Baker McKenzie said it was working to ensure a “co-operative and swift separation” from its partner in the United Arab Emirates after controversy over social media posts in which he described homosexuality as “ugly”.
The US law firm said on Friday that Habib Al Mulla would set up a firm independent from Baker McKenzie once the separation had been completed by early next year.
Abu Dhabi-based Borys Dackiw, head of investigations, compliance and ethics in the Middle East, will lead Baker McKenzie UAE on an interim basis, focused on transactional and advisory practices.
The case highlights the sharpening divide between the values of western corporations that have flocked to the expatriate-majority UAE to take advantage of its regional hub status and the more conservative ethics of many Emirati nationals.
Mulla, who is one of the country’s most distinguished lawyers but also comments on social issues from his popular Twitter account, sparked controversy in recent weeks over social media posts regarding Emirati identity and homosexuality. His tweets attracted widespread support among many of his compatriots.
Baker McKenzie, which has a 40-year history in the region, announced a corporate divorce from its UAE partner last week, saying it wanted to “ensure an inclusive work environment for all” and that Mulla’s social media comments did not represent those of the firm.
The UAE has introduced multiple social and economic reforms to entice more foreigners as the government seeks to boost growth and diversify the economy away from oil. Restrictions on alcohol and cohabitation of unmarried couples have been eased, while foreigners can now set up businesses without the need for a local UAE partner. The government also shifted its weekend to align with global markets.
However, homosexuality remains illegal in the UAE as well as other Gulf states, which this month all demanded that Netflix remove “un-Islamic” content.
The emirate of Dubai has swung out of the pandemic strongly, enjoying an influx of new, wealthy residents, including Russians and Ukrainians fleeing the war. The Dubai International Financial Centre, a city-centre district popular among banks and law firms, is luring new businesses ranging from hedge funds to financial technology firms. In the first half of 2022, the DIFC recorded its fastest job creation growth since its inception in 2004.
Baker McKenzie, which merged with Mulla’s firm in 2013, also said it was considering moving its Dubai office into the DIFC to service its global financial clients.