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Striving to create a culture of arbitration in Lebanon

Dr. Nayla Comair-Obeid poses for a picture in her office in Beirut, Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014. (The Daily Star/Mahmoud Kheir)

BEIRUT: “It would have been easier to work outside [the Middle East] as a woman,” Nayla Comair-Obeid said as she sat up a little straighter in her chair.

“But they need me in Lebanon. In the West, they already have people to spread this knowledge. I’m filling a gap.”

That “gap” is arbitration, a legal practice that the 57-year-old lawyer has been pushing as an alternative method of dispute resolution to litigation, one that is heavily overlooked in the region.

When she began her law studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, she envisioned herself ending up as a judge because she “wanted a more just society.” But it was arbitration that caught her eye, something she saw as an efficient form of justice that was badly needed in Lebanon, where she always planned to settle down and practice.

Since then, the Beirut-based lawyer, private judge and professor has worked tirelessly to bring the practice to the region. In recognition of her work, she was recently unanimously elected as the chair of the board of trustees of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators, making her not just the first woman to hold the position in the London-based organization’s 100-year history, but also the first person from the Middle East. All this without her even putting herself forward for consideration.

In her new post, she hopes to continue to spread a “culture of arbitration” throughout the world, particularly in the Middle East. She wants to build the region’s reputation as a place for amicable business dispute resolution, one that attracts international investors and where disputes can be solved efficiently and impartially outside of the courts.

“This is a message of tolerance,” Comair-Obeid tells The Daily Star. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

The benefits of arbitration are numerous, she said. While solving a legal dispute through the traditional court route can take five to 10 years, arbitration can solve the issue in around two months to two years. It is also known as a cheaper and more flexible alternative to litigation, although some critics charge that it sometimes offers a lower quality of justice.

“We have a lot of potential [legal] disputes coming [out] in the Middle East. That’s why arbitration education is important,” Comair-Obeid says, pointing to Lebanon’s still untapped reserves of oil and gas as well as potential foreign investment in the country’s ailing infrastructure, such as its electricity network.

“When you feel that there’s a state of law, you feel that you’re protected. We can’t have investors coming if they’re not protected.”

Arbitration is a relatively new field in the history of law, she says, and has only become common practice in the West during the last century or so. It arrived in the Middle East during the 1970s, spurred on by the rise of the oil economies and the international investment and large-scale construction and infrastructure projects that followed.

Yet it is still a developing field in the parts of the region, such as the Gulf, where thousands of business contracts are signed daily. As a result, Comair-Obeid regularly travels to Dubai to give lectures on the field of arbitration and its benefits.

Comair-Obeid is well aware of the professional and personal hurdles she faces in order to spread the “culture of arbitration” at home. As a successful woman with large contracts spearheading a little-known practice in a profession otherwise dominated by men, she acknowledges that she is often met with distrust. Her solution? To work doubly hard to prove herself.

At her firm, where she heads up the dispute resolution department, she often handles up to 10 international cases at a time. In her spare time she teaches international commercial arbitration at the Lebanese University and travels abroad to lecture at institutions such as the U.K.’s Oxford University and the American University in Washington, D.C.

She can now add her duties as a key member of a global arbitration authority to her to do list.

“Staying in Lebanon I have a message and a mission: to be among my peers and spread knowledge,” she says.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 11, 2014, on page 3.

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Summary

"It would have been easier to work outside [the Middle East] as a woman," Nayla Comair-Obeid said as she sat up a little straighter in her chair.

That "gap" is arbitration, a legal practice that the 57-year-old lawyer has been pushing as an alternative method of dispute resolution to litigation, one that is heavily overlooked in the region.

When she began her law studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, she envisioned herself ending up as a judge because she "wanted a more just society". But it was arbitration that caught her eye, something she saw as an efficient form of justice that was badly needed in Lebanon, where she always planned to settle down and practice.

While solving a legal dispute through the traditional court route can take five to 10 years, arbitration can solve the issue in around two months to two years.


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