A geologist and a gentleman

by Gareth Smyth
Special to the Daily Star

Reproduced by permission of The Daily Star

"Almost any paper on the geology of the Middle East refers to his books. He constructed a framework of regional geology that others will be building upon for the next hundred years."

The tribute - from his AUB colleague, Chris Walley - is to Ziad Rafik Beydoun, who died on March 7 in Beirut.

Beydoun was the towering figure in the geology of the Middle East. But he was also an educator who loved teaching, and a key strategist and surveyor for leading oil companies.

Beydoun saw the big picture, remembers Walley, but he never lost the practical approach honed during 16 years in the deserts of Arabia and Yemen. "Many people today write more and more about less and less. Ziad looked at the broad sweep. Plus, he'd been there and seen it. He'd not just studied the rocks - he'd seen and felt them."

Born in Beirut in 1924, Beydoun grew up in Haifa, Palestine, before returning to Beirut to take a first-class degree at AUB in political science and history. He then studied geology to doctorate level at St Peter's College, Oxford, while at the same time launching a career as a geologist for leading oil companies.

After completing his Oxford undergraduate studies in 1948, Beydoun joined the Iraqi Petroleum Company and spent the next 15 years active in surface and subsurface geology across the Middle East - mainly in the deserts of Arabia and Yemen. He was on hand for the discovery of oil in Oman.

Working conditions in the desert were then very basic, with temperatures of 50C untempered by air-conditioning.

Beydoun earned his Oxford doctorate - awarded in 1961 for his thesis on the geology of Yemen - from his practical findings.

From then on, he moved effortlessly between academia and the worldly, often secretive, international oil business. In 1963 he returned to Lebanon, and combined the post of assistant professor at AUB with that of geology advisor to the ministry of national economy.

In 1966 he moved to London to take charge of Marathon Oil's Middle East and North African evaluation studies. When he returned to AUB in 1970 as professor of geology, he continued to advise Marathon, spending summers in its London office, frequently visiting its research centre in Colorado.

Beydoun had a huge output of published work, including six books and over 40 papers in international journals. His academic contacts spanned Kuwait, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United States, France, Egypt - while he held consultancies for oil companies including ARCO, Bow Valley, Aran and Hunt Oil. He participated in over 40 leading international and regional congresses, and was an editorial board member of the Journal of Petroleum Geology.

While he never craved recognition, he was delighted in 1994 to receive the William Smith medal from the Geological Society of London, the only Arab ever to do so. When awarded the Order of the Cedars in 1995, he joked it was good to receive it while he was still alive.

Beydoun will be remembered by those who knew him as a perfectionist who agonised over mistakes. In the signed copy of his 1988 book, The Middle East: Regional Geology and Petroleum Resources, that he gave to Chris Walley, he neatly corrected typographical errors with his pen.

"His knowledge was encyclopaedic," says Walley. "You could bring up any part of the region, and he would remember that someone had drilled down to 3,000 metres and what they'd found. Ziad was a fast, accurate writer who set the standard in the region for writing science in English."

When Beydoun began his career, there were whole ranges in the Middle East whose geology was unknown. The expansion of interest in oil came stimulated earth sciences, and Beydoun became the region's leading synthesiser and summariser. He worked the entire area from Aden to northern Syria, ironically with the one exception of Palestine, where he grew up.

But if he was the leader in his field, Beydoun was magnanimous in assessing others. "People would visit, do a season's field-work and come up with a re-interpretation," says Walley. "Ziad would assess it and beg to differ. But he was fair. Having carved his niche, he didn't kick other people out of it."

Ziad Beydoun had two disappointments in life. The first was that Lebanon remained the only country in the region with no overall national geological survey - a public resource available elsewhere for all who want to find oil, assess earthquake risk, or construct a new road or building.

His other frustration was the fate of Palestine. His branch of the Beydouns was originally from Beirut, but, as was common during the Ottoman period, the family had strong links to the south. His grandfather was a governor in Palestine, and the family had a mansion in Acca (Acre) which Ziad's father and uncles inherited. Ziad went to school in Haifa and Jerusalem.

The injustice of 1948 remained with Ziad and he was frustrated by events in the Middle East, especially the 1967 war, but his great love of Oxford helped overcome whatever bitterness he was entitled to hold towards the British for their role in the creation of Israel.

"He was very graceful to the British," notes Walley, "given that we'd given his country away."

Beydoun was international in outlook, humanitarian rather than nationalist, speaking English with an impeccable accent.

"He was a softly spoken, straightforward, honest man," says long-time friend, Nabeel Ashkar. "I was always impressed and touched by his gentlemanly behaviour," says Pierre Azoury, AUB professor of mechanical engineering.

Ziad Beydoun retained his courage and resilience in his final illness, says his widow, Muntaha Saghieh. "Despite pain and exhaustion, he continued to write and produce. At his hospital bed, he was surrounded by books and new articles."

Ziad met Muntaha, an archaeologist, in 1977. They married in 1983, and lived mainly in London between 1985 - when Ziad returned to Marathon as geological advisor - and 1993.

"It was a wonderful eight years, the best," Muntaha remembers. "We had a lovely flat in Cadogan Square between Chelsea and Knightsbridge." Beydoun - who played the violin, and had a huge collection of music - loved the arts, and living in London gave the couple the chance to attend concerts and the theatre.

But Ziad was often in the Middle East, especially for Marathon's geological survey of the Palmyra region in Syria or for conferences in the Gulf; he stopped off in Beirut whenever possible. His loyalty to AUB remained strong. When, in 1987, he became scientific director of World Bank/UNDP project on hydrocarbons in Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, he insisted that AUB be involved. Although he officially retired from AUB in 1990, he continued as an adjunct professor and in 1992 was made professor emeritus.

By then, hundreds of his former students were in key positions in government ministries and oil companies across the region. Beydoun loved teaching, and was generous to students with his time. "During the war years he virtually taught the whole geology degree course," says Chris Walley.

As well as more advanced courses, Beydoun taught a base-level, freshman course, The Earth and Human Affairs, remembered by hundreds of former AUB students from outside the geology department.

Before he met Muntaha, Ziad had already an interest in archaeology, which criss-crosses geology in building materials and geomorphology. Helga Seeden, an AUB archaeology professor, went on archaeology field trips with Beydoun in the 1960s. "I remember being with him near the desert castle of M'chatta in Jordan. Ziad was very proud of making tea with his volcano kettle, a geologist's kettle which can be lit in the desert with just a few twigs."

Beydoun moved into an apartment in Patriarcat in 1970, a home shared with Muntaha after their marriage. It is a tasteful oasis with beautiful prints and books as varied as Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Walid Khalidi's collection of photographs of Palestine, Before their Diaspora.

At the time of his death, Beydoun was planning to buy a house in Oxford. He had nearly completed a work which will be published posthumously by Saqi - a geological lexicon of Yemen, the result of efforts by an international commission that Beydoun chaired, to standardise terms.

Beydoun's books, studies and maps will go to the department of geology at AUB, although the Oxford department of earth sciences has asked that his maps be scanned for them too. Ziad Beydoun's achievements were greatest in his chosen field of geology, but his impact was wider. He inspired others and popularised his science without ever sacrificing his high standards.

"After all," noted Helga Seeden, "we stand on geology. Archaeology and all the rest are man-made extras."

The original of this article appeared in the Daily Star of April 22, 1998 and is at http://www.dailystar.com.lb/articles/April98/22_4_98/f.htm

Created by the Digital Documentation Center at AUB in collaboration with Al Mashriq of Høgskolen i Østfold, Norway.

980501 bl - Email: ddc-info@aub.edu.lb