At a closed meeting in Qatar in 2013, a senior executive from one of the country’s leading hydrocarbons companies privately admitted that his firm had all but given up trying to achieve 50 per cent Qatarisation.

The firm would instead, he said, try to fill a more realistic quota of local talent at the top end of the spectrum, targeting only the brightest candidates with the best university qualifications in science, technology and engineering.

To attract the brightest and best graduates is not easy in most Gulf countries. Localisation policies mean these types of candidates are offered positions across a variety of sectors and unlike 50 years ago, there is a lot more on offer than a career in the oil and gas industry.

Great attraction

Luckily for the region’s hydrocarbons sector, today’s budding engineers or scientists are attracted by its ever-growing spending on research & development (R&D). Some world leading advances are being made on several fronts in the Gulf’s research centres and this is proving a great attraction for both universities and national oil companies (NOCs).

A geologist in today’s energy sector should be able to map sea beds using 3D software

It is no longer enough for a young engineer or scientist to know the laws that govern their respective discipline. Graduates now have to supplement the foundations with a wide array of skills and be completely comfortable using the latest information technology. The diverse range of computer software now available can do anything from designing an offshore platform to carrying out precise calculations of gas flow at a major shale formation.   

Saudi Arabia is the region’s largest oil economy and, unlike neighbouring Abu Dhabi and Qatar, has an almost overwhelming requirement to create more and more jobs for its young population. Riyadh is keen that as many of these jobs as possible are in skilled engineering and scientific subjects.

One of the mainstays of the kingdom’s education system over the past 50 years has been the King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals (KFUPM). Located close to state oil major Saudi Aramco’s headquarters at Dhahran in the Eastern Province, KFUPM was established by a royal decree in 1963 and 67 students enrolled for the first year. Today, 8,000 students enrol every year at seven separate colleges and can study traditional degrees such as geology, physics and mechanical engineering, as well as more diverse subjects such as architecture and computer engineering.

Offering students such a broad slate of courses reflects both the changing face of Saudi Arabia as well as the advancements made in the region’s oil and gas sector over the past five decades.

“The oil and gas sector is almost unrecognisable now to what it was back in the 1960s,” says Aramco’s former head of exploration and production, Sadad al-Husseini. “Many of the fields in Saudi Arabia are still producing, but the next phase of development, such as unconventional oil and gas, would have been almost impossible even two decades ago.”

A glance at the investigations being carried out at KFUPM reflects this change. Utilising nano-technology for reservoir analysis is an award-winning research programme being carried out alongside Aramco.

Other research initiatives include reservoir modelling using the latest 3D programme software that can not only accurately map the inside of the kingdom’s reservoirs, but can actually reproduce them using a 3D printer.

A geologist in today’s energy sector does not only need to have extensive knowledge of rock formations, but should also be able to map sea beds and other geological features using 3D software. The proliferation of 3D modelling in science, design and engineering has meant the region’s oil and gas industry now values candidates with experience in innovation and technology alongside more traditional skillsets such as leadership and risk management.

3D modelling

US software company Bentley Systems has seen its operations grow extensively in the Middle East in the past five years due to the increased use of its 3D modelling technology in the region. The Middle East now accounts for 10 per cent of Bentley Systems’ business and its Dubai office is doubling every year. The software offered by the firm and other similar providers such as the US’ Autodesk has revolutionised the sector and

Engineers now need the skills to use a 3D model that [can do more than just] accurately show an offshore platform

Alan Kiraly, Bentley Systems

“It is not just a case of saving money at the design phase of a new project,” says Alan Kiraly, senior vice-president, server products at Bentley Systems. “The operations side of this is going to grow even quicker. Engineers now need the skills to use a 3D model that not only can accurately show an offshore platform, but also tell someone what is on there and exactly what condition it is all in.”

All engineering design degree courses now offer training in the use of such software and all software providers offer training to engineers already working in the field.

Being able to apply these technologies in real time situations is going to be a prerequisite in years to come, and all of the region’s oil producers need to ensure their domestically trained workforces are able to adapt. The region’s NOCs have extensive training programmes that offer vocational training. This has involved ensuring every employee, not just graduates, is up-to-date and able to utilise the latest technologies. Operational breakthroughs include being able to use a computer tablet to configure a control panel, just by pointing the device at the display. 

Relevant training

“This technology is already out there, we don’t need to create it,” says Kiraly. “It just needs to be adapted to fit the asset and the operations personnel need to be trained to use it.”

While the Middle East has several universities that offer courses in engineering and science, there is a general consensus that not enough is being done to encourage students to tackle these more challenging subjects.

One senior oil and gas executive who came through the Aramco graduate scheme but now works in the private sector sums it up when he says: “When I was young, I basically had the choice of engineering or medicine. Now, there are many easier courses to choose and if you get a degree, you have companies lining up to offer you a deal.”

The situation has not gone unnoticed and several high-ranking officials from companies such as Aramco and Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (Sabic) now regularly call for a greater emphasis on science and mathematics in the education systems when speaking at conferences. Many would also like to see greater incentives given for young people to study subjects that best suit the knowledge-based economies that the Middle East’s major oil producers are trying to build.

“Young Saudis need to be pushed much harder than they are today,” says the former Aramco executive. “Now they can go and study easier subjects in the US or Europe and it is all paid for. Why bother studying chemical engineering when you can take an easier option and be paid a similar salary?”

What is encouraging is that none of the local centres of excellence have watered down their entry criteria for any of their programmes. They require similar educational standards as any other world-class academic institution. Universities in the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia all require high marks from potential students, as well as a high standard of English for many of the courses on offer.

It is likely the future wave of technological breakthroughs will in some part have been made in the Middle East. This needs to be built upon so that the brightest and best young minds in the region will be attracted to what is still the most dynamic and cutting-edge sector in the region.

3D modelling opens new opportunities for oil firms

The use of technology and our ability to recreate almost anything means the lines between the real and digital world are becoming ever more blurred.

Digital reality is now being used across several sectors and has two key components. First comes the ‘reality capture’, where scanners, lasers and other data capture techniques are used to accurately map an object or area. This data is then used to create a 3D project model and there is the capability to even print this out using a 3D printer.

Until now, the 3D modelling and computer imagery sector was perhaps best known for its work in bringing computer games and Hollywood films to life in the form of ever-more realistic special effects. This use of computer graphic imaging is extremely commonplace, but the software has now also been developed and refined for industrial purposes.

In upstream oil and gas, the use of 3D modelling has been an essential tool in accurately mapping out the geological formations that hold the world’s hydrocarbons reserves. The technology is helping oil producers best maximise the yield from fields by targeting the areas that would benefit most from enhanced oil recovery techniques.

The financial rewards of utilising every tool available to get greater yields from oil fields are obvious. US oil field services provider Schlumberger conducted a study of US oil fields and stated that 89 billion barrels, a decade of US consumption, could be produced from existing fields if enhanced oil recovery techniques became available that would allow access to the resource.

In numbers

67 Students intake in 1963 at Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals

8,000 Annual intake of students at Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals

Source: MEED