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Cover story: Breaking the glass ceiling

by Indrajit Sen on Dec 7, 2017


Al-Olayan was chosen to be part of the MIT fellowship programme in 2015. She spent about 18 months  at MIT, both studying and teaching.
Al-Olayan was chosen to be part of the MIT fellowship programme in 2015. She spent about 18 months at MIT, both studying and teaching.

The upstream segment of the oil and gas industry, particularly in this region, faces a variety of challenges from factors such as geology, climate, and operational methods. While issues related to the exploration of fossil fuel reserves form half of the challenge, complex operational issues related to aspects such as drilling, reservoir stimulation, and enhanced oil recovery (EOR) make up the other half. Research is an integral part of any development process and is necessary for advancements to be made, especially for the oil and gas industry.

However, research is valuable only when the exercise does not lose sight of its purpose, and needs to be ‘a means to an end’, with a time-bound approach. “When you are working for the world’s largest oil company, you need to work towards making a business impact by deploying your research on the field, based on the success of your work,” Dr Abeer Al-Olayan, tells Oil & Gas Middle East during an exclusive interview in Abu Dhabi.

Al-Olayan is a petroleum scientist, part of the drilling technology team at Saudi Aramco’s Exploration and Petroleum Engineering Centre’s Advanced Research Center (EXPEC ARC). The institute conducts advanced technical research and development (R&D) to resolve the particular issues faced in upstream operations.

Being a female Saudi scientist is in itself an achievement, and Al-Olayan’s inspiring story is one of success attained through determination and perseverance – a fact that has won her several accolades and honours, including the title of ‘Oil & Gas Woman of the Year’ at the O&GME and R&PME Awards 2017. 

Born in the town of Al-Qassim in central Saudi Arabia, Al-Olayan has spent most of her life in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, and grew up in Al-Khafji, close to the border with Kuwait – home to a key oil and gas base in Saudi Arabia, where her father worked. Her family moved to Dammam in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm in 1990, and she has been based there ever since.

In 2011, impressed by her credentials and prospects, Saudi Aramco – on which she had been researching for her PhD degree, and whose officials she had been regularly interacting with at chemistry-related conferences and events – offered her a job.

“It was a difficult decision for me to leave academia (after having taught at Dammam University for 12 years) and join the oil and gas industry. It was a new world for me, where I had to learn a lot and start from scratch. But it was the best decision I have ever made and it helped me find, discover and develop myself, and see tangible results for my work. I started to see and learn how Aramco operates, how the oil industry works. I began to think how to be unique and how to contribute to Saudi Aramco’s development,” Al-Olayan says.

Six years ago, when she joined Aramco’s EXPEC ARC, she was the only female scientist with a PhD degree, as most of the professionals at the Center are petroleum or chemical or mechanical engineers. “There are very few females who worked in Aramco’s EXPEC ARC at that time, and (the ones that were there worked) mostly in the HR and admin departments, but were not involved in research work. If there were female professionals on the ground, they would be expatriates, so I was also the first Saudi female who took her technologies to the field. I started to see what I needed to do to make the organisation believe in me,” Al-Olayan recounts.

A passion for invention

Al-Olayan realised working at EXPEC ARC that most of the chemicals that are used by Saudi Aramco in operations were being sourced externally from services companies and others that were mainly based out of the kingdom. She, therefore, dedicated herself to understanding what the real challenges were, how those could be resolved, and how she could develop those chemicals for Aramco in Aramco’s facilities, by localising them and relying on Saudi companies.

Her ‘eureka’ moment came in 2013, when she was able to develop something valuable for Aramco. Speaking about the success she achieved in her very first project for Aramco, Al-Olayan delightedly narrates: “In 2013, I started working on a polymer that could resolve a major challenge for Saudi Aramco, which is the loss of circulation while drilling. This material was a simple one, but played a very big function, especially since the raw material for this chemical was available locally in the kingdom and it could replace many materials which we were importing. So, we import maybe hundreds of materials which don’t work effectively, and even if it were to be working effectively, it will be expensive. So the solution for the lost circulation while drilling I developed was less expensive, it was available locally, and most importantly it was 100% made in Saudi Arabia. This polymer product was recognised by Saudi Aramco, by the company assigning it a trade name.”

Al-Olayan fondly recalls an occasion where the Saudi Energy Minister His Excellency Khalid Al-Falih, at one of Aramco’s board meetings, asked if she had developed the polymer product all by herself, to which she said “yes”, leading the minister to respond by saying, “I am very proud of you!”


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