Lounging on a dark red and grey carpet in orange desert sands, my friends and I introduce ourselves to a group of three Emerati men. We have all come to a desert camp outside of the city of Dubai, a small open-air encampment in the sand where tourists like us come to go dune bashing in 4×4 cars, ride camels, watch belly dancers, and eat copious amounts of grilled meat. My friends and I, interns working at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia, are here for a long weekend in Dubai to explore more of the Arabian Peninsula, in which we as mostly American and German residents have had little previous experience. The men we meet ask us where we are from, and after listing our home countries, we add, “And now we are working in Saudi.”
A look of surprise, and then, “Oh, I’m sorry.”
This response is common when I explain where I was working and am now studying. When people meet me for the first time, they do not expect this half-Asian girl with an American accent to say that she is studying marine science in a country where it is illegal for her to drive to her field sites. I came to Saudi Arabia 2 years ago for an internship at KAUST, and have stayed on to pursue a graduate degree in marine science at this university on the Red Sea. People around the world point to prestigious American institutions and ask me why I didn’t stay in my home country to receive my education. Unfortunately, the resources and attractions of this country, especially for me as a scientist, are little known and often over-shaddowed by its infamously conservative policies.
Saudi Arabia is somewhat mysterious to outsiders (the country does not distribute tourist visas, so foreigners may only visit the country for religious pilgrimage, business, family, or study). This leads to a lot of uncertainty about what it means to live in the country, so naturally the people that I meet are fearful or confused about me being in Saudi Arabia. They have heard about the country’s extreme gender segregation, strict interpretations of Sharia law, and bans on things like pork and alcohol. Apart from that and the existence of miles and miles of inhospitable desert, most non-Saudis are aware of few other aspects of the country. The men in the Dubai desert camp, and many others that I meet around the world, feel sorry for me because they think that these restrictions are the extent of my life in Saudi Arabia.
There are, however, two people who do not feel sorry for me one bit. I call then Mom and Dad. Not only do they have no sympathy for my place in life, but they envy me and jokingly complain to their friends and colleagues that I am having too much fun over here on the Arabian Peninsula. And this is because their e-mail inboxes and messaging apps are being constantly bombarded by pictures like this:
The Red Sea has been an amazing place for me to be a young scientist. A combination of basin’s unique physical and oceanographic features and the vast, colorful coral reefs make the Red Sea a seemingly endless source of scientific inquiry. And for someone entering the field of research, it is a place with many baseline discoveries to be made. When compared to other parts of the ocean such as the Caribbean or the Great Barrier Reef, the countries with long coastlines on the Red Sea such as Egypt, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia have published little in the way of marine science research available to the international scientific community, an issue highlighted in a literature review by Berumen et al. 2013 (you can find the paper at https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00338-013-1055-8). Since much of the fundamental work on understanding how the Red Sea functions has yet to be done, scientists ranging from established professors to new students can find many opportunities to discover new things. So as a scientist, there is are a lot of unknowns in the Red Sea, and a lot of new things that we can discover just be taking the time to study this body of water.
Topics including coral taxonomy, fish larval distribution, and water circulation are all ripe for investigation, and are some of the questions being pursued at the Red Sea Research Center at KAUST. People at this university are constantly learning new things about the ecosystem, whether it’s discovering a new species of coral or figuring out why Red Sea corals can survive without bleaching in waters markedly higher that those of reefs around the world. KAUST is quite young (only 8 years old!), so I feel like I have a special opportunity to be among the new waves of research and understanding being supported by the university and the enthusiastic people who come here.
So now this is me:
I’m here studying the effects of offshore aquaculture on the water quality of the Red Sea, and I’m trying to see if fish farms off the coast of Saudi might cause eutrophication. I get to go out on boats every few months to sample water around fish farms in southern Saudi Arabia, and when a fellow student or researcher needs help, I get to dive down to coral reefs or stay up late in lab to help with the field and lab work of their projects. All the while, we (a mixture of Saudis and foreigners) are using the excellent facilities and support at KAUST to learn new things about a beautiful but previously under-studied part of the sea. The Red Sea is our laboratory, and we have unprecedented access to dive on its reefs, ride out on its waves, measure its properties, and study its creatures. And for our holidays, we can meet people who feel sorry for us, not knowing what our laboratory looks like.