Update and Ras Abu Qamys Field Study

While this post will cover a reconnaissance field study, I’m going to start with some updates and observations.

There’s virtually no recycling here.  This is killing me.  Until you’re in a position where recycling pretty much doesn’t happen, you don’t realize how much you actually do recycle. Here, cans, bottles, paper, cardboard, newspaper, assorted plastics, and the like simply get thrown away. That means that I throw these away, and I feel that I’m violating the Earth. Here and there on campus one might see a recycling bin, but these are rare, and from my observation they are simply used as trash cans. There’s not a single recycling receptacle, from what I’ve been able to see, in the residential area of campus (and there’s certainly no curbside pickup of such). So, please do me a favor and do some extra recycling (and composting!) for me, to make up for my sins. Bless you.

The idiotic ban on laptops and tablets in carry-on luggage does not list my airport (DMM) as one of the chosen 10. For now. Two other airports in KSA are on the list (Riyadh and Jeddah). Who knows when/if DMM will be on the list. As for others on the list, I’ll be flying shortly to Doha, Qatar and I’ve already flown in and out of Dubai. I guess someone has some information (I hesitate to call it intelligence) that has triggered this, but I can’t seem to wrap my head around it.

I just rented my car for another month, and it feels like I’m simply throwing money down the drain. Last night, my squash partner tells me that the University provides short-term (3 month) loans to faculty. Well, no one has told me about this before. If it’s true, then I’ll get a short-term loan to pay for a car, and once my bank sees fit to give me a personal loan to buy a car, I’ll pay back the University loan. Or something like that.

Here’s a picture from a barbecue that I attended. That is definitely not a pig, because that is illegal in the Kingdom. It’s definitely just an ugly sheep. But holy crap that was some tasty ugly mutton.

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Definitely 100% an ugly roasted sheep.

Thought I’d comment on the cost of living here. In general, it’s pretty darn affordable if you’re paying attention and getting local advice. Specifically for me, it’s ridiculously affordable because my housing and maintenance is supplied free of charge. Food ranges from very inexpensive to very expensive, depending on the items. My preferred grocery store is called Tamimi Market, and it is affiliated with both Safeway and Costco, and even uses a stylized red “S” from Safeway as part of their logo. The affiliation means that there are some Safeway and Kirkland brand items available in the store (e.g., “Safeway Selects” tomato sauce and other canned and bottled name brands). The Tamimi I go to is more or less the closest public market to Aramco and therefore it has a bunch of items from the US and the UK to make the expats happy. So, on the expensive end of living expenses, a trip to Tamimi can really add up if one is a sucker for ‘merican comfort foods (well, except for pork and liquor…). Sometimes, I look at the price of an item (for example, Wheat Thins) and talk myself out of it, then say f*ck it and put it in my cart. At times, they’ll get a shipment from the US and there’s a whole array of new items I hadn’t seen before. I bought some cottage cheese from Wisconsin the other day, along with some “Select-a-Size” Bounty paper towels. So far, I’ve only gotten rolls with full-size sheets (who does that anymore, besides my brother?) that don’t exactly tear nicely along the perforations. Small victories. I do not, however, buy produce items imported from the US. Those are mighty ‘spensive. A US head of iceberg lettuce can be $6-8, but local iceberg for the same sized heads are about 10-20% of that. The only difference is that you have to thoroughly wash the local produce. Unless you like to eat sand. For most non-critical cooking items (milk, butter, eggs, rice, pasta, bread, spices, etc.), buying local brands is the way to go and prices are very economical and the quality is quite good.

As you might expect, or have heard, gasoline here is really cheap – about a quarter of the price of gas in the US. However, because of government austerity measures brought on by low oil prices, there has been much hand wringing because the price of gas at the pump essentially doubled recently. That was before I got here, though, so it still seems ridiculously cheap to me. Filling up my car here is about 40 Riyals; filling up my car in the US was about $40. The exchange rate is $1 equals 3.75 SAR (and constant – pegged to the dollar).

