In 2017, Edward Allbless established an independent legal consultancy, focused on cross-border legal transactional work, with a corporate base in Singapore. Then, in 2020, he shifted that base to the UK, under a new corporate name, Inarak Consultants. Inarak’s key focus is on the emerging markets in the Asia Pacific region, the Middle East, and (more recently) Sub-Saharan Africa. In this interview with Asia Law Portal, Allbless explains the business opportunities emerging markets represent, his three decades work in emerging markets law and business, the work of Inarak Consultants, and the focus of his recently established law blog, Emerging Markets Law and Business.
You recently established the Emerging Markets Law and Business blog. What inspires your writing in this area?
I spent so much of my career as a lawyer focusing on the complexities of cross-border work, and the issues which businesses typically face when doing business in the emerging markets, and was always passionately interested in all this. So, now that I am an independent practitioner, I wanted to write about this on a public forum, and advise a much broader audience than I had previously had a chance to do as an ‘employed lawyer’.
You head up Inarak Consultants. What is the focus of this consultancy?
Cross-border transactional work with a key focus on the emerging markets in the Asia Pacific region, the Middle East, and (more recently) Sub-Saharan Africa. We are very strong in particular in Indonesia, and Oman, where Inarak has an affiliation with a first-rate commercial law firm in each location, and works closely with each firm. We also have good working relations with top-tier firms in Singapore and South Africa.
The consultancy specialises in foreign direct investment advice and representation in these emerging markets, and includes matters ranging from pre-feasibility and new market due diligence, assistance with selection of local partners, regulatory advice for new market entry, help with setting up the local presence in the new market, negotiation and drafting of the contractual documentation required for this, assistance with application for local business licences and permits, and any other matter which a business may require legal or business help with a new business venture.
Inarak also works with clients during their operational phase in the new market, so for example, in connection with acquisitions or divestment which the client may be considering there, or with disputes which have arisen between the client’s business and a third party.
What is your background in emerging markets business law?
I did my legal training in London, in the UK, back in the nineteen eighties. My first major role in law practise was in the London office of a large international law firm. I was assigned to the firm’s corporate and energy groups, with a leg in each group, so to speak! I am and was then, a company and commercial transactional lawyer.
Some years after I joined the firm, they seconded me to their Singapore office with the task of setting up and managing a new affiliated office in Jakarta. The Jakarta office worked exclusively on foreign direct investment (‘FDI’) matters within Indonesia. When the Asian financial crisis hit in 1998/9, the firm pulled out of Indonesia. Because it appeared that the firm may pull out of the rest of Asia also, I re-located to Singapore, and found a role there with another international law firm, again with a brief to focus on the firm’s Indonesia practise. All told, I spent close to fifteen years working on transactional legal matters, mostly in the FDI-space, in the Asia Pacific region, doing a lot of transactional work in Indonesia, but also in a range of other South-East Asian jurisdictions, including Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Hong Kong, and Western Australia. My clients were a mix of western-hemisphere corporates from the USA, UK and the EU, and also Asian corporate clients, for example from Japan, Korea the PRC, and Indonesia itself.
In the mid-2000s, my legal practice started to cover not just the APAC region, but also the emerging economies in the Middle East. I worked on a number of seminal deals in Qatar, and then in Oman. Went in-house for a time, in the Middle East, and then returned to private practise with a major international law firm, helping them to set up a new office in Oman, focusing on energy and construction sector transactions.
In 2017, after about three decades of working in various emerging markets, I set up my consultancy, Inarak Consultants, with its offices in the UK.
What opportunities and risks do emerging markets represent to businesses?
The growth rates of the leading economies in the emerging markets, and the rise of the so-called ‘middle income classes’ in those markets, is a major business opportunity for any business owner with services or products to sell, assuming always that those services or products are attractive (or potentially attractive) to the markets in question.
In contrast, the more developed markets are somewhat saturated with a range of goods and services, and competition for market share is much more severe.
Of course, the emerging markets are also a potentially excellent base from which to manufacture goods of various kinds, or a base from which to provide a range of types of service (for example, legal services) at a lower cost to the customer or consumer.
There are risks involved with doing business in one or other of the emerging markets. Business is done differently in different parts of the world, and going into a new market without having investigated it well enough, and without having really understood how business is done there, may result in early failure of the new venture.
The whole issue of stability is also a risk factor in the emerging markets. This may show itself as adverse regulatory changes after the new business has been established; or political developments, which may lead to changes which could be adverse to certain kinds of business activity. For example, in Indonesia, recent developments in upstream oil and gas regulation have resulted in seismic shocks within the industry, and a general disinclination to invest in new upstream ventures.
These risks need to, and typically can be managed, which is why it is so important for any new venture in the emerging markets to be carefully thought through, at inception stage, and for the business owner to do its due diligence, which includes to ensure it has good quality and reliable legal advice at every step of the way, when working in a ‘foreign’ or less familiar market.