By Shane McGinley
Sarosh Zaiwalla has famously had dealings with the likes of the Dalai Lama, the Gandhi family, Amitabh Bachchan, Saddam Hussein, Benazir Bhutto and the ruler of Dubai
Dubai’s local courts “require enormous improvement”
and need to be more transparent, according to a top London-based lawyer who has
fought cases around the world and has dealt with household names such as the
Dalai Lama, the Gandhi family, Amitabh Bachchan, Saddam Hussein, Benazir Bhutto
and the ruler of Dubai.
“I think [the Dubai court] needs to be improved...
The local courts, the Shariah court, require enormous improvement in my
experience. They don’t have the same standards one expects from the best in
judges,” Sarosh Zaiwalla, who made his name as the first Asian person to set up
a legal firm in London, said in an interview with Arabian Business.
“The common perception is that in Dubai it depends
on who you know. A powerful defendant wins against someone from overseas. If it
is a sheikh as a defendant there is that perception.”
Zaiwalla recently made the headlines in the UK when
he filed a case at Britain’s Commercial Court on behalf of Bank Mellat, Iran’s
biggest lender and which is part owed by the Tehran government.
The filing stems from a previous case which the
bank brought against the UK government and in which Zaiwalla successfully
argued in the UK Supreme Court that sanctions issued against the lender were
unlawful. The bank is now claiming damages.
The damages amount was was initially thought to be
around £500m ($825m), but it has now been estimated at nearly $4bn. Zaiwalla
says this is the first time a successful Iranian plaintiff against sanctions in
Europe has pursued a damages claim: “It is a test case; it is very much a test
case... The legal position is this: The Supreme Court has referred the matter
back to the High Court to determine the loss.
“There are forensic accountants involved... We
would argue that the UK government has to pay the loss which is equivalent to
[the amount] required to put Bank Mellat back in a position as it would have
been if this listing had not taken place. There is no dispute on liability, it
is just the loss. It is straightforward in that liability will not be an issue
but the quantity will be an issue.”
Zaiwalla said this case demonstrated the difference
between the courts in Dubai and the UK and the independence of the British
“In England it doesn’t matter if it is the prime
minister or the government who is the defendant. The Supreme Court with nine
judges has the courage to tell the government you are wrong. The government
couldn’t do anything at all.”
“[The Bank Mellat case] reveals a great deal about
the high quality of the British justice system that a court would make a
decision against the British government in favour of a bank from Iran, a
country that is perceived to be hostile to the UK. I am not sure if this could
happen in any other legal system around the world.”
His comments come just weeks after Gabriela Knaul,
the UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, visited
the UAE for nine days and gave her verdict on the judicial system.
Knaul, making the first information-gathering visit
to the UAE by an independent expert designated by the UN Human Rights Council,
made no mention of any specific cases but she said in a press conference that
it was her opinion that the UAE judicial system is “under the de facto control
of the executive branch of the government”.
In a statement in response, the UAE justice
ministry said the independence of the judiciary was guaranteed by the
constitution and the country was committed to strengthening the promotion and
protection of human rights.
Zaiwalla’s global experience has meant he is now in
the process of expanding his firm globally. He has set up an office in Dubai
and signed a partnership with United Advocates Group, one the UAE’s
“We have decided to expand this year in Dubai and
other markets. It is a new market but we have to be very cost conscious as when
you open an office it increases your overheads and one of our selling points is
we charge less than other firms.
“Our principal reason is because Dubai is a centre
for us to handle cases from India, Pakistan, South Africa and China. It is a
commercial capital of Asia now and is competing with Singapore,” he added.
He has experience in the emirates, having
represented Dubai firm and the Dubai ruler on several occasions. “With the
Dubai royalty we had a case in the 90s when the ruler was involved [and] a
Dubai bank...a Dubai court had given a judgment in five days for some AED330m
($89.9m) and the Dubai bank wanted to enforce it.
“We succeeded and it was a hard fought case.
Obviously the Dubai ruler was quite impressed and gave us a licence to start a
firm. We didn’t start a firm but we had a licence to start a firm without a
sponsor — which was quite unique.”
The success of the case led to more high-profile
introductions: “He [the Dubai ruler] was very impressed and invited me to have
lunch with Nelson Mandela in the 1990s and in the early 2000s he invited me to
dinner with the Australian prime minister when we were the only ones invited. I
know him, he knows me only as Sarosh Zaiwalla... I can’t say I can have a chat
with him,” Zaiwalla said modestly.
One of the famous local cases he was involved in
was in February 1982 when he handled a large international arbitration in New
Orleans for the Global Shipping Company of Dubai, who had a
multi-million-dollar international arbitration dispute with ADC of New Orleans,
who were the contractors for Chicago Beach Village Project in Dubai. The
Chicago Beach Village Project, of course, went on to become the Jumeirah Beach
Hotel, back in the early days when the Jumeirah Group was at a very early
You can't beat Pakistan where the judiciary can summon and dismiss serving Prime Minister.