Next week is our spring break. I originally was going to go to AAPG in Houston, because it coincides with spring break here (I’m sure that will never happen again, though). I don’t want to spend too much time explaining this but, I won’t be attending AAPG – basically for tax reasons. Even though I’m living outside the US, the IRS still collects federal taxes. However, there is an exclusion if, during your first year abroad, you spend fewer than 35 days total in a year in the US (a year since my arrival). And that exclusion is significant. Essentially, I’m establishing residency outside the US by being away for 330 days, and the reward is that I’ll pay no federal tax on the first $102,500 of my salary. If you figure a tax rate for my bracket, you’ll recognize that there’s a strong incentive for me to be in the US for fewer than 35 days. Although I get 10 weeks off here (paid) in the summer, I can’t spend that whole time in the US (this will likely lead to future blog posts of my travels!). I’ll be back in the US for part of July and August, jumping around from Boulder to Connecticut to Oregon (at least that’s the plan now). Instead of AAPG next week, my first (brief) return to the US will be to see WSMFP at Red Rocks at the end of June. Of course. Hope to see a bunch of you then!

For my spring break, I’m going to spend three days in Qatar, seeing the sights in and around Doha. After that, I’ll spend a day or two in Bahrain. I’m flying to Doha by going in and out of Bahrain on Qatar Air – very short and pretty cheap flight.

And now the field trip…

The University is beginning to emphasize the benefits of undergraduate research and we pushed a group of our students to write a proposal for University funding for a field project. This first trip was essentially a recon trip to pick out some suitable field sites to study Holocene shoreline processes. We chose the Ras Abu Qamys peninsula, based on some prior visits by my colleague Khalid. It was necessary to get permission from the Saudi Coast Guard/Border Patrol – they pretty much have control over about 2/3 of the peninsula because of its proximity to Qatar. Here are some Google Earth images to show you where we were.

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Ras Abu Qamys peninsula (red star) is in KSA, but very close to Qatar. It was about a 4 1/2 hour drive from Dhahran.

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Zooming in on the Qatar peninsula with Ras Abu Qamys (RAQ) to the southeast.

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Very close proximity of Ras Abu Qamys and Qatar (only a couple hundred meters) along the northwest edge of the peninsula. That arm of Qatar has huge (estimated at 20-30 m high) white quartzose dunes.

The Coast Guard station and where we camped is on the eastern end of the peninsula (where the scalloped coastline is). We visited several sites around the eastern, northern, and western shoreline (accompanied by a couple of border control “guides”). We set up camp along a protected cove with a large arabic tent (cover photo) and a couple of outlying small tents (mine included). As the first afternoon turned into evening, the winds came up as storms approached from the northwest. Now, if there are 30 m high dunes nearby, you might imagine that the wind can blow. Like, really hard. And it did. While my tent didn’t ever collapse, the rain fly became a sail and bowed the whole tent over. So, I decided to remove the rain fly – well, this was a great idea – the screening allowed the wind to pass through the tent without buckling it. Then the lightning got pretty darn close and drops started whip by so, with my tail between my legs, I took my tent down. Shamal winds 1; REI 0.

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Khalid supervising raising of the tent. That’s the middle Miocene Dam Formation in the background. It’s skeletal, oolitic, peloidal grainstones and packstones that make up the backbone of the peninsula (as a very broad anticline). Not the subject of this study.

The scene inside the main tent was relatively calm and it had become clear earlier that the only place we’d be able to cook was actually inside, under the big top. The rains came and they came with a vengeance. For the most part, we remained dry and comfortable in the tent. Food was eaten and 8 out of 9 of us slept in the big tent (with one sleeping in the truck). There just may have been some scrambling to shore up the tent in the middle of the night, but I pretended to sleep through it and let the students engineer a solution that prevented complete tent collapse.

