Dispelling myths about life in UAE

Wild Geese: Stephen McKenna, senior associate, Clyde & Co, United Arab Emirates

A chance to work as legal counsel for one of Ireland's leading construction firms first brought Stephen McKenna to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The opportunity to join the largest law firm in the Middle East persuaded him to stay and live a lifestyle he could only dream of at home.

McKenna is a senior associate with Clyde & Co, a global law firm with 1,800 lawyers and annual revenues of about £395 million (€500 million). He has been living in the UAE since 2009 and currently splits his time equally between Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

Having spent over six years in the region and some time before that living in the United States, Germany and Saudi Arabia, McKenna is used to being away from Ireland. But there is still plenty the Malahide man misses about home, including family, friends and proper chipper chips.

Nonetheless, he has happily embraced his adopted homeland and likes nothing more than to dispel myths about the place to those who may have what he sees as outdated and ill-informed ideas about the region.


“It is a generally a very misunderstood place. People often ask me how I could live out here, can you get a drink and so on but I’ve found it to be a very welcoming place where you can pretty much live your life as you’d wish to do,” said McKenna, who lives on Reem Island in Abu Dhabi.

“A lot of outsiders don’t understand that it is a very tolerant place. About 85 per cent of the people living here are ex-pats and I’m not sure if there’s any country in Europe that would put up with a situation in which just 15 per cent are locals.

“Of course, as Westerners, we have a very different belief system and cultural norms, but yet I’ve found people here to be very open and accepting of foreigners,” he added.

McKenna, who is back in Ireland next week to speak at the 2016 Arab-Irish Business Forum at Dublin Castle on Friday, has experience advising clients on a wide range of matters. These include mergers and acquisitions, joint ventures, commercial contracts, private equity, company law, corporate governance, tax-based investment fund subscriptions, asset purchases, restructuring and project finance.

He began his career working for Eversheds in Dublin, where he stayed for almost six years. During his time with the law firm, McKenna worked on a contract with the construction firm, the Sammon Group, which has interests in the Middle East.

“I was based in Ireland but was doing a lot of travel to the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Libya. When I finished up that role, I got a call out of the blue from the company’s chief executive who was based in Abu Dhabi and he said they were looking at restructuring their legal department and would I be interested in coming out here as their legal counsel.

“It was one of those opportunities you can spend a lifetime looking for and never get, so I decided to take it,” he said.

“I did that for just under two years and then decided to go back into private practice rather than stay in-house about four years ago. I ended up at Clyde & Co and I’ve been there ever since,” McKenna added.

Given his day job, McKenna has encountered many Irish and other European companies that have tried to expand into the Middle East and North Africa. Not all of them have enjoyed success.

“How business is conducted here is different from in Europe and not everyone is sensitive to the differences. People coming here can tend to underestimate the importance of relationships, which tend to be built over time and are very much built on trust,” he said.

“As Europeans, we can be very black and white when it comes to doing business. There can be a tendency to be quite aggressive when negotiating but, if you go in hard and heavy, it can lead to a complete shutdown whereas approaching things in a more collaborative fashion is often much more rewarding for everyone,” McKenna added.

He's keen to praise the success of Irish companies that have enjoyed success in the Gulf region, namechecking the likes of Kingspan, which has a large presence locally, and Aer Rianta, which recently won a 10-year contract to operate the duty free in the new Midfield terminal building in Abu Dhabi International Airport.

While the local economy has experienced ups and downs in recent years and is beginning to experience the impact of lower oil prices, McKenna believes there are still plenty of opportunities for Irish companies in the Middle East.

“It isn’t boomtime right now and the effect of falling oil prices is definitely being felt, particularly in Abu Dhabi. But I’d say the overall feeling is one of reserved positivity and there is still interest from foreign companies,” he said.

As for himself, McKenna has no doubt that future opportunities exist for him to further his career in the region. After more than six years living in Abu Dhabi, he’s in the process of buying an apartment and sees his immediate future as being in the Middle East.

“The intention, at least in the medium term, is to remain out here. I miss plenty about home but the sunshine and the fact that I don’t have to pay tax means I get to live the kind of lifestyle that most people only dream of,” he said.