Open, SESAME: the science project crossing Middle East divides

Sophie Cohen reports on a groundbreaking cross-border science project that aims to emulate Cern in bringing nations together despite their history 

July 29, 2016
Man working at Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME)
Open, SESAME: the synchrotron in Jordan features a multinational team of Iranians, Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Egyptians, Turks, Cypriots, Pakistanis and Bahrainis

In Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, “sesame” is the magic password that opens a cave full of gold. In the Middle East today that same word unlocks treasures of an altogether different kind: world-class science, as well as tolerance and engagement, two words that practically shed gold dust over the region.

SESAME (Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East) is the name of the region’s first synchrotron light source, one scheduled to be fully operational by the end of the year. 

Synchrotrons, in which bunches of electrons are circulated near the speed of light until they emit radiation, have gradually proven indispensable to the study of matter from atoms to biological cells, in everything from archaeology to medicine. Four Nobel Prizes in Chemistry have been awarded to research employing them. 

But perhaps the most groundbreaking experiment to take place within SESAME’s walls, located about 20 miles from Jordan's capital Amman, will be the interaction of the scientists themselves: Iranians, Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Egyptians, Turks, Cypriots, Pakistanis and Bahrainis – all nationalities of SESAME’s team.

The origins of the project lie in the ill-fated Oslo Peace Accords, a time of unprecedented hope for the Middle East when the late Sergio Fubini, one of the pioneers of string theory, and Eliezer Rabinovici, today an Israeli delegate to the SESAME Council and a vice-president of the Council of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern), decided that the time was ripe to explore Arab-Israeli scientific collaboration. Their venture, the Middle East Scientific Cooperation (MESC), slowly evolved into SESAME.

That collaboration received its first official support at a ceremony in the Sinai Peninsula in November 1995, just weeks after Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. While the official documents were being signed in the presence of several Nobel laureates and Middle Eastern dignitaries, an earthquake shook Mount Sinai. “It was a sign from above,” jokes Rabinovici.

Remarkably, the spectre of politics has only rarely reared its head throughout SESAME’s existence.

Early on, the question of how the Palestinian territories should be referred to within SESAME’s constitution proved a sore point for several months. The issue fleetingly resurfaced in 2011 when Unesco, under whose auspices SESAME was officially established in 2002, granted Palestine full membership.

But such episodes have seldom arisen, insist participants, who maintain that an implicit understanding places politics to one side. 

Herwig Schopper, a former director general of Cern who served as the president of SESAME’s council between 2004 and 2008, says it is a “miracle that the government representatives from Israel and Iran, but also of Turkey and Cyprus, have adopted good relations, sitting there and working together very well”.

Like many others drawn to the project, the idea that science could act as a bridge between the Middle East’s warring nations fascinated Schopper. “I thought it was a beautiful idea to repeat what has been done in Cern after the last world war, where Cern I think has contributed very much to bringing together European states,” he says.

Such a precedent resonates for many in the project, such as Egypt’s long-serving SESAME representative Tarek Hussein, professor of nuclear and high energy physics at Cairo University, who believes that science and technology “can stop the language of war among the states of the Middle East”.

“I haven’t met anybody in the scientific community who doesn’t think this is a wonderful project,” says Chris Llewellyn Smith, current president of the SESAME Council, a former director general of Cern, and currently director of energy research at the University of Oxford. He notes that the opportunity to build SESAME also likely prevented many of the young engineers working there from joining the region’s brain drain.

For Gihan Kamel, an Egyptian infra-red beam-line scientist based at the site since August, SESAME allowed her to stay in the region after years of study and research in Europe. As for regional tensions, says Kamel, these are simply ignored. “Basically, we are scientists, we are not politicians. We don't care about politics inside SESAME at all.”

From the beginning, SESAME’s founders understood that science – not politics – should form the nucleus of the project. And the membership of countries such as Iran – whose parliament in 2007 voted a remarkable 152 to six in favour of officially joining the project – is testament to the quality of SESAME’s research, claims Palestinian delegate Salman Salman, professor of high energy physics at Al-Quds University. “Without the science, they wouldn’t come,” asserts Salman. “We are breaking the walls without asking people to break them.”

The project has received political sanction at the highest levels, with King Abdullah of Jordan personally proposing a site to Schopper in 2000.

So far attempts to enlist other Arab states have not borne fruit. The political will on the part of governments there has been lacking, says Kamal Araj, vice-chairman of the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission and Jordan’s delegate to the SESAME Council. “We are trying very hard but they always use this pretext: Israel is a member.”

Araj remains upbeat, however, noting that individual Syrian and Lebanese scientists have expressed their interest in the project and that a lack of diplomatic ties with Israel have not undermined Iranian or Pakistani enthusiasm for the programme.

Only a lack of funding has impeded progress thus far. Despite support for SESAME in the US Congress, for example, the US has contributed just $500,000 (£380,000) towards the project – which supporters say is likely because of Iran’s membership or indeed SESAME’s association with Unesco, to which the US stopped funding after Palestine became a member. 

Meanwhile, sanctions against Tehran mean Iran now owes more than $7 million to the project. On one occasion at the beginning of the sanction period, Iran transferred its annual contribution fee – $500,000 – to a bank in Jordan, only for the bank to refuse the payment. Political turbulence in Cairo similarly means Egypt has not secured capital funding of $5 million. However, astonishingly, this appears to be the only damaging effect of the incredible upheaval in the Middle East in recent years.

If there is one thing that stands out among the scientists involved, it is their belief in SESAME as a beacon of light in a troubled region. 

“If you don't believe in it, I think then nothing will work,” says Kamel. “Because many people don’t believe in this place, and our job is to send a message to the world that this place exists – and we exist and we work together.” 

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Print headline: Science beats the ‘language of war’ in the Middle East

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