Solicitors governing body: Bahrain Bar Society
Competition authority: Ministry of Industry and Commerce
Financial regulator: Central Bank of Bahrain
IFLR1000 ranking categories in this jurisdiction:
Financial and corporate (published October) - Banking, M&A, Project finance
Essentially, Bahrain has two legal markets - the local and the international. Unlike some jurisdictions in the Middle East, the Gulf state has no foreign ownership requirements for law firms so it is not essential for international advisors to assimilate with a local sponsor or employ partners who are Bahraini nationals. This means the two types of firm remain relatively autonomous, working together on transactions but competing for different roles on mandates, one advising on international (usually US or English) law, the other on Bahraini.
Among the international firms present in the country, the most dominant are those with the longest tenures: Baker & McKenzie, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Trowers & Hamlins. Foreign firms tend to maintain a relatively small permanent presence in Bahrain and often employ fluid teams, where partners are focussed on several jurisdictions in the Gulf or wider region. This structure makes perfect sense for a country like Bahrain where the level of activity does not necessitate having a large dedicated team on the ground at all times. It is also a natural model to use as the vast majority of the significant deals with a Bahrain element are cross-border.
The contingent of domestic firms active on the market’s more significant deals is fairly consistent. Three firms typically compete for the local roles on larger deals: Hassan Radhi & Associates, Haya Rashed Al Khalifa and Zu'bi & Partners. A far smaller firm and younger firm, Jalila Sayed Attorneys & Legal Consultants, is the preferred local counsel of some foreign firms.
A recent new addition to Bahrain’s legal market was regional firm Al Tamimi & Co, which established a branch in Manama in 2014.
Banking and finance is the mainstay for firms focussing on transactional work in Bahrain. Manama has one of the Middle East’s oldest financial centres, established as the country sought to diversify the economy away from a dependence on oil. In part, it was the development of this sector that attracted international firms to Bahrain and, despite the increased competition from other hubs in Dubai and Doha, the local banks remain active. Projects – utilities, natural resources and infrastructure - are other reliable source of instructions for firms. Capital markets work does generate mandates, but is generally limited to sovereign issues or those of financial institutions.
Ben Naylor - Journalist - EMEA
Regional firm Al Tamimi & Co is a relatively recent addition to Bahrain’s legal market with the firm opening an office in Manama in 2014.
One client described the office as “attentive and very good when it came to the work”, continuing: “They gave perspective on issues that I never would have known had so many aspects.” The client added the caveat: “sometimes their billing can be unpredictable.”
A client singled out Foutoun Hajjar. “She is very experienced and we have discovered that she is the best at going into a place and assessing it from a legal perspective.”
Recent deal highlights for the office include advising Kohlberg Kravis Roberts as local counsel on a $150 million investment and acting for Mueller Industries on a strategic agreement between Mueller and Cayan Ventures to develop a regional copper tube manufacturing facility in Bahrain.
US firm Baker & McKenzie has one the strongest finance practices in Bahrain, which employs some of the leading conventional lending, Islamic and project finance and debt capital markets specialists who work in the country. Financial services energy and infrastructure are sectors in which the firm has significant experience.
Client feedback on the firm is wholly positive. “Their approach is meticulous and they always provide first-class service,” says the general counsel at a lender that has used the firm for project and Islamic finance. The head of legal from a private investor that works with the firm on projects says: “Excellent service and value for money.”
Individuals highlighted in client feedback include banking and finance partner Julie Alexander, who is described as “tenacious, extremely thorough and always a joy to deal with”, and the “excellent” Bilal Ambikapathy.
In line with the firm’s reputation in Bahrain, itwas mandated on most of the significant banking and finance transactions in the country in 2015 and 2016. The headline mandates, which are publishable, included acting for Nogaholding, Bahrain's National Oil & Gas Authority’s holding company, on negotiating a five year $570 million murabaha (deferred sale) financing with nine regional and international banks; advising the Government of Bahrain on its $1.5 billion international dual tranche bond issue; and, acting for Al Rajhi Banking and Investment Corporation, as majority certificate holder, in the financial restructuring of the $650 million Villamar project, a development in the Financial Harbour district.
Charles Russell Speechlys’ Manama branch is recognised for financial services regulatory, restructuring and insolvency, construction and real estate financing advice.
The firm saw several senior staffing changes to its Manama team recently. Head of Islamic finance, Ashley Freeman, joined UK firm Excello Law and corporate partner Tom Briggs moved to Ince & Co in Dubai. The firm made some significant additions to the team too, recruiting Trowers & Hamlins' former head of construction in Bahrain, Paula Boast, and Rupert Copeman Hill from Minter Ellison in Brisbane. Both new hires joined as partner.
The firm’s recent notable work includes roles on large restructurings, with several cases for lenders and one for a large corporation. The only publishable matter is the firm’s appointment by the Central Bank of Bahrain (CBB) as the external administrator of Awal Bank.
DLA Piper’s Manama branch typically supports the firm’s larger offices in the region on mandates for Bahrain clients or where there is a local element. Recently the firm has been active in lending work and restructuring.
Among the firm’s deal highlights were mandates for several Middle East banks and financial services businesses on restructuring local subsidiaries. Additionally the team was involved in loan transactions, both for general purposes and acquisitions.
Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer’s Bahrain office is one the country’s most experienced legal counsel for energy and infrastructure projects and, as one of the government’s preferred advisors, is generally involved in most large public developments in the country.
The firm has advised the government on a number of projects recently. One of the few publishable deals was its role for Ministry of Housing on its $730 million PPP (public-private partnership) project with developer Diyar Al Muharraq to build 3000 housing units.
Corporate highlights for the team include advising a foreign client on a joint-venture and advising a local client on a cross-border manufacturing investment.
Zu’bi & Partners is one of Bahrain’s leading local law advisors for financial and corporate transactions, with experience working many of the largest Islamic and conventional banking,debt capital markets, and project finance deals in the country.
The firm has secured local counsel roles on most of the significant banking and finance deals in Bahrain recently. On the state’s $1.5 billion and $600 million bond issues, it represented the Ministry of Finance. When Nogaholding, Bahrain's National Oil & Gas Authority’s holding company) secured a $570 million murabaha (deferred sale) financing with nine regional and international banks, in part to fund a pipeline development between the country and Saudi Arabia, it represented the lenders. On Gulf International Bank’s $250 million syndicated loan, it acted for the lenders.
The firm’s project highlights include representing the consortium awarded the contract to build Bahrain’s first LNG import terminal.