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Nadim Elias El Haj, chief legal officer of Abu Dhabi National Hotels, brings a wealth of experience from his tenure in legal leadership across the hospitality and tourism sectors, including tenures at Bloom Properties, Lakhraim Business Group, and Millennium Hotels and Resorts. His expansive career also encompasses a role as general counsel for Abu Dhabi’s Ministry of Interior and a partner at the Abu Dhabi office of Singapore’s WongPartnership.

In his interview, El Haj sheds light on the regulatory complexities facing the tourism and hospitality industry amid current regional geopolitical strains, the crucial function of a general counsel in bridging communications with government entities, and the expanding legal landscape in the Middle East due to the influx of international law firms.

ALB: How do you perceive the current landscape of the hospitality and tourism industry in the Middle East, especially in light of recent tensions in the region impacting travel and tourism? What is your role as chief legal officer in alleviating your company’s concerns in this regard?

Nadim El Haj: The hospitality and tourism sector in the Middle East is maintaining a strong growth momentum driven by an increase in the number of international tourists visiting the region for leisure or business purposes. This is in view of the rolling out of new strategic tourism infrastructure projects across the region in terms of development of new cultural and leisure assets and opening of new giga airports with multi-fold capacity in terms of number of passengers. From my end, I ensure that I am properly managing resources, whether external or internal, in order to keep up with evolving business needs and achieve ambitious strategic growth targets for ADNH on the back of the impressive growth witnessed in the hospitality and tourism sector in the Middle East.

ALB: The UAE and Saudi Arabia governments are both looking at modernising their laws and infrastructure to attract foreign investment and diversify their portfolios. Could you share insights on the role of the chief legal officer in fostering relationships with government entities to facilitate business operations and growth in the Middle East?

El Haj: The role of chief legal officer is key in terms of managing strategic relationships with key stakeholders in the hospitality and tourism sector, including government authorities, think tank institutions, and regulatory authorities, thus contributing to policy making, coordination between government entities and execution of strategic projects with long term impact on the local economy.

ALB: What are the largest regulatory hurdles in the hospitality and tourism sector in the Middle East, and what is your legal strategy for overcoming these obstacles?

El Haj: The largest regulatory hurdles in the hospitality and tourism sector are regulations that are not business-friendly or do not keep up with the exponential growth of the hospitality and tourism sector in the region. Hence, I ensure that strategic projects’ negotiation and execution are optimised in order to speed up closing of strategic growth targets in view of the constantly changing regulatory landscape and to avoid projects not materialising due to new regulatory hurdles which might come down the road. In other words, my biggest enemy is time. Accordingly, I must ensure that strategic projects are always progressing ahead of time.

ALB: With international law firms pouring into the Middle East, how has the legal market changed in terms of mandates, pricing strategies, and competitiveness?

El Haj: With material increase in number of international law firms setting up a local presence in the region comes the opportunity for optimisation in terms of quality and price. The chief legal officer should strike the right balance between quality and price in order to ensure that company strategic growth targets are achieved on time and within budget.

ALB: There has also been an active cost-cutting effort by companies to do more legal work in-house. Have you experienced this trend, and how does your company look to build capabilities, especially with AI, to do more legal work in-house?

El Haj: AI is an extremely powerful tool in terms of optimising costs when carrying out an M&A exercise or an e-legal discovery forensic exercise in case of a dispute. I am constantly assessing new products and technologies for the purpose of ensuring continuous digitalisation of certain functions within the ADNH legal department to meet growing business needs.