Herbert Smith Freehills, Latham & Watkins and Clifford Chance opened an office in the Kingdom. Photo: Saudi Arabian Ministry of Justice
British law firm Simmons & Simmons should be on the cusp of achieving another milestone in its Middle East expansion after unveiling “transformative” plans to open a new office in Riyadh last month.
Instead, the 128-year-old firm has been busy. is battling an internal backlash after employees reportedly questioned whether receiving rewards in a country where homosexuality is criminalized and punishable by death is consistent with its commitment to LGBT rights.
Simmons & Simmons, repeatedly voted an employer of choice by LGBT charity Stonewall, is not the only law firm grappling with this moral dilemma.
City law firms applied to open their own offices in Saudi Arabia last year after new licensing rules overhauled a system that for decades allowed them to operate only through associations with local lawyers.
The changes are part of the package reforms introduced by Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as “MBS”, designed to boost the country's legal profession and encourage deal-making.
Magic Circle law firms Clifford Chance and Linklaters, also considered top employers by Stonewall, were among the first to receive the keys to the Kingdom, followed by dozens of UK and US competitors.
Each of them joined us. The Gulf state has the same goal: to capitalize on MBS's drive to diversify Saudi Arabia's fast-growing economy away from oil through multibillion-dollar infrastructure and giant real estate projects.
However, as law firm leaders look to Saudi Arabia as a land of opportunity, many of their employees will find it difficult to see the Kingdom's human rights record.
< p>Members of the Saudi gay community face jail time or up to 500 lashes for their sexual orientation, and transgender Saudis live in fear of being forced to undergo detransition therapy.
“In many cases, LGBTQ people remain in abusive situations at home or at work, and there are no independent organizations in Saudi Arabia that can support them financially or materially so they can leave the country and go to safety,” says Dana Ahmed, researcher at Amnesty International.
Simmons & Simmons, which already has offices in Qatar and Dubai, strongly defends the plans and says clients simply need the firm to have a presence in Riyadh.
In an internal FAQ sheet available to employees in legal blog. RollonFriday said: “If we are to be a credible international firm, we must be truly international – that does not mean we agree with all the customs and laws of the countries in which we operate.”
The law firm, founded by twin brothers Percy and Edward Simmons in 1896, echoed comments from Richard Rosenbaum, executive chairman of US law firm Greenberg Traurig, after it opened in Riyadh last year.
Based in New York The law firm, which has an office in London's Shard skyscraper, does not judge the local customs, religious views and value systems of each jurisdiction and culture in which it does business, he said.
“[It's] not our place to judge in that way,” Mr. Rosenbaum told the Financial Times.
Their defense underscores a stark reality: If Western companies cut themselves off from all countries with conflicting values, they There will be very few places left to work.
If they are branded hypocrites for opening in ultra-conservative states in the Middle East, then lawyers may also come under attack for past and current dealings in China and Russia, where LGBT people also face extreme prejudices.
Saudi Arabia's response ultimately highlights the danger of corporate activists being caught up in their own diversity and inclusion practices.
It comes at a time when businesses are grappling with post-pandemic ESG [environmental, social and governance] issues ]. promises and once again prioritize shareholder returns and customer value.
But Western businesses must use their influence to advocate for LGBT rights in the Middle East, argues Aman Zanoun, campaigns coordinator at Middle East women's charity Mewso.
“The Saudi country follows the principle of negotiating money,” she says. “When you have a large investment and you just ask for some changes in the law to find a comfortable environment for investment, I think they are more than willing to do it.”
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wants to diversify the country's economy away from oil Photo: Sputnik/Sergey Savostyanov
This could be a breakthrough, given MBS's efforts to return Saudi Arabia to “moderate Islam” in an attempt to turn the region into a tourist destination.< /p>
This includes initiatives to empower Saudi women professionals to take on leadership roles in business, as part of efforts to attract more women into the workforce.
City firm Herbert Smith Freehills made history last year when its Riyadh head Joza al-Rashid became Saudi Arabia's first female managing partner, more than a decade later women were allowed to enter courtrooms and represent clients -men.
The changing role of Saudi women follows sweeping reforms that ended gender segregation in restaurants and lifted bans on women driving and traveling abroad without the permission of a male guardian.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia plans to sell alcohol at a store in Riyadh. among non-Muslim diplomats, has fueled speculation that the crown prince may lift a seven-decade ban on booze.
The country openly welcomes LGBT visitors and says “anyone can visit Saudi Arabia” as long as they respect it culture, traditions and laws, according to its tourism website.
However, Saudi Arabia's treatment of gay citizens and foreign nationals remains unchanged, according to Amnesty International, despite MBS's progressive reforms.
One city lawyer working in the Middle East was also skeptical about the impact on in fact, have firms for Saudi politicians to defend LGBT rights.
“It’s like your gardener telling you to paint the house,” he says. “The only real things that could potentially have any impact on them would be economic or political pressure applied at a meaningful level.”
Any foreign law firm challenging the Kingdom's homosexuality ban would quickly find itself replaced by a long line of silent competitors, he argues.
The City lawyer adds: “There is a lot of national pride among the Saudis. It’s understandable, this is their country. Criticism of this kind of thing will not be received well, especially by the service staff [lawyers]. That's all we are, well-dressed butlers.”
However, international law firms willing to turn a blind eye to Saudi Arabian atrocities should not be surprised if they find it difficult to hire LGBT employees in the future. Gen Z lawyers are “more sensitive” and will avoid employers who do not reflect them personal values, says Jason Connolly, chief executive and founder of recruitment specialist JMC Legal Recruitment.
“It's all good, jumping into Pride month, hanging rainbow flags around the office and saying we're inclusive “, he says. “But if you're making money from a company or clients that have a poor human rights record, then I don't think that's a good thing.”
And Simmons & A spokesman for Simmons said: “We have strict processes in place to ensure that all mandates we undertake are consistent with our values, and the same processes will apply here.”
“Our goal is to work towards positive change and contribute to a more diverse and inclusive legal profession.”