From dreams to beams: SESAME’s 30 year-long journey in science diplomacy

9 January 2023

Scientists in the Middle East broke ground for the SESAME light source in January 2003. Founder Eliezer Rabinovici describes the story behind this beacon for peaceful international collaboration, what its achievements have been, and what the future holds. 

The SESAME booster and storage ring

SESAME (Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East) is the Middle East’s first major international research centre. It is a regional third-generation synchrotron X-ray source situated in Allan, Jordan, which broke ground on 6 January 2003 and officially opened on 16 May 2017. The current members of SESAME are Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, Palestine and Turkey. Active current observers include, among others: the European Union, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, Kuwait, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK and the US. The common vision driving SESAME is the belief that human beings can work together for a cause that furthers the interests of their own nations and that of humanity as a whole. 

The story of SESAME started at CERN 30 years ago. One day in 1993, shortly after the signature of the Oslo Accords by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, the late Sergio Fubini, an outstanding scientist and a close friend and collaborator, approached me in the corridor of the CERN theory group. He told me that now was the time to test what he called “your idealism”, referring to future joint Arab–Israeli scientific projects. 

CERN is a very appropriate venue for the inception of such a project. It was built after World War II to help heal Europe and European science in particular. Abdus Salam, as far back as the 1950s, identified the light source as a tool that could help thrust what were then considered “third-world” countries directly to the forefront of scientific research. The very same Salam joined our efforts in 1993 as a member of the Middle Eastern Science Committee (MESC), founded by Sergio, myself and many others to forge meaningful scientific contacts in the region. By joining our scientific committee, Salam made public his belief in the value of Arab–Israeli scientific collaborations, something the Nobel laureate had expressed several times in private.

Participants of the SESAME users’ meeting

To focus our vision, that year I gave a talk on the status of Arab–Israeli collaborations at a meeting in Torino held on the occasion of Sergio’s 65th birthday. Afterwards we travelled to Cairo to meet Venice Gouda, the Egyptian minister for higher education, and other Egyptian officials. At that stage we were just self-appointed entrepreneurs. We were told that president Hosni Mubarak had made a decision to take politics out of scientific collaborations with Israel, so together we organized a high-quality scientific meeting in Dahab, in the Sinai desert. The meeting, held in a large Bedouin tent on 19-26 November 1995, brought together about 100 young and senior scientists from the region and beyond. It took place in the weeks after the murder of the Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, for whom, at the request of Venice Gouda, all of us stood for a moment of silence in respect. The silence echoes in my ears to this day. The first day of the meeting was attended by Jacob Ziv, president of the Israeli Academy of Sciences and Humanities, which had been supporting such efforts in general. It was thanks to the additional financial help of Miguel Virasoro, director-general of ICTP at the time, and also Daniele Amati, director of SISSA, that the meeting was held. All three decisions of support were made at watershed moments and on the spur of the moment. The meeting was followed by a very successful effort to identify concrete projects in which Arab–Israeli collaboration could be beneficial to both sides. 

But attempts to continue the project were blocked by a turn for the worse in the political situation. MESC decided to retreat to Torino, where, during a meeting in November 1996, there was a session devoted to studying the possibilities of cooperation via experimental activities in high-energy physics and light-source science. During that session, the late German scientist Gus Voss suggested (on behalf of himself and Hermann Winnick from SLAC) to bring the parts of a German light source situated in Berlin, called BESSY, which was about to be dismantled, to the Middle East. Former Director-General of CERN Herwig Schopper also attended the workshop. MESC had built sufficient trust among the parties to provide an appropriate infrastructure to turn such an idea into something concrete. 

Targeting excellent science 

A light source was very attractive thanks to the rich diversity of fields that can make use of such a facility, from biology through chemistry, physics and many more to archaeology and environmental sciences. Such a diversity would also allow the formation of a critical mass of real users in the region. The major drawback of the BESSY-based proposal was that there was no way a reconstructed dismantled “old” machine would be able to attract first-class scientists and science. 

Around that time, Fubini asked Schopper, who had a rich experience in managing complex experimental projects, to take a leadership position. The focus of possible collaborations was narrowed down to the construction of a large light source, and it was decided to use the German machine as a nucleus around which to build the administrative structure of the project. The non-relations among several of the members presented a serious challenge. At the suggestion of Schopper, following the example of the way CERN was assembled in the 1950s, the impasse was overcome by using the auspices of UNESCO to deposit the instruments for joining the project. The statutes of SESAME were to a large extent copied from those of CERN. A band of self-appointed entrepreneurs had evolved into a self-declared interim Council of SESAME, with Schopper as its president. The next major challenge was to choose a site.

