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Saudi Arabia recruits one of the world’s most cited scientists, Spain’s Fernando Maestre

An expert on desertification who is highly critical of the Spanish scientific system, the ecologist recently won a $2.7 million European grant he’ll now have to delay or turn down entirely

Fernando Maestre
The ecologist Fernando Maestre, in his laboratory at the University of Alicante, in September 2023.Joaquín de Haro

One of the world’s most influential scientists, ecologist Fernando Maestre, will soon leave Spain for the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia, according to a report that has been confirmed by EL PAÍS. Maestre, who is currently a distinguished professor at the University of Alicante, is an international reference when it comes to the study of desertification, and just won a $2.7 million European grant whose receipt he’ll have to delay or turn down entirely.

The 48-year-old Maestre, who was born in Sax, in the Alicante province of Spain, thanked his alma mater for all the support it has provided him, but cited the Spanish scientific system as one of the reasons for his departure. “I can no longer work with the bureaucracy, the daily difficulties, the lack of stable staff, the constant need to seek funding and the absurd paperwork,” he says. The researcher has requested a five-year leave of absence from the University of Alicante to move with his family to the Arabian Peninsula.

Saudi Arabia founded the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in the middle of the desert in 2009, with an initial funding of roughly $22 billion. Its financial resources are immense. Maestre would not share details about his salary, only that it is “very competitive,” but he did calculate that he will have 15 times more funding for research than standard Spanish financing. In Alicante, the ecologist had a team of up to 20 people, but he was the only one with a stable contract. Maestre explains that a young researcher with a recently completed doctorate can earn $1,600 a month in Spain, but that in Saudi Arabia, they receive a tax-free $5,400 a month, plus one plane ticket every year and a free house on campus. Four people from his Alicante team will make the trip with Maestre to Thuwal.

“I am a desert ecologist. In terms of truly being able to study the desert, hyper-arid zones, this is a unique opportunity. I am aware that many will not understand, but, ultimately, it’s like time-travel. To use a rather crude simile, I’m going to see what Spain could be like in 50 years’ time. In Saudi Arabia, they are already facing very similar challenges to those we will have to face,” says Maestre, who won Spain’s National Research Award in 2002, awarded by the Ministry of Science.

The Saudi university — popularly known by its initials, KAUST — has hired reputable scientists from around the world. Among the standout Spanish professionals it has recruited are the chemist Jorge Gascón, who now heads up the university’s Catalysis Center; electronic engineer Mario Lanza, who is a microchips expert; and industrial technical engineer Érica Álvarez, who works in a nanomaterial laboratory. KAUST is the first mixed-gender campus in Saudi Arabia, despite criticism from fundamentalist groups. The school is an oasis in a country marked by serious human rights violations, and features on-campus teacher’s houses, stores, sports arenas, English-language schools for children and even its own beach. Women are allowed to wear short sleeves.

Opening of the Center for Climate Change at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia, in March 2023.
Opening of the Center for Climate Change at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia, in March 2023.KAUST

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, chairman of KAUST’s board of trustees, presented the university’s new strategy five months ago, which includes the priority of “transforming research into innovations with economic benefit.” The prince, accused by the United States of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, announced that the goal is “for the university to become a beacon of knowledge and a source of inspiration and innovation […] for the betterment of the Kingdom and the world.”

Oceanographer Carlos Duarte, who also won the National Research Award in Spain, was one of the first to accept an offer from the Saudi university. On Monday, Duarte celebrated the anniversary of his arrival in the Arabian Peninsula, sharing a picture of himself in traditional clothing, rifle in hand, on social media. “For 10 years, the land of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has immersed me in its generosity and beauty, so at the dawn of my 10th year I chose to immerse myself in its name. I am happy for you to call me Khaled Al-Andalusi,” posted Duarte.

The Saudi dictatorship has set a goal of having at least five of its universities ranked among the world’s top 200 by 2030. One of the paths towards moving up in the rankings is to have researchers on staff from the prestigious List of Highly Cited Scientists, drawn up each year by the multinational analytics company Clarivate. Some Arab institutions have employed the circumspect tactic of paying foreign scientists up to $75,000 every year to lie to the database and falsely declare their main place of work as a Saudi university. One in 10 highly cited Spanish experts — 11 out of a total of 112 — participate in this deception, as EL PAÍS revealed in April.

Fernando Maestre was one of the researchers who refused to participate in this kind of fraud, and publicly denounced it. Saudi universities that benefit from this farse included the King Abdulaziz, the King Saud, and Taif. KAUST’s strategy is different: it makes real hires of first-class scientists, offering them abundant resources, vanguard laboratories and salaries that would be unimaginable in other countries.

Maestre has already visited KAUST a few times in recent months. “They have created a university from nothing, yet in the image and likeness of the world’s best. They have world-class faculty. The research they are doing there is impressive. They have put the best people to work, with resources and without all the bureaucratic problems we have here on a day-to-day basis. It’s a system made for people to do their best, with freedom to do research,” he says.

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