We spent the full day Friday visiting and describing field sites and taking samples for further study. We’re basically interested in lithification in the intertidal zone, where early cementation is turning recent sediments into rock. Without getting too sciencey, here are some photos of algal flats, tidal channel-marginal cementation, recent beachrock, etc.

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Pelletization by intertidal infauna (likely crabs).

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Black, pustular, intertidal cyanobacterial mats overlying a thin veneer of sediment over top of a 4-5 cm cemented zone.

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Grainy beachrock has incorporated coarse beach sediment (composition shown below). Small vehicle in front of yawning geophysics student is our border patrol escort. Huge dunes in the background are on the Qatari side of the narrow inlet (see map). Vehicles are parked on the Dam Formation.

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Sediment is nearly a monospecific assemblage of high-spired cerithid gastropods (and a few cute little mussels). The cerithids are highly salinity tolerant; we took a some water samples to measure salinity later, but these protected inlets and embayments have some of the highest salinities in the Gulf (I’m guessing close to 70‰).

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Coarse, grainy beachrock with abundant cerithids and large imbricated intraclasts.

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Typical polygonal fracturing of beachrock. However, in this case, the fractures have collected oil (the ropey looking black stuff near the hammer). The dead oil is from natural seeps and/or production/pipeline leaks.

With the forecast for more high winds and damaging storms (indeed there was hail and flooding) we decided to break camp and spend Friday night in a sort of hotel in nearby Salwa, at the very end of the inlet on the other side of the Qatar peninsula. Weather 1; KFUPM geology 0. All good though – most of the students had never camped before, and we made it through some challenging conditions. No use pushing our luck. So, one of the things you can do is to rent out a room in a coffee/tea house and watch TV. So we did that.

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Saturday, we started back toward Dhahran, with a couple of other coastal stops along the way (not part of the study, but interesting). When trying to get to one locality, the road stopped and we decided to go charging across the coastal dunes. Well, we didn’t get very far. My brand new (College) Land Cruiser and the Nissan Patrol did fine, but the big Silverado pick-up with most of the camping gear got stuck. Collectively, we figured out how to extricate the truck – not too different from driving in and getting stuck in snow. Good fun was had (another excellent team-building exercise), although I think we all had grit in our mouths for the rest of the day.

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Hitching up my Land Cruiser to the truck. We came prepared for this…

As we made our way back to Dhahran, we stopped at a historical site called Al Ogair. This port, now the home of another Coast Guard base, was once a bustling trade stop in the Gulf going back to at least a couple hundred years BCE, serving much of the Arabian peninsula with goods from outside Arabia. Muslim armies spread out from the port to Persia, India, and as far away as China. Traded were spices, tea, fabrics, foods, precious stones, and slaves. King Abdul Aziz al Saud signed the Al Ogair Protocol there with the British in 1922, establishing the framework for the borders of modern Saudi Arabia.

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With Khalid in the central courtyard. The buildings housed shops, store rooms, and offices.

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Location of the signing of the Al Ogair Protocol in 1922.

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Slave holding cells of Al Ogair.

Our final field stop was on a sandy spit nearly two kilometers long. Aragonite-cemented beachrock holds the exposed spit that was generated through longshore drift. Finally, upon arrival back to the Eastern Province cities, we stopped in Al Khobar for a well-deserved seafood feast before heading back to KFUPM.

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Beachrock on the narrow spit marking the end of Half Moon Bay.

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Choose the fish and they’ll cook it and serve it. Fresh from the Gulf!

The Emirates and Much More

School and Home

Busy times around school as we’re working our way through the first round of mid-term exams. Mas o menos, students are similar across the board. I gave my sophomores (Physical Geology) their first exam, and the class average was right about 79, with a couple in the 95 range and a couple walking to the next green with a double bogey. Just like other intro exams throughout my career.

