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Wharton’s Dean Sees Dubai as Model of Success

Issac John / 11 March 2009

DUBAI — Dubai’s rapid development as a commercial and financial hub for the Middle East offers lessons for businesses and communities in the wider world, says the dean of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

The global recession has dealt Dubai a serious setback, but the emirate should be able to recover and regain its place on the economic fast track, Dean Thomas Robertson told the Khaleej Times.

“As a wonderfully ambitious model, Dubai, like Singapore, is a success story we can learn and take to the classrooms,” he said.

“Like all successful economies, Dubai too has its good times and bad times. But I am sure that this vibrant city will come out of the crisis in a better shape, along with the rest of the regional economies.” Robertson was speaking from his office in the US city of Philadelphia last week, before travelling to Dubai to participate in the Wharton Global Alumni Forum that begins here on Wednesday.

The two-day forum will bring together global and regional business leaders, government officials and Wharton alumni and faculty to discuss challenges confronting the Middle East amid the global financial turmoil. The forum, called “At the Crossroads for Global Economic Change,” is meeting in Dubai for the first time.

Participants are gathering here as the world seeks insights, innovation and leadership to help bring about a new level of prosperity worldwide, said Robertson, who has held the dean’s job at Wharton since 2007. He declined to forecast where the international economy might be heading.

“I don’t have an easy answer as to when the recovery begins. However, I believe, in two to three years, the global economy is expected to bound back,” he said.  “Arab countries are already a major force. Islamic finance will become more important in the coming years, and I believe Gulf countries are taking concerted action to tackle the crisis. I am optimistic for a quick regional recovery.” Robertson said businesses have greater responsibilities than simply keeping their shareholders happy. “Social responsibility has become integrated into our way of thinking in business education, and in the coming years [it] needs to be further developed,” he said.  

Social responsibility is no longer the concern only of the small percentage of students seeking work in the nonprofit sector, he added. 

“We want our students to be sensitive to corporate social responsibility  issues. We hope they take a broader view and think about how their business decisions can contribute to the overall social good. ... This is part of the original mission of our school.” 

The soft-spoken 66-year-old said the greatest challenge facing the world is inequality of income.

His biography on the Wharton website states his mission clearly: To champion Wharton as a force for good worldwide and create global economic and social value. Indeed, Robertson believes that business skills can contribute to the social good in poor countries more than anywhere else. 

“It’s in everyone’s interest ... because these countries become stronger trading partners and consumers. The key to their economy is sound management and new ideas, and very often that’s missing,” he said.

Many business schools focus their attention on advanced economies and a few developing markets such as Brazil, Russia, India and China. Robertson said he wants Wharton to focus on underdeveloped nations too.

The dean anticipates  that  this  week’s forum will be “a rewarding learning and networking opportunity with fellow alumni, faculty, and industry thought leaders.

Events such as the Global Alumni Forums enable us to bring the collective power of that leadership to bear on the most critical issues of our time. 



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