Robert Vitalis joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania in July 1999 as associate professor of political science and director of the Middle East Center. He stepped down as Center director in July 2006. Penn promoted him to full professor in July 2008.

Vitalis received his Ph.D. in political science from MIT in 1989. His graduate work included a three-year residence in Cairo where he studied Arabic and researched the political strategies of Egyptian business firms. His first book, When Capitalists Collide: Business Conflict and the End of Empire in Egypt, was published in 1995.  The Organization of American Historians awarded him the Bernath Prize in 1996 for his work on Egypt's political economy.  

He has continued to develop and expand the scope of his interests in historical comparative analysis in his second book, America's Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier, which was published in October 2006 by Stanford University Press, and named a book of the year in the London Guardian

Recent honors include fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation (2003), the Woodrow Wilson International Center (2002), the International Center for Advanced Study, NYU (2002), and the American Council of Learned Societies (2002). He was a MacArthur Award nominee in 1998. 

His new book project, The End of Empire in American Political Science, moves away from the Middle East to explore the unwritten history of international relations, development, and area studies and to recover the African-American internationalist tradition. The second of his publications from this new project appeared under the title “Birth of a Discipline” in David Long and Brian Schmidt’s edited volume, Imperialism and Internationalism in the Discipline of International Relations, from SUNY Press in 2005. It is a companion piece to his “The Graceful and Liberal Gesture: Marking Racism Invisible in American International Relations,” in Millennium, published in September 2000.