Slowdown leads to exodus of Western law firms from Abu Dhabi

Simmons & Simmons is the latest in a wave of Western law firms to shut their offices in Abu Dhabi in the last year as low oil prices put a damper on business.

London-based Simmons & Simmons plans to close its office in the United Arab Emirates capital by the end of April, a spokeswoman said.

It follows US-based law firms Latham & Watkins and Baker Botts, as well as London and Sydney co-headquartered Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) in announcing plans to close offices in Abu Dhabi over the past 12 months.

Many international law firms had piled into the capital in the past five years, hoping to bag lucrative contracts linked to the government, in particular the energy sector and the launch of a new financial free zone.

"That hasn't happened as planned and adding to that is the uncertain times we are in now with oil prices around $30," said a source familiar with the matter.

The retreat underscores growing pressure on international law firms for billable hours, prompting a review of their need to have a presence in the capital.

Simmons & Simmons, which decided to close its Abu Dhabi office after a review, said in an emailed statement it would serve its clients through its office in Dubai, moving its Abu Dhabi-based partners to Dubai or London.

Abu Dhabi has cut back or slowed spending on non-essential projects and has lifted subsidies on petrol to ease finances as state revenues decline due to cheap oil.

The International Monetary Fund has cut its growth forecast for the UAE to 2.6 percent in 2016.

Abu Dhabi is more reliant on the energy sector and government contracts, whereas Dubai has a more diversified economy propelled by a larger private sector.

HSF said it closed its Abu Dhabi office in the middle of last year and transferred its five resident lawyers to its offices in Dubai or Doha.

Latham & Watkins said in March 2015 it was closing its Abu Dhabi and Doha offices, consolidating the Abu Dhabi office with its office in Dubai.

Baker Botts said it closed its Abu Dhabi office in January 2015.

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