Saudis Hiring Top Names in American Research

The Kingdom continues to lure U.S. minds to its national projects.

Two wealthy new Saudi research institutions focused on the kingdom's energy future are on a hiring spree in the United States, luring away the president of Cal Tech and signing up advisors that include two influential energy market analysts, the CEO of one of Washington's biggest think tanks and even MIT professor Ernest Moniz, President Obama's nominee for energy secretary.

Moniz, a nuclear physicist, was named to the seven member board of trustees at King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center last fall, serving under board chairman Ali I. Al-Naimi, the Saudi oil minister. Speculation about Moniz's possible selection as energy secretary spurred a lobbying campaign directed at the White House by some environmental groups. They contend Moniz is too wedded to fossil fuels and object to his support for hydraulic fracking of shale gas.

Persian Gulf oil interests for the first time face declining demand for their product as the United States looks toward producing much more oil and natural gas, and continues to develop wind, solar and other renewables. The royal family has ramped spending to develop energy from water and the sun and ways to lengthen the life of Saudi oil resources. In a major coup for the Saudis last week, Caltech president Jean-Lou Chameau announced will resign to go lead a second new Saudi university, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, known as KAUST.

The Saudi state oil company, Aramco, built the high-tech KAUST campus and funds current operating costs; it has a support and development role at the Petroleum research center as well.

"The Saudis have a lot of money to buy talent now," said Gal Luft, director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, an energy security think tank. "Top people in the energy universe are moving to Saudi Arabia and working at the pleasure of the king. It's going to be a developing story."

Moniz's tie to the petroleum center, coupled with other high profile hires, points up the efforts of Gulf oil interests to stake out their future in the changing marketplace.

The Saudis have been spending billions to ramp up hard-science research capacity, and now, on energy policy and economics. Their two new institutions pursuing these agendas are turning to experts in the United States and elsewhere. Research at the petroleum center, focused on "energy economics, policy, technology and the environment," is led by leading energy analyst David Hobbs. The center's advisory board includes Daniel Yergin, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and dean of energy analysts in the United States, and John J. Hamre, former deputy defense secretary who is president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a foreign policy think tank with a $29 million annual budget. The center says it will have eighty researchers and support staff. Among its recent hires is a senior member of the new management team at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

The science university, KAUST, as it's known, opened its doors in 2009 with a $20 billion endowment from the king. It has hired top scientists from Europe, Asia and the United States with the goal of rapidly becoming one of the world's leading research institutes, with a focus on energy, water and environmental issues of particular interest to Saudi Arabia and the region. It also has lavished hundreds of millions of dollars in research grants on top American university scientists to examine water and energy issues of interest to the Saudis. Those scientists work both at their home universities and in newly outfitted labs built to mirror their own at KAUST.

Caltech is one of the have was named top research university in the world for the past two years by the British based Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Caltech has received KAUST research grants and the two universities are planning a joint center for petrochemical and polymer research. Chameau's hiring may settle recent complaints from some U.S. scientists who have left KAUST complaining of heavy-handed management by Aramco officials over the spending of research funds.

"KAUST is positioned to have a dramatic impact on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Middle East and the world. For that reason, it is more than a university. It is an undertaking of historic importance," said Chameau, a French-born civil engineer, in a statement about his decision to leave Caltech.

Susan Schmidt is a longtime Washington journalist and a visiting fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.