“It's like a parallel universe,” says Eliezer Rabinovici, director of the Institute for Advanced Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, of the complex of buildings in the Jordanian desert near Amman. Rabinovici is a string theorist, so he knows a thing or two about parallel universes.

The Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (Sesame) project, modeled on the Cern particle physics lab in Switzerland, is a unique scientific collaboration in the middle of a politically fraught region. The nine members—Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, Palestine and Turkey—are not natural allies, indeed this is the only organization outside of the UN that can count both Israel and Iran as members.

The project to build Sesame has been running for around 15 years, and has weathered many political storms and changes of government. But it is still going strong. It is this durability, say those involved, that makes it such a powerful symbol of what is possible in the region when politics takes a back seat. Many other science collaborations are undertaken more out of necessity than choice, for example on seismology or water desalination, and are vulnerable to political whims. But even when relations between Israel and Turkey hit the rocks over the debacle of the Gaza flotilla earlier this year, Sesame was unaffected.

There is currently no synchrotron light source in the Middle East, although the need for one was first suggested 25 years ago by Pakistani Nobel laureate Abdus Salam. In 1997 it was suggested that Germany should donate components from the soon-to-be-decommissioned BESSY I facility in Berlin, and with backing from UNESCO Sesame was on its way.

Jordan won the right to host Sesame in a competition with Armenia, Cyprus, Palestine and Turkey, and provided the land as well as the money to construct the buildings to house the accelerator complex and associated infrastructure. Israel, which as the most scientifically advanced country in the region may have made a more natural home for such a project, decided against hosting, to make it more attractive for other Arab countries to join.

But the politics of the collaboration are not what drives the participants. In fact, politics are rarely discussed at council meetings. The focus is on the science, and ensuring it is of the highest quality. That, says Salman Salman, a professor of physics at Al Quds University in Jerusalem, is what will keep the project going long term.

So it was soon decided that the outdated BESSY I accelerator, while fine for training local scientists, was not good enough for the science that the Sesame partners wanted to do, and plans were made to upgrade the facility. The new plans now call for BESSY I to be upgraded to form the booster that will inject electrons into a new 133-meter, 2.5 GeV main storage ring.

The new plans mean Sesame will be a “third generation” synchrotron, able to hold it own against most other national light sources in the world. The only thing that will matter is the quality of the science. “With the right idea, you could win a Nobel prize,” says Chris Llewellyn Smith, a former director general of CERN and president of the Sesame Council.

And there will be no shortage of people trying to come up with those Nobel-worthy ideas. When the project began, the potential user community in the region numbered fewer than 100. Now, thanks to a generous programme of training grants from the International Atomic Energy Authority and other synchrotrons around the world, there are more than 300—around a third of whom are materials scientists.

But the timetable is starting to slip. Originally planned to be operational in 2014, funding difficulties are starting to cause delays. The problem is that the upgrade will cost around $35 million, on top of the $50 million that has already been provided by the participants and the European Union, including the donated equipment. Many of the countries taking part have tiny or almost non-existent science budgets—and they didn't expect to have to pay big capital costs when they signed up.

So far Jordan has offered an additional $10 million towards the upgrade, and Llewellyn Smith says he is hopeful that the other partners will be able to provide another $10 million. Then, he will begin seeking donations from others, such as the United States, the EU and big philanthropic foundations to cover the rest. If he can get the funds committed within the next few months, he is confident that the facility will be ready in 2015.

Scientific projects have a long history in international diplomacy. During the cold war, collaborations and conversations between scientists were at times the only avenue of dialogue between the US and Soviet Union. Sesame is by no means going to single-handedly solve the region's many intractable problems—the scientists who will work there are generally not the people who need to be convinced of the need for peace—but by providing an example of cooperation and collaboration, perhaps it can help expand Rabinovici's parallel universe beyond its own walls.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(10)70207-8