubai, Henderson says, is always interesting. On the one hand, the depth of real estate projects means the city is in a constant flux, but the quieter sides to the city offer their own attraction.

Henderson and his wife, along with their two girls, live away from the glitz and glamour of Dubai’s hotel skyscrapers, preferring one of the city’s older neighbourhoods. Their house is close to the beach, and parks abound. “Family and friends back home think we live in the desert, but there is lots of greenery,” Henderson says.

Being closer to Africa, Europe and Asia than they would be in New Zealand, Henderson’s family also get the chance to travel frequently. This rounds off what is already a cosmopolitan experience in Dubai.

“The city is an international melting pot,” he says. “The Emirati population probably makes up less than 10% of the city, so you have many people from different backgrounds and cultures. You could stick in your little NZ expat bubble over here, but we have friends from just about everywhere. My daughter has about 10 different nationalities in her small nursery school class. It’s great.”

Despite this, Henderson admits that it is hard not to miss New Zealand. He says it is challenging not to be close to friends and family and he misses the clean and green environment of home. Because Dubai is under a lot of development, which is exciting most of the time, it has nothing near the chilled-out, relaxed atmosphere that makes New Zealand a great place to live all year round, Henderson says.

Traffic in Dubai is also a frequent irritation. Henderson doesn’t have to travel far for his daily commute, but when he is required to get across the city it can be frustrating. “The driving here is pretty atrocious. You are constantly in defensive driving mode. There is a lot of traffic, and considering that you often have eight lanes in both directions, it’s remarkable that it still gets snarled up. Small things can cause chaos. It rained heavily a few months ago and no one was used to it. The whole city shut down. There were hundreds of accidents.” 

This feature is from NZ Lawyer's July issue #6.2. Download the whole issue to read more.