SESAME beginnings

On 15 March 2000 I flew to Amman for a meeting on the subject. I met Khaled Toukan (the current director-general of SESAME) and, after studying a map sold at the hotel where we met, we discussed which site Israel would support. We also asked that a Palestinian be the director general. Due to various developments, none of which depended on Israel, this was not to happen. The decision on the site venue was taken at a meeting at CERN on 11 April 2000. Jordan, which had and has diplomatic relations with all the parties involved, was selected as the host state. BESSY was dismantled by Russian scientists, placed in boxes and shipped with assembly instructions to the Jordanian desert to be kept until the appropriate moment would arise. This was made possible thanks to a direct contribution by Koichiro Matsuura, director-general of UNESCO at the time, and to the efforts of Khaled Toukan who has served in several ministerial capacities in Jordan. 

With the administrative structure in place, it was time to address the engineering and scientific aspects of the project. Technical committees had designed a totally new machine, with BESSY serving as a boosting component. Many scientists in the region were introduced via workshops to the scientific possibilities that SESAME could offer. Scientific committees considered appropriate “day-one” beamlines, yet that day seemed very far in the future. Technical and scientific directors from abroad helped define the parameters of a new machine and identified appropriate beamlines to be constructed. Administrators and civil servants from the members started meeting regularly in the finance committee. Jordan began to build the facility to host the light source and made major additional financial contributions. 

Transformative agreements

At this stage it was time for the SESAME interim council to transform into a permanent body and in the process cut its umbilical cord from UNESCO. This transformation presented new hurdles because it was required of every member that wished to become a member of the permanent council that its head of state, or someone authorised by the head of state, sign an official document sent to UNESCO stating this wish. 

By 2008 the host building had been constructed. But it remained essentially empty. SESAME had received support from leading light-source labs all over the world – a spiritual source of strength to members to continue with the project. However, attempts to get significant funding failed time and again. It was agreed that the running costs of the project should be borne by the members, but the one-time large cost needed to construct a new machine was outside the budget parameters of most of the members, many of whom did not have a tradition of significant support for basic science. The European Union (EU) supported us in that stage only through its bilateral agreement with Jordan. In the end, several million Euros from those projects did find their way to SESAME, but the coffers of SESAME and its infrastructure remained skeletal.

Changing perceptions

In 2008 Herwig Schopper was succeeded by Chris Llewellyn Smith, another former Director-General of CERN, as president of the SESAME Council. His main challenge was to get the funding needed to construct a new light source and to remove from SESAME the perception that it was simply a reassembled old light source of little potential attraction to top scientists. In addition to searching for sources of significant financial support, there was an enormous amount of work still to be done in formulating detailed and realistic plans for the following years. A grinding systematic effort began to endow SESAME with the structure needed for a modern working accelerator, and to create associated information materials.

Llewellyn Smith, like his predecessor, also needed to deal with political issues. For the most part the meetings of the SESAME Council were totally devoid of politics. In fact, they felt to me like a parallel universe where administrators and scientists from the region get to work together in a common project, each bringing her or his own scars and prejudices and each willing to learn. That said, there were moments when politics did contaminate the spirit forming in SESAME. In some cases, this was isolated and removed from the agenda and in others a bitter taste remains. But these are just at the very margins of the main thrust of SESAME. 

Students, beamline scientists and magnets

The empty SESAME building started to be filled with radiation shields, giving the appearance of a full building. But the absence of the light-source itself created a void. The morale of the local staff was in steady decline, and it seemed to me that the project was in some danger. I decided to approach the ministry of finance in Israel. When I asked if Israel would make a voluntary contribution to SESAME of $5 million, I was not shown the door. Instead they requested to come and see SESAME, after which they discussed the proposal with Israel’s budget and planning committee and agreed to contribute the requested funds on the condition that others join them. 

Each member of the unlikely coalition – consisting of Iran, Israel, Jordan and Turkey – pledged an extra $5 million for the project in an agreement signed in Amman. Since then, Israel, Jordan and Turkey have stood up to their commitment, and Iran claims that it recognises its commitment but is obstructed by sanctions. The support from members encouraged the EU to dedicate $5 million to the project, in addition to the approximately $3 million directed earlier from a bilateral EU–Jordan agreement. In 2015 the INFN, under director Fernando Ferroni, gave almost $2 million. This made it possible to build a hostel, as offered by most light sources, which was named appropriately after Sergio Fubini. Many leading world labs, in a heartwarming expression of support, have donated equipment for future beam lines as well as fellowships for the training of young people.