I have an undergrad field trip coming up in a couple weeks. We’ve started an undergraduate research program in the Department, and the first research area is going to be a coastal and shallow-marine study southeast of here, on the Saudi part of the Qatar peninsula. Approval/clearance by the Coast Guard has been pushed through the proper channels. Looks like Khalid and I will be camping along the coast with about eight students, and we’ll be identifying a range of projects for the students to work on.

A few significant steps have been taken recently, not the least of which was finally getting wifi in my flat. I’ve been using an unlimited data plan and my iPhone as a personal hotspot to get some nice slow internet at home, but as of this week, I’m actually wifi connected by however that stuff works. So now, I have a TV with a sound bar, satellite TV connection, and wifi. I celebrated by watching a couple of Amazon prime episodes of the Grand Tour.

Another milestone has been reached, as I now am in possession of a KSA driving license. The paperwork included copies of my Iquama, passport, visas, a translated copy of my CO driver’s license, eye test, blood pressure test, and many rounds of signatures along the way. All those steps took more than a month. This morning, I met with “the license man” to usher me through the final process of obtaining the actual card. It seems he was hired by the University to navigate me through what is essentially the Saudi version of the DMV. We waited on line for quite some time, got to the window where a guy looked at my paperwork. Seeing that everything was in order, we were sent to another line to see a guy in a uniform (I’m guessing that it was a police uniform) who signed my papers with a flourish and sent us to another window. There, I received a flashing/buzzing disk (the kind you get at restaurants while you wait for your table) and was sent to wait in chairs. The hired license guy said, “khalas” (finished), shook my hand and took off. After only about another 15 minutes, my signaler flashed and buzzed and I went to wait with a few others who had flashing/buzzing thingies, and we traded them in for actual driving licenses. All in all, my time at the DMV was just about an hour and 15 minutes. I suppose DMV workers are disgruntled and inefficient all over the world, but this took less time than my usual trip to the Colorado DMV.

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Saudi DMV. The safety slogan is apparently the KSA version of a sick inside joke.

If it was permitted (i.e., legal), I would be working on perfecting a recipe for jail cell hooch. Something to do with fruit juice, sugar, and yeast – but since that would be illegal, I’m definitely not perfecting such a recipe.

I’ve been playing squash 2-3 times a week; twice a week with the Squash Academy guys where there a few very good players with whom I match pretty well. I also have a standing match on Sunday evenings with one of the Petroleum Engineering faculty; again, we’re pretty evenly matched. I got a new racquet and some court goggles through Amazon Prime. Yes, Prime works here, although you have to deal with admonishments that say “Sorry, Amazon does not deliver to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.” That includes not being able to get anything at all from the Prime Pantry. Say, for example, if one wanted to import champagne yeast (for science), one would be disappointed. Shipping charges also can be outrageous – I was all set to buy an electronic gizmo for $100, added it to my cart, went to check out and found that the item shipped to Dhahran, but the cheapest shipping charge was $150. Ummm, thanks for playing.

Car

In the setback category is my ongoing saga of trying to buy a car. When I opened my bank account here, given my salary, I was made a “platinum” member, and was told there would be no problem getting a car loan or personal loan. Of course that was going to have to wait until I money in said account. Well, as promised, I was paid at the end of February and it was direct deposited into my account. Yay! Feeling buoyed by having money in the bank, I went to the Khobar Audi dealership and picked out a car to buy (although it had to be trucked over from Jeddah). Wow, that happened really fast and I was really excited. The protocol is to pick out a car, get a quote from the seller, go to the bank and they give you money to cover the cost of the car (personal loan). Or, you work out a financing agreement for a car, similar to what one does in the US, and the bank holds the title until you pay off the financing. So, I head to the bank to talk with my guy. Three separate times, but that’s okay. Until the last time when he tells me that I’ll need to have received three paychecks before I can get the loan. Maybe early May then, for me to have a car. And even though I put a downpayment on “my” car, the fine print says they can sell it out from under me, and that I may or may not lose that downpayment. Right. One possibility is that one of my students seems to be quite well connected, knows a bank manager for the same bank at a different branch, and things may happen sooner than May. He said simply, “Here in Saudi, it’s all about who you know.” Maybe I can get rid of this rental car and be driving a new Audi in a couple weeks…inshallah!

