A Yemen-Born Graduate Shares His Story
Yemen's catastrophic situation has not been out of the news for long. Salah Al-Mufti, a graduate of St. Petersburg Mining University, said how the ongoing conflict impacted the Yemeni petroleum industry and where the future industry specialists are trained now.
The Yemeni Civil War began in 2014 between two factions: the government-supported and with Saudi Arabia behind Sunnis, and the Houthis supported by Iran. The rebels accused the authorities of corruption and religious-based discrimination and bristled against the US interference in state affairs. To sum it up, the reasons for confrontation - political, religious, historical - have become intertwined in a single lump.
Economists nonetheless claim that there is more to the conflict than the media present it. As per their words, it is not the inter-confessional clash that led to today's situation but an attempt of taking over oil extraction activities. The Republic of Yemen is not among the world's leading hydrocarbon producers. Still, it had a significant share of the global market: 500,000 barrels of oil had been produced daily before the start of the war, which lured many large enterprises into the country. Exports of raw materials then accounted for 70% of state budget revenues and around 90% of all foreign exchange earnings.
William Engdahl, an American describing himself as an economiс researcher, reports that unpublished US aerial and geophysical data suggest that potential oil reserves of Saudi Arabia-Yemen bordering areas may exceed those of Saudi Arabia itself. He claims to have got the information from an anonymous US official and notes that it is difficult to say whether the statement is actually true. Meanwhile, Engdahl points out that the area between the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea is one of the world's most tectonically active zones. Therefore the space in between is a likely location of vast hydrocarbon reserves. The American writer thus believes that the Yemeni conflict is linked to redistribution of strategic control over global energy.
"The current economic situation in the country can be described by one word - 'disaster'. The mining sector is also experiencing a crisis. Most foreign companies have left the country, likewise their investment flow. Total, a French petroleum company, DNO, a Norwegian oil & gas operator, and many more no longer operate in Yemen. Others, previously looking into opportunities for entering the domestic commodity market or launching new projects, have abandoned their plans. For instance, back in 2013, Gazprom's executives met with Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, President of Yemen, to talk about the prospects for cooperation in the oil and gas sector. The collaboration of Gazprom with Yemen LNG was discussed, among other things. Yet the war put an end to all arrangements. Oil extraction volumes decreased drastically. The oil & gas facilities and the fields are being bombarded regularly," says Salah Al-Mufti.
Sooner or later, the confrontation will be over, and the hydrocarbon sector will start recovering. This is when another problem will come into focus - non-existent higher educational system.
"To be a mining engineer in Yemen means to be a member of a privileged circle. But when it comes to skilled oil workers, foreigners prevailed over locals in the pre-war period. There are three universities graduating mining and oil & gas engineers. Still, due to a shortage of teachers, our higher educational institutions cannot admit many students. Consequently, local specialists do not suffice to develop the industry and service it properly. Here is why our government tries its best to provide youngsters with an opportunity to receive education abroad," explains Salah.
The Yemeni fellow was born in Ibb, a city in the southwest of the country, nearby the Mount Baʽdan. His parents were raising ten children, including Salah. And when the boy showed abilities in chemistry and mathematics, it became clear this was their son's chance to escape into the big wide world. A 15-year-old teenager moved out of his home city, rented an apartment, and entered a better school - all on his own. His parents had not mistaken: two years later, in 2009, Salah scored outstandingly high in the school finals. The Ministry of Education of Yemen granted to the best graduates a chance to study for free at universities abroad.
"I was offered to choose from universities of Malaysia, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and some other countries. I decided on Russia. First, I wanted to study oil & gas engineering. And Russia is one of the leaders of the global market which has accumulated vast experience, offers the highest quality education, and possesses modern technologies. Second, I got attracted by the country's rich culture and heritage: world-renowned military leaders, scientists, writers... I wanted to see everything with my own eyes and become a part of it, even for a time my studies would last. I entered St. Petersburg Mining University because it had always been known for high-quality engineering education. I realised it was true when I became its student myself. Guest lecturers from both Russia and Europe, research centres and laboratories, international conferences - Mining University provides a lot of opportunities. I underwent an internship at the American Hunt Oil Company, for which I returned back home for a month. Finally, the university was a place where I, for the first time ever, immersed myself into active social life," admits Salah.
The Mining University's graduate recalls that in his first year he was the only Yemeni national in the whole university. But only 4 to 5 years later, almost 40 of his fellow countrymen were studying in there. Salah accepted a position of the Head of the Committee on Foreigners at the Union of Arab Students of St. Petersburg. That way, he could help undergraduate applicants from the Gulf States with the paperwork required for entering Russia, as well as assist them in adapting to new realities.
"I wanted to become a PhD student and earn a science degree. Unfortunately, the Civil War, the conflict which does not seem to subside anytime soon, had already begun by then. Because of it, in 2016 the Ministry of Enlightenment of the Russian Education did not grant quotas to Master's students from Yemen. I could not pay for education myself, so I had to look into other options. Besides, I wanted to improve my English.
At last, I got a response from Aligarh Muslim University, a university in India which was ready to admit me into without undue effort. The university offers programmes in a variety of fields - starting from the Faculty of Arts and ending with the Faculty of Theology. Luckily for me, the Dean of the Faculty of Engineering & Technology became quite impressed with my degree from St. Petersburg Mining University," notes Salah.
A single problem, however, occurred. In Russia, the Yemeni graduate was studying first 'Development and Operation of Shelf Hydrocarbon Deposits' and then, as a Master's student, 'Operation of wells under Difficult Conditions'. These programmes are of high value to Yemenis since the skills acquired over the years of study will not go out of demand in Yemen for decades to come. But the Indian university, as it turned out, does not conduct research in this field, and instead specialises in minerals processing. As a compromise, Salah was offered to study alternative energy sources - in particular, hydrogen.
"Once I complete my PhD studies, I plan to return to my home country and seek the job of a university teacher. By doing so, I will make my contribution to the recovery and development of our economy's core sector. Knowledge of traditional energy sources, combined with studying renewables, will let me have a broader understanding of the country's prospects. I will be able to share my experiences with the Yemeni youth, analyse global trends. Today Yemen is entirely dependent on oil and gas, and I suppose in the short term the government will invest primarily in the development of hydrocarbon deposits.
Nevertheless, in the future, the fields will become depleted. Hence we will have to look for other solutions such as solar and wind energy or hydrogen fuel cells. It may turn out that my knowledge and experience will come in handy, for example, at the Ministry of Oil and Minerals of Yemen," argues Salah.
The PhD student hopes the Yemeni war will end shortly and, provided that happens, production and export volumes of hydrocarbons will be soon restored. Salah expects foreign enterprises, including those of Russia, to re-enter the country then. And hopefully, in five to six years, the mining industry will return to its former state. In that case, Yemen will finally switch from the extraction strategy to development strategy, which is, considering the mineral wealth of the region, long overdue.
None of this will happen, of course, unless the political situation stabilises. Yet so far, there is a long way to go.