Point of no return

With their help, SESAME crossed the point of no return. The undefined stuff dreams are made of turned into magnets and girdles made of real hard steel, which I was able to touch as they were being assembled at CERN. The pace of events had finally accelerated, and a star-studded inauguration including attendance by the king of Jordan took place on 16 May 2017. During the ceremony, amazingly, the political delegates of different member states listened to each other without leaving the room (as is the standard practice in other international organisations). Even more unique was that each member-state delegate taking the podium gave essentially the same speech: “We are trying here to achieve understanding via collaboration.”

At that moment the SESAME Council presidency passed from Chris Llewellyn Smith to a third former CERN Director-General, Rolf Heuer. The high-quality 2.5 GeV electron storage ring at the heart of SESAME started operation later that year, driving two X-ray beamlines: one dedicated to X-ray absorption fine structure/X-ray fluorescence (XAFS/XRF) spectroscopy, and another to infrared spectro-microscopy. A third powder-diffraction beamline is presently being added, while a soft X-ray beamline “HESEB” designed and constructed by five Helmholtz research centres is being commissioned. In 2023 the BEAmline for Tomography at SESAME (BEATS) will also be completed, with the construction and commissioning of a beamline for hard X-ray full-field tomography. 

The unique SESAME facility started operating with uncanny normality. Well over 100 proposals for experiments were submitted and refereed, and beam time was allocated to the chosen experiments. Data was gathered, analysed and the results were and are being published in first-rate journals. Given the richness of archaeological and cultural heritage in the region, SESAME’s beamlines offer a highly versatile tool for researchers, conservators and cultural-heritage specialists to work together on common projects. The first SESAME Cultural Heritage Day took place online on 16 February 2022 with more than 240 registrants in 39 countries (CERN Courier July/August 2022 p19). 

Powered by renewable energy

Thanks to the help of the EU, SESAME has also become the world’s first “green” light source, its energy entirely generated by solar power, which also has the bonus of stabilising the energy bill of the machine. There is, however, concern that the only component used from BESSY, the “Microtron” radio-frequency system, may eventually break down, thus endangering the operation of the whole machine. 

SESAME continues to operate on a shoe-string budget. The current approved 2022 budget is about $5.3 million, much smaller than that of any modern light source. I marvel at the ingenuity of the SESAME staff allowing the facility to operate, and am sad to sense indifference to the budget among many of the parties involved. The world’s media has been less indifferent: the BBC, The New York Times, Le Monde, The Washington Post, Brussels Libre, The Arab Weekly, as well as regional newspapers and TV stations, have all covered various aspects of SESAME. In 2019 the AAAS highlighted the significance of SESAME by awarding five of its founders (Chris Llewellyn Smith, Eliezer Rabinovici, Zehra Sayers, Herwig Schopper and Khaled Toukan) with its 2019 Award for Science Diplomacy. 

SESAME was inspired by CERN, yet it was a much more challenging task to construct. CERN was built after the Second World War was over, and it was clear who had won and who had lost. In the Middle East the conflicts are not over, and there are different narratives on who is winning and who is losing, as well as what win or lose means. For CERN it took less than 10 years to set up the original construct; for SESAME it took about 25 years. Thus, SESAME now should be thought of as CERN was in around 1960.

On a personal note, it brings immense happiness that for the first time ever, Israeli scientists have carried out high-quality research at a facility established on the soil of an Arab country, Jordan. Many in the region and beyond have taken their people to a place their governments most likely never dreamt of or planned to reach. It is impossible to give due credit to the many people without whom SESAME would not be the success it is today. 

The non-relations among several of the members presented a serious challenge

In many ways SESAME is a very special child of CERN, and often our children can teach us important lessons. As president of the CERN Council, I can say that the way in which the member states of SESAME conducted themselves during the decades of storms that affect our region serves as a benchmark for how to keep bridges for understanding under the most trying of circumstances. The SESAME spirit has so far been a lighthouse even to the CERN Council, in particular in light of the invasion of Ukraine (an associate member state of CERN) by the Russian Federation. Maintaining this attitude in a stormy political environment is very difficult. 

However SESAME’s story ends, we have proved that the people of the Middle East have within them the capability to work together for a common cause. Thus, the very process of building SESAME has become a beacon of hope to many in our region. The responsibility of SESAME in the next years is to match this achievement with high-quality scientific research, but it requires appropriate funding and help. SESAME is continuing very successfully with its mission to train hundreds of engineers and scientists in the region. Requests for beam time continue to rise, as do the number of publications in top journals. 

If one wants to embark on a scientific project to promote peaceful understanding, SESAME offers at least three important lessons: it should be one to which every country can contribute, learn and profit significantly from; its science should be of the highest quality; and it requires an unbounded optimism and an infinite amount of enthusiasm. My dream is that in the not-so-distant future, people will be able to point to a significant discovery and say “this happened at SESAME”.


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