Interview with James Donald

Scenic view of Dubai Marina

Interview with James Donald, Vice President and Deputy General Counsel of Accor Hotels – part of our series of living and working in the Middle East. 

In this interview James describes his time in the region and the experience of working as a Legal Counsel in Dubai. 

What attracted you to Dubai and when did you first move there? 

During my training in London with an international law firm, there was the possibility of an overseas seat for 6 months. I applied for Hong Kong and Dubai; I got Dubai.

So I packed my bags in September 2007 for my third training seat. I loved the experience and jumped at the chance of returning as an NQ lawyer when I qualified the following year.

I arrived back in Dubai in 2008 just as Lehman Brothers collapsed, which of course triggered a very different environment in the Middle East over the subsequent years. That led me to take on a much wider variety of work than I had originally anticipated (M&A) as many junior corporate lawyers in Dubai became more generalist.  

Can you describe a typical day for you?

Since leaving private practice in 2010, I have worked in hospitality for two different international hotel operators. The hotel world is interesting for many reasons, and being an in-house hotels lawyer brings a very diverse workload.

I generally get up pretty early (I have twin two-year old boys so a lie-in is a thing of the past anyway), read the morning papers and then settle into e-mails that have arrived overnight (usually fuelled by lots of coffee). As our business is global, and I work a lot with teams in Asia and Europe, this keeps me occupied for most of the morning along with a peppering of calls.

I usually leave any drafting exercises for the afternoon; despite working with quite a large team, I keep my hand in with drafting various hotel management and ancillary agreements. The afternoon also usually brings more calls with team members around the Middle East and Europe.

Prior to 2020, a lot of my job would involve substantial travel meeting with other colleagues and prospective hotel owners. The current environment makes travel mostly prohibitive, and even local in-person meetings are far more challenging to arrange. I miss a lot of the personal interaction I used to have with hotel teams and while I try to do this via remote networking it’s just not the same nor as effective – I find that face-to-face interaction builds the strongest relationships.

How does working in Dubai differ from working in your home country? 

Perhaps it’s a bit of observation bias on my part, but I feel many things done business-wise in Dubai are more personal. In some other markets you get used to a steady diet of conference calls, and often never meet the people you work with on deals for months on end, but I find that rarely happens in the Middle East.

Also, laws in much of the Middle East are quite different from those I studied at university (given the dichotomy of common law and civil law systems). So I’m always learning something new.

Plus I’ve worked with people from a far greater range of cultures and backgrounds than I did back in the UK, which has cemented my opinion that encouraging a very diverse workforce is one of the best competitive advantages businesses can build.

Why do you like living in Dubai?

I hail from the North-East of England. Anyone from there can tell you it is cold and grey for much of the year. So year-round guaranteed sunshine gets a big tick in the ‘plus’ box for me.

Dubai is a wonderful melting pot of cultures as well. The diverse nature of the city, and the UAE generally, makes for a great environment in which to raise children. Like many people I know, I originally intended to spend a couple of years in Dubai. I have now been here 12 years (interspersed with other stints living in Shanghai and, more recently, London). But I keep being pulled back to Dubai, and I love it.

Where is your favourite place in Dubai and why?  

There’s a wonderfully serene spot down at Dubai Creek that I visit when I get the chance. Living in a bustling city is great, but it’s nice to have a place for quiet reflection and if you catch this spot just before sunset, it’s unique.

As a bit of an aeroplane geek, I also love the Costa at Emirates HQ where you can sit above the airport apron and watch the planes come and go.

What is your favourite activity in Dubai?  

Anyone who knows me knows that I love golf. The sad part is that I’m as useless at it now as I was when I started 10 years ago. But there are some great courses here and trying to hit that very occasional perfect shot makes all the pain worthwhile.

Have you found anything challenging in living in Dubai and how have you overcome that challenge? 

Like I imagine many expats feel, it can be difficult being away from your home county. I have close family and a lot of great friends back in the UK. So I’ve always prioritised going back for lots of short trips throughout the year to keep in touch with people. That has been time and money well-spent for me over the years, and hopefully, I can return soon.

For more information on working as an in-house Legal Counsel in the Middle East, then please contact Iain Rainey: