Akin Gump's George Salem: An Inside Look At The Middle East

Monday, March 1, 2004 - 00:00

Editor: Would you provide our readers with something of your background and experience?

Salem:
I've been practicing law since 1977, mostly in the field of labor and employment law. In addition to chairing Akin Gump's U.S. Department of Labor practice, I also chair the firm's Middle East practice, which we established in 1997. From 1985 to 1989 I served as the Solicitor of Labor, which is the general counsel position at the Department of Labor. In that capacity I was in charge of enforcing approximately 150 of this nation's labor laws, and supervised a staff of approximately a thousand labor lawyers who had responsibility for approximately 150,000 pending cases.
I joined Akin Gump in 1990 following my service at the Department of Labor. The firm had a thriving traditional labor practice at the time and was interested in establishing a U.S. Department of Labor practice. I also was extremely impressed by the firm's diverse political viewpoints and integrated approach to the practice of law.

Editor: Would you tell us about your work on behalf of the firm's Middle Eastern clients?

Salem:
Our Middle East practice is truly global in the sense that we represent major Middle East investors who are involved in acquisitions in Europe and the United States, as well as Western (and Korean and Russian) companies doing business in the Middle East. We consulted on the e-commerce law for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and we have a Gulf Region office in Riyadh consisting of five lawyers who have represented over 100 Middle Eastern clients and institutions. The practice is a broad-based commercial practice and includes everything from corporate and project finance to international trade and litigation. On the latter, for example, we successfully handled the case involving the bombing of the Al Shifa pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan, in which the owner was accused of terrorist connections. We were able to clear his name and unfreeze his assets.

Editor: You have also been active in a number of Arab-American civic and educational organizations. Please tell us about this.

Salem:
In 1980, a group of Arab-Americans, my wife and I included, founded a charity by the name of United Palestinian Appeal. She was the organization's first president, and I have served as treasurer for a number of years. At the present time the organization is the recipient of USAID funding and is currently engaged in 55 separate humanitarian projects, including mother-child health care clinics, sports complexes, and laboratory and other educational facilities for schools, in the Palestinian areas. Scholarships are also a very important part of the mission. UPA has provided scholarships to thousands of college students in the West Bank and Gaza, and it has provided millions of dollars in humanitarian assistance to dozens of clinics, hospitals, schools, orphanages and other charitable institutions.

In addition, in 1985 James Zogby and I founded the Arab-American Institute, and I have served as Chairman of AAI since its inception. This is an organization that grew out of my experience in the Reagan campaign of 1984, where I was in charge of the ethnic voters division of the campaign, and James Zogby's experience with the Jackson campaign. We founded AAI in order to mobilize and politically empower the Arab-American community. In 1985 Arab-Americans were not fully mainstreamed into the political process. The image of Arabs in this country, and particularly that of Palestinians, was not positive. The Mondale campaign was returning checks from Arab-American contributors at the time. Over the years since the Arab-American Institute was founded, we have made great strides in bringing the Arab-Americans into the political mainstream, and that has served to convey a much more even-handed picture of the Arab world to the American public. I have also served on the governing board of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee for several years, and I have been both president and chairman of the National Association for Arab-Americans.

In addition, since 1990 I have served as pro-bono legal advisor to the Palestinian delegation to the Middle East peace talks. There are a number of other organizations dealing with the educational, humanitarian and legal needs of the region in which I am involved.

I have a long-standing commitment to Arab-American political empowerment and humanitarian causes, as well as to dialogue between the leadership of the American Jewish and Arab-American communities.

Editor: You have talked about three different themes in your career. You are obviously a very busy lawyer. You have, in addition, a deep commitment to civic and educational work for the Arab community in this country and abroad. There is also a political dimension to all of this. How do you connect all these themes in your career?

Salem:
They connect in the sense that an Arab-American underpinning is present in all of them, and each of them is leveraged off the others. My legal practice provides me with a certain entrée into the political arena, and that has proved highly beneficial in helping to advance the work we do in the charitable and educational sphere.

Mainstreaming Arab-Americans into the political process is an extremely important undertaking. I took the position as Executive Director of the Ethnic Voters Division of Reagan-Bush '84 in order for senior political officials to see a Palestinian-American working in a responsible capacity in a major political campaign. I went on to became Solicitor of Labor for largely the same reason. At the moment, I am the only Palestinian-American to have been nominated by a President and confirmed by the United States Senate. It is my hope that some day this will change. That will require, I think, the full participation of the Arab-American community in the political process and the perception of that community as a viable ethnic political constituency. We are well along in both of these processes. Needless to say, we have considerable support from a very sophisticated business community in the Middle East and those in Washington who are concerned about alleviating the conditions in which the Palestinian people exist today and the negative stereotypes which many Arabs are forced to confront in the post-9/11 context. The two concerns are connected.

