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As the most populous and commercially successful city in the United Arab Emirates, Dubai has built its success on attracting highly skilled professionals who live and work in the record-breaking skyscrapers that tower over the desert landscape.

One of those is J. K. Khalil, ’10, who has been president of the Chicago Booth Alumni Club of the UAE since 2014. He said that its membership is a mirror of Dubai’s social fabric, with members from the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and the United States. “It is a reflection of the Dubai potpourri of nationalities,” Khalil said.

The club provides its members with exposure to a breadth of organizations where Booth alumni work, including banks, investment houses, consulting firms, and technology companies, he said. “We are really ingrained in the largest multinational and local companies in the ecosystem. Whenever you engage with that network, you reap the most value.”

The Dubai Experts

Aejaz Danishmand, ’95, Founder and CEO, Global Strategies and Ventures Group FZE

Tarek Darwish, ’13, Principal, Strategy&

J. K. Khalil, ’10, General Manager, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain Cluster, Mastercard

Ekta Tolani, ’19 (EXP-24), Executive Director, Astrolabe Holding (AlSayer Family Office)

Tarek Darwish, ’13, has seen Dubai change in the six years that he has lived in the emirate. When he first arrived, he said it felt like a city in transition but is now a place that feels much more like a second home. “It is a very comfortable and accessible city to live in: if you want any particular service for everyday life, it just happens,” said Darwish, who is a principal at consulting firm Strategy&.

“The city has increasing options of outdoor spaces and diverse activities to cater to the preferences of families and individuals living here.”

Khalil, who has lived and worked in Dubai for 10 years, agreed, saying the emirate’s transport links make it an excellent regional hub. “It is hard to be disconnected,” said Khalil, who is general manager of the Saudi Arabia and Bahrain cluster at Mastercard. “In terms of airlines, it is connected to 160 destinations with several flights a day, so it is easy to do those back and forth journeys.”

Ekta Tolani, ’19 (EXP-24), executive director at Astrolabe Holding (AlSayer Family Office), who first arrived in Dubai in 2015, says the large number of expats makes it a diverse and dynamic center.

“It is a mixed crowd, so in terms of work culture, it is very vibrant and dynamic because you come across people from all walks of life and from all countries.”

Although she only graduated from Booth in 2019, Tolani has been a visitor to the club events since 2017, thanks to a meeting with a Booth alumnus who happened to be her boss’s boss and who inspired her to study at Booth.

“Alums are always willing to support you to whatever extent they can. ‘Once a Boothie, always a Boothie.’”

— Ekta Tolani

She is the outreach director for the club, which involves being a point of contact for alumni interested in joining up. “If people have questions, they can reach out to me anytime.”

For Aejaz Danishmand, ’95, founder and CEO at strategic and financial advisory firm Global Strategies & Ventures Group FZE, Dubai is supportive of businesses and entrepreneurs. “It is an emerging market, so you can live here and if you have a skill, you can be successful very quickly and establish yourself,” he said.

Danishmand, who has lived in the city for almost 13 years, has been to many of the club’s events, as he always wanted to remain in touch with the school since he graduated. He has helped out with a number of recruiting events for potential students, where alumni can share their experiences at Booth. “The school wanted some of the alums on the ground to mingle with the students, so I was happy to participate,” he said.

The club, which has seen its membership increase in the last five years, holds two or three mixer events a year for alumni and another three with other clubs of business schools such as INSEAD and Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management.

The events of which Khalil is most proud are the “Meat the Chair” dinners that include high-end cuisine including curated cuts of meat. Recent visiting guest speakers have included Idriss Al Rifai, ’10, CEO and cofounder of Dubai-based Fetchr, a business logistics company, and Mark Robinson, AB ’83, MBA ’84, former CEO of the UAE’s Commercial Bank International (CBI).

With space for 20 to 25 people, these are usually sell-out events. “It brings together people so ideas can be exchanged in a very intimate context among 25 people around the table. It makes for quite an interesting conversation,” said Khalil.

Tolani said this provides a community support network, particularly in the finance industry that is the hub for the region. “It is impossible not to be able to find an alum in a private equity firm, investment bank, investment management. Alums are always willing to support you to whatever extent they can. ‘Once a Boothie, always a Boothie.’”

Booth Selects

The Networking Breakfast/Brunch

“One of my favorite places is the Jumeirah Emirates Towers Hotel,” Danishmand said. “It’s a really professional setting and the food is good.” It also boasts a useful location for business meetings, as it is very close to the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC). “It’s the most important business tower in Dubai, so that makes it a very good spot,” he said. Darwish recommended La Serre, a French neighborhood bistro and café in the heart of downtown Dubai.

Colorful painted ceramics in a Dubai mall
Browsing the colorful wares at Dubai's malls is an ideal way to spend a free afternoon, Booth alumni suggested.

The Free Afternoon

There is a strong consensus among the alumni that Dubai’s malls are an ideal way to spend a free afternoon. Darwish, Tolani, and Danishmand recommended visitors go to the Dubai Mall outdoor area, which gives amazing views of the Burj Khalifa skyscraper and a place from which to watch the light and water show at the fountains. For a more historic feel, go to Old Souk Dubai, which features hundreds of small traders selling fabrics, clothes, footwear, and souvenirs. “People say the quality of gold there is better than anywhere else in the world, but you can also pick up traditional goods such as spices,” Tolani said.

The Classic Business Dinner

Tolani recommended Roberto’s, an Italian restaurant in the DIFC, which boasts floor-to-ceiling windows and captivating views of the Dubai skyline. “It has amazing music, amazing food, and a great ambience. It ticks all the boxes,” she said. Khalil favored another DIFC venue, La Petite Maison. It is a very small French restaurant based on the cuisine of France’s Cote d’Azur. “Because it is hard to get into, it means that there is always competition to be seen there and see who else is there.”

The Spot in the Shade

One of Khalil’s favorite spots to have a drink is the Jetty Lounge, a relaxing beachfront bar in the One&Only Royal Mirage hotel, with views of Dubai’s remarkable sunsets. “It is definitely one of the most chilled-out beach lounges, with a great vibe and almost Ibiza-like feet-in-the-sand style, and very relaxed,” he said. “It is quite hidden, so it’s not overcrowded. It is pretty cool most of the year.” Darwish likes Café Belge in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in the DIFC, which he describes as “casual but nice.”

A view of Dubai's Global Village, a tourism, leisure, shopping and entertainment destination
Tolani recommended visiting Global Village, a family-friendly attraction that brings together shopping, food, and replicas of landmarks from dozens of countries. It welcomed seven million visitors last year.

The Family-Friendly Activity

One of Tolani’s favorite places is Dubai Global Village, a multicultural festival park that has shopping and food outlets representing nearly 80 countries. Danishmand recommended the Atlantis Aquaventure Waterpark in the Atlantis, The Palm hotel, which also boasts an aquarium that, at 11 million liters of water, is one of the 10 largest indoor aquariums in the world.

The Day-Trip Getaway

For someone with the time to get out of Dubai, Darwish recommended a trip to Abu Dhabi, the neighboring emirate, which is less than 90 minutes away by road. There you can walk around the white marble masterpiece of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, which Darwish described as a “must-see.” You can also take in the two-year-old Louvre Abu Dhabi, which showcases work from multiple French museums as well as from around the world. For a more relaxed trip, go to the Saadiyat Beach, which boasts activities from beach yoga classes to eco-friendly water sports such as windsurfing and sailing.


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