Happy Hour

At the picnic a few weeks back, the hosts had invited not only KFUPM folks from our College, but also some people from the US Consulate.  I’ve been in the official US consular system, through state.gov, but this was a chance to get to know the folks who are actually working in the Consulate in Dhahran. If you take a look at the map of Dhahran, you’ll see that Aramco (picnic hosts), KFUPM, and the US Consulate are directly adjacent to one another. The Consulate hosts weekly get togethers, just about every Thursday from 5-7 PM. Some even call these get togethers a weekly happy hour. Recall that Thursday is the start of our weekend. Two weeks ago, I went to my first of these happy hours. You need to have a sponsor from the Consulate (I have my guy) who will put your name and passport information at the main consular gate. Upon arrival, I gave my passport at the gate, and I and other expats were then put in a van and driven to the clubhouse at the social center on the consular compound. There were 30-50 expats there having “tea”. I had two IPA-flavored teas. It was a nice social group, with a bunch of Aramco people in attendance. I’ll be back this week. Having some nice tea without having to make the drive to Bahrain, or flying elsewhere, is certainly convenient and welcome. In case you were worried that your tax dollars subsidize such high teas at the US Consulate, rest assured that they charge for the tea…

TL:DR

School’s good. Amazon Prime works. I have a driver’s license but no car. Yet. Thursday happy hour is a thing.

A Trip to the United Arab Emirates

Speaking of flying elsewhere, last weekend (starting Wednesday night) I took the hour-long flight from Dammam to Dubai, with plans to hang out with one of my great friends (former PhD student, Abdulrahman Al-Awar) and to head over to Abu Dhabi for a day to visit with former students and colleagues who are now faculty at the Petroleum Institute there.

Entry (immigration) into the UAE at the Dubai airport was a little slow, but a bunch of planes had just arrived. Otherwise, it was quite easy and only required an on-arrival visa, for which there was no charge. Okay. Abdul’s driver picked me up and took me to a nice hotel in Dubai Internet City, a relatively new part of the city that is home to internet/communications companies whose names you would recognize. After settling in, Abdul picked me up at the hotel and we went in search of dinner at the Dubai Palms. You’ve probably heard of this extravagant man-made archipelago of islands fanned out to look like a palm tree (picture below). Besides scores of high-end residences that populate the palm fronds, there’s an encircling ring with hotels and such, with the crown currently being Atlantis (the same group as Atlantis in the Bahamas). This monstrosity is quite popular and they’re currently constructing a twin on another part of the ring.

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Dubai Palms, with Atlantis at the back left.

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Dubai Atlantis Palms Resort.

We dined al fresco at the Sofitel Dubai Palms Resort, overlooking the Arabian Gulf,  and caught up on each other’s lives. My only other visit to the Emirates was in 2002, and Abdul hosted me for an evening in Dubai during that visit, so it had been almost 15 years since we’d last seen each other. I know some of you who read this blog remember Abdul – he did both his Master’s and PhD with me, starting in the mid-90’s.

Thursday, I went to the Petroleum Institute in Abu Dhabi. The Mines connection to the PI is strong, inasmuch as CSM was the sole institution contracted to bring this new university from ground zero until the point of ABET accreditation of certain programs in a ten-year period. I was involved in the earliest curriculum development for both the foundation year and the geology program. Several former Mines PhD students are now geology and petroleum engineering faculty at the PI, including my friends Drs. Mohammed Al Suwaidi (GE), Mohammad Al Kobaisi (PE), Waleed Al Ameri (PE), and Ali Al Sumaiti (PE). Of those, I only met with Dr. Al Suwaidi (this time). In addition, I met with others in Geosciences, including Dr. Aisha Al Suwaidi – she had worked in my lab at CSM while working on her MS at KU, and before heading to Oxford for her PhD. I toured their impressive new research laboratory building (one that we hope to emulate at KFUPM, having just broken ground on ours), and positively drooled over Aisha’s isotope lab. I had a great visit and planted the seeds for scientific collaboration down the road.