This past year I served on the President's Commission on Public Diplomacy in the Arab and Muslim World, which is concerned with dealing with the negative perception so many people in the Arab and Muslim world have of the United States. What is necessary, in the first instance, is to listen and understand the cultural context in which we all work and live. This is precisely what we attempt to do at Akin Gump. We attempt to convey to our Middle Eastern clients the fact that we are good listeners, that we have an understanding of their culture and their values, and can explain to them how Washington works or how best to accomplish their business or legal objectives. We enter into a reciprocal dialogue that provides for a greater understanding of our cultures. U.S., European, Asian and Russian multinational interests are provided with this same base of knowledge and understanding of the Middle East region. As a result, they are comfortable having our law firm act as their legal service provider.

Editor: Our government has committed itself to helping rebuild Iraq's infrastructure and modernize its economy. Akin Gump represents a number of clients, both American and foreign, interested in participating in these efforts. How is this proceeding in Iraq?

Salem:
It is proceeding well. We have a fairly broad portfolio of clients - construction, oil and petrochemical, port facilities management, telecommunications and electrical infrastructure concerns - that we are assisting, and, accordingly, a number of interdisciplinary practice groups are involved. The clients include Korean and Russian companies as well as American, European and Middle Eastern enterprises. Our Gulf Region office assists in negotiations and, from time to time, the Arabic language skills of that office are a very important part of the firm's efforts.

Editor: How are these practice groups organized?

Salem:
The Middle East practice is a group that draws on the resources of all segments of the firm, including, principally, the corporate section, the project finance infrastructure practice, international trade and sanctions, international policy and the litigation groups. We are also involved in acquisitions, including two refineries in Morocco in which we represented a major Middle Eastern client. We are now working on a $600 million upgrade project in connection with those refineries, as well as the related project financing. We also represent a Middle Eastern client in connection with two Swedish refineries that it owns, and handled one of the largest industrial high-yield deals in Euros ever. Additionally, in this ever-shrinking world where everything is connected, an expertise in compliance with international trade laws is essential. Our international and domestic policy practices assist with any government and public relations issues.

Editor: There are a great many opportunities in Iraq today. There are also considerable challenges. Will you give our readers some of your thoughts on the security situation in the country?

Salem:
The security situation in Iraq continues to have an impact on the inflow of investment, but I believe that the security of the country continues to improve. A clear signal that the situation has become stabilized will be the beginning of the withdrawal of U.S. and coalition troops. Transfer of power from American to Iraqi authorities is targeted for June 30, and we all hope this deadline can be met. However, the troops will not be withdrawn until the country is stable. As for private investment, a principal concern for the safety and security of a company's employees must take precedence.

Concerning human rights, I think the situation is much improved. Iraq was always a secular society in having a considerable degree of religious tolerance - for a variety of Christian denominations as well as Shiite and Sunni Muslims - and acceptance of the equal status of women with men, which included having women in leading academic, professional and governmental positions. With such a foundation, progress in the human rights arena has been more rapid than it would have been in a more traditional society.

Editor: Do you think Iraq can become an economic model for the Arab world?

Salem:
On the plus side, Iraq is a very old society with a strong secular component. There is a great deal of secular expertise available, although it has been neglected for 25 years. The infrastructure must be rebuilt from the ground up, however. For that to take place, the security situation must improve and then stabilize. That will permit an inflow of investment money and the development of a sound economy, together with the evolution of an open and responsive political regime.

Editor: Our media is filled with many negative things about Iraq at the moment. Can you tell us about some of the positive things that give you hope for the country's future?

Salem:
Iraq is a society that has produced a highly educated middle class that, at least historically, has enjoyed a high level of achievement. The standing of many Iraqi-Americans today - as doctors and lawyers, engineers and scientists, academics and intellectuals in all scientific and professional fields - testifies to this level of achievement. In addition, it is essentially a merchant society which - as with all Arab countries - has a strong entrepreneurial spirit. If that spirit is able to freely be manifest - and I certainly think we are headed in the right direction - then Iraq has a bright future.