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A German Synchrotron Radiation Facility for the Middle East
Sameen Ahmed / Azher Majid

Abstract: In 1997, Germany gifted the BESSY-I synchrotron, fully functioning since 1982 in Berlin, to the region of Middle East. The Middle East Synchrotron known as SESAME (Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East) is based on the relocated BESSY-I. SESAME, the first synchrotron in the Middle East, is envisaged as a seed for an international research centre, open to scientists in the region and beyond. These developments are described briefly. The question of renaissance of science in the Islamic countries is also addressed.

On 6 January 2003, King Abdullah of Jordan laid the cornerstone for the Middle East’s first synchrotron known as SESAME: Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East, in presence of the UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura, members of the Jordanian government and international dignitaries including, Werner Burkart, Deputy Director General of IAEA. Synchrotron is an exceedingly powerful source of light (based on the technology of particle accelerators) similar to but much more powerful than the traditional X-rays. Eight Founding Members (Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, Palestine, and Turkey) have signed the statutes of SESAME, who will provide the annual operating budget. SESAME Project was born in 1997 when Germany decided to decommission the fully functioning 800MeV BESSY-I synchrotron worth 60 million US$ and gift it to the Middle East. MeV, a unit of energy is equal to one million electron volts. The SESAME Project is under the auspices of UNESCO in much the same way UNESCO assisted in the creation of European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN) about half-a-century back. CERN in Geneva enabled the creation of scientific commonwealth of the European countries that had fought each other during the two World Wars. Several non-Middle Eastern countries are supporting SESAME as Observers: Armenia, Cyprus, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, UK and USA. The other participating countries are: Greece, Kuwait Morocco, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. Libya has applied for participation. More countries are expected to join this new fount of science and medium of international cooperation.

BESSY-I was shipped to Jordan in June 2002, where it is being upgraded to over 2000MeV. SESAME is located in Allaan, about 30Km from the Capital Amman. SESAME is expected to promote science and foster international cooperation. Planned research programmes include, structural molecular biology, molecular environmental science, surface and interface science, micro-electromechanical devices, X-ray imaging, archaeological microanalysis, materials characterization, and medical applications. Annual operating costs will be about US$3.5 million. With the continued progress it is expected that the research programs will start in 2007.

The Middle East has joined the elite list of twenty-three countries with synchrotrons. But the path to this status is based on a German donation with financial assistance from several Western countries! The Muslim Ummah constitutes about one-fifth of mankind, larger in population than the USA, European Union and Japan combined. But the Muslim countries constitute a very small fraction of the global scientific resources. The entire Muslim world produces only 500 PhDs in all of sciences every year; in contrast, the UK alone produces 3,000. In 1999 the USA produced 1,600 PhDs in one subject of Physics alone. The Ummah have a very proud scientific past. From 0750 CE to 1100 CE, the Ummah had an absolute ascendancy in all the fields of knowledge then known, from Astronomy to Zoology. This period was marked by the presence of Centers of Advanced Studies (Baytu’l-H*ikmahs), where Muslims made numerous multi-disciplinary contributions to humanity and the Islamic civilization. The Europeans, then living in dark ages, flocked to these world-class centers in the Muslim lands to acquire knowledge. From 1100 CE, for 250 years, Arabs shared this ascendancy with the emerging Europe. From the 15th century we progressively lost out. This period of continuous decline paradoxically coincides with the great Empires of Islam: Uthmānī in Turkey; S*afvī in Iran; and Mughal in India. By about 1500 this decline was complete.

The picture of the scientific resources is grim but we can still catch up and once again lead in the sciences. The Europeans were successful as they gave high priority to science & technology. About 750 verses of the Holy Qur’ān (that is one-eighth of the total verses) exhort the believers to study nature to reflect, to make the best use of reason and to make the scientific enterprise an integral part of community’s life. Science is important because of the underlying understanding it provides of the world around us, of the immutable laws and of Allah’s design. Science is important because of the material benefits and the strength in defense, its discoveries can give us. Science can become a vehicle of co-operation for all Muslim countries. In the conditions of today, the honorable survival of a society depends very directly on its strength in Science & Technology. The present day rulers have to step forward and give the patronage overdue to science. In keeping with the successful experience of the developed countries, we must remember that there are no short cuts. In the conditions of today, a nation must impart hard scientific training to more than half of its manpower and build scientific institutions. Each country must allocate at least 1-2% of the GNP (gross national product) on research & development (R&D). Besides, they should spend over 5.0% on education. About half the countries in the Muslim World are meeting the expenditure norms on education. But for R&D, they are far below the international norms. Region-wise figures are in Table-A. These figures are for civilian allotment. The expenditure on the defence-oriented research is in addition to this. Most of the Muslim countries are spending much less than the international norms of about 5.0% of their GNP on health. We need to strive to create a Commonwealth of Science for Islamic Countries, and eventually a Political Commonwealth. Without these, the Muslim countries and their citizens will never be able to lead a normal existence full of dignity in the comity of nations.

Further Reading

1. Sameen Ahmed Khan, The World of Synchrotrons, Resonance, 6, No. 11, pp. 77-86 (November 2001), (Monthly Publication of the Indian Academy of Sciences (IAS)). E-Print arXiv: physics/0112086.

2. Sameen Ahmed Khan. ‘Synchrotron Radiation (in Asia)’. ATIP Report, 21 August 2002, 034, 28 pages (The Asian Technology Information Programme, Tokyo, Japan, 2002).

3. SESAME Website:


TABLE-A: Statistical Data for Regions 1996/1997





In R&D

(Per million Inhabitants)


   On R&D

(# Of GNP)

Africa (All)

Africa (Sub-Saharan)







Arab States (All)

Arab States in Africa

Arab States in Asia


















North America








South America








Source: State of Science and Technology in the World 1996-1997.

        UNESCO Institute of Statistics (2001)


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