Biaryls are ubiquitous core structures in drugs, agrochemicals and organic materials that have profoundly improved many aspects of our society. Although traditional cross-couplings have made practical the synthesis of many biaryls, C-H arylation represents a more attractive and cost-effective strategy for building these structural motifs. Furthermore, the ability to install biaryl units in complex molecules via late-stage C-H arylation would allow access to valuable structural diversity, novel chemical space and intellectual property in only one step. However, known C-H arylation protocols are not suitable for substrates decorated with polar and delicate functionalities, which are commonly found in molecules that possess biological activity. Here we introduce a class of ruthenium catalysts that display a unique efficacy towards late-stage arylation of heavily functionalized substrates. The design and development of this class of catalysts was enabled by a mechanistic breakthrough on the Ru(ii)-catalysed C-H arylation of N-chelating substrates with aryl (pseudo)halides, which has remained poorly understood for nearly two decades.