Immersion in the MENA Region Without Leaving Wharton

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The 2016 MENA Conference took place on Saturday April 9, 2016, a day when Philadelphia finally enjoyed a beautiful snowfall after an almost snowless winter. In some countries, snow on a special day like weddings or birthdays means good luck. This omen definitely materialized in the case of the 2016 MENA Conference – the highlight of Wharton’s initiatives focused on that region.

The event was co-chaired by Ahmed Fikri, Faisal Falaknaz, and Mohammad Al-Ali, who already made their mark in our community by organizing flagship events such as a trek to the 2016 World Government Summit in Dubai. I was also part of the conference organizing team along with my colleagues from the Wharton MBA and Undergraduate programs.

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The Conference brought together prominent practitioners, thought leaders, and entrepreneurs from the region. They discussed the latest developments and trends in such areas as energy, youth and employment, entrepreneurship, real estate, and healthcare. Participants were greeted by a diverse set of high-level keynote speakers, including His Excellency Omar Saif Ghobash, the UAE Ambassador to Russia, and Geoffrey Garrett, the Dean of the Wharton School.

The title of the Conference was “Emerging MENA: Resilience Amidst Uncertainty”. The MENA region in general and the Middle East in particular play a crucial role in the global geopolitical arena given their vast human and natural resources. Current economic and political turmoil in the region accompanied by the recent decline in oil prices has kept the international community in suspense with respect to the future. The 2016 Wharton MENA Conference provided an excellent opportunity to gain the latest insights and updates regarding the prospects for the region from those who are deeply involved in the local economic, political, and social systems.  

While panels and keynote speeches were dedicated to different areas, what united them all was the belief that the current instability and uncertainty has actually laid the ground for future positive transformation. Speakers agreed in their view that the crisis is forcing a reassessment of the region’s fundamentals, be it diversification in the economic dimension or reconciliation of ideas and ideologies in the social realm.  

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Participants also had an opportunity to interact in person with high profile keynote speakers, such as Ambassador Ghobash. The Ambassador met with students to discuss the most pressing economic, political, and social issues in the region and globally. His candid responses to students’ questions provided an alternative view point on the issues that sometimes receive one-dimensional coverage in the press.

During the real estate presentation, Karim Abdallah from Strategy& shared his belief that the current downturn in the sector presents lucrative opportunities in the long-term. His advice to real estate developers who are interested in the region was to leverage the down-cycle as it presents opportunities to secure quality assets at attractive prices. Mr. Abdallah also mentioned that the disruption of foreign investments in the region due to uncertainty contributed to the refocusing of the real estate industry from externally driven demand (e.g., hospitality and tourist properties) to the real domestic demand for middle-income residential offerings.

During the keynote healthcare panel, Madeline Bell, President and CEO of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Ralph Muller, CEO of the University of Pennsylvania Health System, and Dr. Shamsheer Vayalil, Founder and CEO of VPS Healthcare, shared their perspectives on how global partnerships are reshaping the healthcare industry. One of the common trends in the region is the emergence of the UAE as a medical tourism destination given the country’s great infrastructure, competitive hospitality and geographical proximity to countries with underdeveloped healthcare sectors.

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The conference was also joined by Pradeep Ramamurthy, Managing Director at the Abraaj Group, who gave a holistic view of the private equity industry during his keynote. One of the key lessons is that when a PE firm is evaluating an investment, it is important to look not only at the market and the industry, but to dig deeper into sub-industry dynamics. For examples, Saudis love hamburgers, while Egyptians love Middle Eastern food.

The 2016 Wharton MENA Conference provided a comprehensive overview of opportunities for young ambitious students from leading US universities, who plan to connect their careers to the region. Students who attended the conference hailed from various institutions, including Penn, Columbia, Duke, George Washington, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and Penn State. The Conference provided multiple networking opportunities with employers from the region who are interested in attracting top talent. During the lunch and learn session with Strategy&, students had an opportunity to learn about the specifics of the consulting industry in the Middle East. Joe Saddi, Partner at the Middle Eastern practice of Strategy&, discussed his firm’s involvement in projects critical to the region, the role of public-private partnerships, and his forecast of the future of the industry.

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Diverse and relevant topics, prominent speakers, and multiple networking opportunities made the 2016 Wharton MENA Conference a success that will be a standard setter for such events in the future. Thanks to the initiative and enthusiasm of our classmates who organized it we had an opportunity to be immersed in the MENA region without leaving Wharton. The snowfall on the day of the conference did prove to be a good omen.  

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