Building a new life in Dubai: Hélène Mathieu

In 1998, Mathieu became the first Western woman allowed to set up her own law practice in Dubai.

Hélène Mathieu always knew that a typical Canadian law practice was not for her. The thought of spending her life worrying about billable hours and partnership potential left her cold. That was why two weeks after she was called to the Quebec bar, in 1994, she flew to Dubai, a city she had never even heard of before accepting a job offer there. The offer came from the Iranian-born cousin of her law-school roommate at McGill University who specialized in immigration work. Canada was a favourite choice among would-be emigrants from the Middle East and he wanted a Canadian lawyer.

Mathieu left home after celebrating Christmas with her family, old-stock French Canadians from the quintessentially small Quebec town of Joliette. Her parents and siblings knew nothing of Dubai either. In fact, for years after her daughter settled in what is now the United Arab Emirates' fastest-growing city, Mathieu's mother continued to tell friends that Hélène was in Saudi Arabia ? on the grounds that they would have heard of it and, anyway, it was “right next door.”

Life worked out so well so quickly for her in Dubai that Mathieu, 37, sees in her good fortune the hand of fate. “Three days after I arrived I met my husband-to-be at a New Year's Eve party in the desert,” she says. “We were married a few months later. I do believe, like the Arab saying, that it was written.” She and her husband, a native of Syria, have a four-year-old daughter. He works with her in her firm, Hélène Mathieu Legal Consultants, whose offices are in the same building as the Canadian consulate.

In 1998, Mathieu became the first Western woman allowed to set up her own law practice in Dubai. “I never took 'no' for an answer,” she says. Much of her work involves introducing companies or businesspeople from abroad, mainly from Canada, France and Belgium, to potential business partners or contacts in Dubai. In the United Arab Emirates, it is important to choose a business partner carefully, Mathieu says. Under UAE rules, foreigners can acquire freehold and 99-year lease property only in areas designated by Dubai's ruler. Otherwise, property must be majority-owned by an Emirati partner.

Much of her work is done in the background, says Mathieu, since unlike in the West where lawyers are a normal part of business dealings, in the UAE, “They think by using a lawyer, it means you want to put something in the contract that is to the disadvantage of the other party.” As part of her work behind the scenes, she provides clients with information, contacts and the occasional crash course in cultural differences-such as warning them that business dinners start at 10 p.m. and negotiations rarely get underway before 1 a.m.

There are too few Canadian companies are in Dubai, Mathieu says. Even though Americans are just as far away ? 14 hours by air ? they're more abundant. “In the fields where there is money, that's oil and gas, the Americans are there,” she says. But when Canadians do come, they are amazed at the possibilities, says Mathieu. In March, representatives from three Quebec companies ? in securities, biomedicine and environmental technology ? visited. They found a big market for their products. “You're talking about more than $100 million for one of them,” says Mathieu.

In her waiting room, the walls are hung with 13 framed photographs or newspaper clippings of Mathieu with dignitaries and businessmen. In 11 of them, she is the only woman, a small figure dwarfed by men in Arab and Western dress. Is it difficult for a woman to practice law in Dubai? Mathieu laughs at the question. “In this culture, they really respect a smart woman,” she says. “A lot. I don't want to say that I'm smart, but, generally speaking, they really respect a woman who knows what she's doing.”