‘As an Irishman, you can fit in to Saudi society up to a point’

Working Abroad Q&A: Enda O’Brien from Wicklow is a climate scientist in Jeddah

Enda O’Brien works as a climate scientist at the Center of Excellence in Climate Change Research at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He is originally from Bray in Co Wicklow, but spent 23 years living in Galway.

When did you leave Ireland?

I left for Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in March 2016 on a three and a half-year contract, which is nearly finished now. Fujitsu sold a supercomputer to King Abdulaziz University here to run climate simulations and I was included in the deal as a human accessory. I took the job because it gave me the chance to do climate research again instead of just computing, and the pay was excellent. My three daughters had grown up and didn’t need me around anymore. Still, having to spend nine months of the year away from my wife and family is a big drawback, and I go home every chance I get. For my family, my extended absences are like me being in the navy.

Where did you study?


After studying maths and maths physics in UCD, I was accepted at the University of Miami, Florida to do a PhD in meteorology. I ended up staying 13 years in the US. I moved back to Galway with my family in 1996 when I got a good job offer from DEC there. In 1996 he returned to Ireland to take up a job with the Digital Equipment Corp in their high-performance computing expertise centre (HPCEC).

You are now based in Jeddah. Tell us about your career in Saudi Arabia?

In practice, I am part of the climate research centre in the university. On my first day, three PhD students were waiting outside my door looking for help with their projects. I also taught climate modelling and atmospheric dynamics courses to university students and to trainees of the Saudi weather service. But my main mission, with Fujitsu colleagues, was to help develop an up-to-date climate model. We ended up building a user-friendly, comprehensive, versatile, and computationally efficient “earth system model” to simulate all relevant aspects of the Earth system.

You look at climate change. Is it an issue?

Climate change is certainly for real, and over the past century or so humans have been forcing the system unusually hard with their greenhouse gas emissions. Those emissions are a shock to the system that the climate hasn’t fully adjusted to yet, and the shock continues. Anyone who is sceptical of climate models or thermometer readings should take a look at phenology - the measurement of completely natural things such as the length of the growing season, the migration of birds, or the timing of the last rose of summer. Those kinds of measurements provide corroborating evidence for the reality of climate change that is completely independent of computer models.

Do we need to change?

The issue is a classic “tragedy of the commons”, so it really needs to be managed at national and international levels.

Have you faced any challenges?

The biggest challenge is dealing with the culture shock. Not being Muslim and not speaking Arabic is only a part of it. Saudi Arabia is not only different to Ireland, but the complete opposite in nearly every way. You just have to adapt. You are aware that you are in an absolute monarchy with tight government control of nearly every aspect of people’s lives. It’s not a good idea to suggest “the revolution” as a topic of conversation.

What is it like living in Jeddah?

Jeddah is a densely built-up city of about four million people. There is no public transport, but it has a Los Angeles-style road network. Driving here is genuinely scary: apart from all the signs being in Arabic, nobody stays in their lane (even if there is a lane), and the only real rule is “he who hesitates is lost” (and I do mean “he”). The heat is brutal.

There are plenty of malls and a wide diversity of restaurants, but sporting amenities are limited, and there are no cinemas or theatres, and of course, no pubs. There are mosques everywhere, but no churches or temples for non-Muslim religions. Living in Jeddah means adopting a semi-monastic lifestyle, so it helps to have a contemplative disposition.

Do the Irish fit in well there?

As an Irishman, you can fit in to Saudi society up to a point. All the Saudis (and other expats) I met have been unfailingly friendly, courteous, and welcoming. However, you are always conscious of being an outsider, and there are strict limits on what you are allowed to do.

What is it like living there in terms of cost?

The cost of living is very low; I rent a spacious one-bedroom furnished apartment for about €560 a month - including utilities. You can eat well for less than €10 a day. The bottom line is that most expats can send home the vast majority of what they earn here.

What advice would you give to someone interested in working there?

For anyone thinking of working in Saudi Arabia, your skills are badly needed here, you can have a big impact, and you should be well paid. For all its wealth, Saudi Arabia still lacks a lot of technical expertise, and has a genuine hunger for quality education (of both sexes). You will just need to be sensitive to the local culture, which you will probably find very restrictive, and you will need a lot of patience. While English is the language of science and business, Saudis will certainly appreciate any effort you make to learn and speak Arabic.

If you are a woman, what will life be like in Jeddah?

Women can at least drive here now, but they are still expected to wear an abaya (a loose ankle-length robe), if not a head-scarf or niqab (face-mask). Although men and women can work together, there is no social mixing of the sexes outside family life. Work opportunities for professional women here can be pretty good, but if I was a woman, my life here would be much more complicated.

Is there anything you miss about living and working in Ireland?

What I miss about Ireland is the company of my family (though Skype helps a bit), the experience of being cold, and a beer at the end of a hot day.