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Just one of Aisha’s two brand-new 253 Plus IRMS instruments.

After getting back to Dubai, I went out with Abdulrahman and his lovely wife, Nasreen. We went to a Belgian Beer garden (definitely not in KSA!) that overlooked the iconic Burj al Arab Jumeirah (lead photo), billed as the only 7-star hotel in the world.

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I’m a fan of the Leffe Brune.

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Abdul and I posing in front of the Burj al Arab hotel.

Friday, I spent the day sightseeing in Dubai, taking the metro from Internet City to downtown, which features the impressive Dubai Mall and the unrivaled (for now) tallest building in the world. The Burj Khalifa building stands 830 meters high and visitors can go to the 148th floor observation deck, at a height of 555 m. The building was completed in just under six years (!) at a cost of $1.5B USD. It opened in January of 2010. You know it’s high when you’re looking down on huge skyscrapers far below.

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Judge how ridiculously tall this is by the cranes atop the buildings at right.

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Gazing down from the 148th floor.

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The elevated metro line and station in downtown Dubai – clean, fast, and efficient.

The Dubai Mall is one of several huge shopping destinations in Dubai, and it’s connected to the metro and to the Burj Khalifa. It’s flanked also by a souk, constructed recently to look traditional over all, and housing many traditional shops. Within the mall are high-end stores, restaurants, hotels, cinemas, art and sculpture galleries, waterfalls, a skating rink, and an aquarium.

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Waterfall sculpture within the mall.

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Yes, that’s in the mall.

Friday night, Abdul, Nasreen, and I headed out to the countryside, about 40 km from the city, for a traditional dinner. The food (kind of a mixed grill thing) was superb, and there was live Arabic music and sheesha. Well, I didn’t participate in the sheesha because I came down with a respiratory bug that I’m pretty sure, inshallah, is not MERS… But annoying nonetheless. In all, a great evening despite my hacking and wheezing.

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Seen on a billboard on the way out of the city. SMH.

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My brother and his wife: Abdulrahman and Nasreen Al-Awar.

Before leaving the subject of Dubai, I’ll post one more picture. I can safely say that in the three days I was in the UAE, I saw more Lamborghinis than I had seen collectively in my entire life. Bentleys are also very popular and if you’re not paying attention you’ll miss the bright red Ferrari passing by. Dang, there are some nice cars in that town.

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A Lambo outside my hotel.

MEOS Conference

This has gotten long, but I really wanted to get caught up. Just back from Dubai, I spent one day at the Middle East Oil&Gas Show and Conference, known as MEOS. This is a SPE conference that’s really driven by Aramco. In order to ensure broad attendance, they hold the meeting in Bahrain, rather than in Saudi, for obvious reasons. The College had a booth in the exhibit hall and several of the faculty from geology, geophysics, and petroleum engineering were there manning the booth and giving presentations. We’re in an aggressive expansion mode, looking to hire faculty at all levels, and significantly increase the numbers of post-docs, PhD, and MSc students. As such, we had the biggest academic booth I’ve ever seen, let alone participate in. After driving over to Bahrain on Monday night (and having a club sandwich with bacon and a glass of chardonnay), I contributed to two presentations on Tuesday before heading back to KFUPM late in the afternoon. I talked with a lot of people, including yet another former student working for Aramco.

The KFUPM booth at MEOS, along with a number of my colleagues.

Finally, here’s a shot of the convention center (to the left) and some of downtown Manama, the capital city of Bahrain. And yes, the weather is really nice here this time of year. It’s 78°F in Dhahran right now – I’ll enjoy it while I can (before the blast furnace turns on).

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Bahrain convention center, located in Manama.