December 6, 2013 4:30 pm

UK to host Saudi arbitration centre

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Tower Bridge, bottom left, is seen spanning the River Thames, in front of the Canary Wharf business and London's financial district©Bloomberg

The first steps to establish a confidential court in London that would hear multimillion pound commercial disputes arising out of Saudi Arabia will be taken as early as next week.

The Arab-British Chamber of Commerce confirmed that a memorandum of understanding will be signed during a conference attended by Muhammad bin Abdul-Kareem Al-Issa, the kingdom’s justice minister, and by Lord McNally, a UK justice minister.

The Saudi-British Arbitration Centre will “promote commercial arbitration as an effective alternative to litigation”, a one-line mention in the chamber of commerce’s publicity about the legal conference on December 12 reads. The chamber said no other details were immediately available.

The MoU will also be signed by the chamber and the Saudi Chamber of Commerce, which has been leading the negotiations. Omnia Strategy, the law firm of Cherie Booth QC, wife of the former UK prime minister Tony Blair, will have a key role in setting out how the centre will be structured, according to people familiar with the situation. Omnia did not respond to a request seeking comment.

Highly confidential and top-level plans for the arbitration centre have been in train for at least a year, as first reported by the Financial Times.

If established, the centre could hear some of the most high-value and sensitive legal claims in the world.

For the Saudis, a London-based arbitration centre, whose panel would include former English judges, is seen as a counter to investor concerns about the oil-rich nation’s legal system, and could boost foreign direct investment.

For the UK, meanwhile, a London-based arbitration centre plays into wider advocacy undertaken by the UK government to position London as the “lawyer of the world”.

The field is increasingly competitive, particularly in arbitration. Qatar and Singapore are both pushing their own arbitration centres, luring some of the UK’s most renowned retired judges on to their panels, and marketing themselves as a forum to resolve regional disputes.

Arbitration is an increasingly popular method of resolving cross-border disputes for big business and governments. Unlike traditional courts, proceedings are private and settlements confidential, making them particularly attractive for sensitive disagreements.

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