Habib al Mulla, an advocate for justice and reform

Habib al Mulla has had a distinguished legal career, handling high-profile cases in private practice and also serving in government. But success eludes him in one case that is especially dear to him - the matter of comprehensive legal reform in the UAE.

Habib al Mulla has had a distinguished legal career, handling high-profile cases in private practice and also serving in government. But success eludes him in one case that is especially dear to him - the matter of comprehensive legal reform in the UAE. Bradley Hope reports If there is one word Habib al Mulla might use to describe himself, it is "reformer", he says. Sitting in his office on Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai, surrounded by sepia-toned and black-and-white photographs of the "old Dubai", the Harvard and Cambridge-educated lawyer explains his view that what the Emirates needs more than anything is a top-down reform of its laws.

"The whole legal system, including the courts and legislation, are coming to a serious test on adequacy and transparency as they deal with the situation the economy is going through," he says. "Some people agree with my views, but many don't." Dr al Mulla has become one of the most prominent lawyers in the country, and he is known for his strong views as well as for his high-profile clients. He most recently represented Sheikh Issa bin Zayed, a member of the Abu Dhabi Royal Family who was accused of torturing an Afghan grain dealer over a business disagreement. Dr al Mulla won the case and calls the unprecedented trial of a sheikh "something that the UAE can be very proud of".

"I believed the prosecution could not prove its case," he says. "The main witness couldn't confirm the prosecution's claim. I think it would be difficult for any court in the world to convict Sheikh Issa. It was a just decision." Dr al Mulla is also representing prominent defendants in a Dubai corruption investigation. The issues the system is facing include inordinately long jail sentences in bounced-cheque cases and a weakness in its handling of complicated cases of white-collar crime, he says. And commercial laws are out of date and creating uncertainty for businesses looking to invest or open offices here.

"The UAE today is one of the most advanced economies in the region, but corporate or commercial legislation is out of date compared to any other country in the region," Dr al Mulla says. The UAE commercial law of 1993, for instance, is based on an old version of a Kuwaiti commercial law, which is itself based on a draft of an even older Egyptian law. "Our commercial law goes back at least three decades."

Dr al Mulla's perspective comes from 26 years of practising law in the country and serving in the Government. As the economic boom transformed Dubai into a global financial hub, he left his firm to join the Federal National Council as a representative and serve as the first chairman of the Dubai Financial Services Authority, which regulates companies in the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC).

During this time, Dr al Mulla had to decline major financial clients to avoid a conflict of interest. "He felt it was his duty to be very strict about what clients he took," said Simon Roderick, the regional managing partner of the law firm Allen and Overy. "It was detrimental to his business, but it gave him a lot of credibility." Four years ago, Dr al Mulla left public service to get back to running Habib al Mulla and Co, where he has witnessed a large increase in the size of the firm's white-collar-crime practice.

Within a week of returning to the firm, he was warning that the country could face "immense problems" unless it began legal reforms. "You can announce a [property] project, and people can like the idea, but once they have bought, then people will start to ask how their rights are being protected," he told the Dubai magazine Arabian Business three years ago. "They want to know what kind of recourse they have against the developers, or what happens in case they pass away. Here, you need the legal system to come and cement this, and to give confidence to people."

Returning to his firm has allowed him to look impartially at the legal system. "I am more of an advocate, a critic of the legislation and the legal foundations, but not an active player in the system itself," he says. "Being on the outside gives me more of a margin to do this." Aziz Kurtha, who has been a lawyer in Dubai for 35 years, says Dr al Mulla is a contender to become the country's justice minister.

"If he became justice minister one day, he would fully deserve it," Mr Kurtha says, adding that Dr al Mulla was twice considered for the post. Still, Dr al Mulla's rise from a one-man legal operation to head of a lucrative law firm means that he has become more distant from the day-to-day litigation of the local courts, Mr Kurtha says. "He is now a much bigger personality in the UAE context," he said. "He is excellent as a legal consultant with regard to UAE law, but he doesn't personally like going to the courts at all."

Dr al Mulla says he never expected to be in the legal profession when he was considering his options after high school. Only when an older relative mentioned it did he see the appeal of an expertise that could be applied everywhere - from the Government service and business to disputes and criminal proceedings. After graduating from UAE University in Al Ain, he founded Habib al Mulla and Co and initially focused on commercial law. He later received degrees from Harvard and Cambridge.

A mentor to Dr al Mulla was Foad Barahim, a British lawyer of Yemeni descent who had lived in the Emirates since before the federation. "He was one of those fine lawyers who would be very careful about how he drafted arguments," Dr al Mulla says. "Later in his life, he confined himself to doing solicitor's work in his office, and I worked with him. I learnt a lot about the legal profession from him."

Dr al Mulla's first case to make international news was the arrest of a 22-year-old British computer engineer for allegedly hacking into the network of Etisalat in 2000. Lee Ashhurst, of Oldham, England, pleaded not guilty to the charge of inappropriately using "equipment, services or facilities provided by Etisalat" and breaking into e-mail accounts. Ashhurst was convicted on the first charge and found not guilty of the second.

Dr al Mulla argued that neither charge was valid because the UAE did not have laws for cyber crimes. It was a sign of his close reading of the law and willingness to take difficult cases. One of Dr al Mulla's central concerns in advocating legal reform in the UAE is the risk of importing foreign concepts and systems into the UAE, which has its own unique mixture of cultural concerns and traditions.

"It is possible to improve the laws here, while keeping in mind our heritage and cultural values," he says. He is "sceptical" of recent legal developments in Dubai, which he says is dealing with legal problems on a case-by-case basis rather than systemically. Last month, the Chief Justice of the DIFC Courts, Sir Anthony Evans, said the Government was mulling the idea of extending the jurisdiction of the special courts beyond the DIFC to include specific types of commercial cases in Dubai.

Dr al Mulla says that "would be the single largest injustice to the Dubai justice system". "If you do that, you are admitting that your general judiciary is inadequate to deal with certain types of cases. Rather than improve the judiciary, you are avoiding it," he says. He also cites the Government's decision to create a special tribunal for Dubai World, which Dr al Mulla says has created "uncertainty" about the legal system as a whole.

"Does this mean that for each new company that has problems we are going to create a special tribunal? "It may shake confidence in the system." He thinks that what is needed is for the Federal Cabinet to become the "driving force" for a top-down evaluation of the country's need for new and revised laws as well as a robust discussion in the Federal National Council of the need for change. But after years advocating reforms, Dr al Mulla says his passion is beginning to fade.

"Even during the boom period and the stock market were at their highs, I was calling for legal reform. "It's easier to do reforms while markets are good and people are making money. When things go down, and you are compelled to make changes, it will be more painful. "I have always been optimistic, but after 25 years I am starting to lose hope.". @Email:bhope@thenational.ae