Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

UAE Space Ambitions: Long-run Gains

The UAE has achieved significant financial gains in the past from the development of the satellite communications sector, and now seeks to achieve new strategic goals from ambitious Emirati space projects.

UAE Space Ambitions
UAE astronaut Sultan Al-Neyadi gives a press conference at the Museum of the Future in the Gulf emirate of Dubai, on February 2, 2023. Karim SAHIB / AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article was translated from Arabic.

On March 2, 2023, the Crew-6 mission crew embarked on a journey toward the International Space Station, aboard a rocket and capsule that blasted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. This mission holds significant importance for the Arab world, as one of the four participating astronauts, Emirati Sultan Al-Neyadi, underwent training through the “UAE Astronaut Program” before joining the flight.

Apart from Al-Neyadi, the team comprised a Russian astronaut and two other NASA astronauts, making it a transnational collaboration. However, the UAE’s involvement in this flight marked the first time an Arab country participated in a long-term space mission, making the flight exceptional and symbolic. Following this mission, the UAE will become the 11th nation to participate in such endeavor throughout history.

After safely arriving at the International Space Station, the Crew-6 mission crew began executing the program’s objectives, which span over approximately six months. Among the primary objectives is the implementation of 200 scientific and technological experiments, including biological experiments to study the growth of human cells in space, and chemical experiments to explore the control of combustible materials in microgravity. In this regard, the United Arab Emirates will contribute to a series of research and discoveries, leading to new missions to far-off planets.

This outstanding accomplishment for the UAE is the culmination of several plans and strategies developed over the past three decades to advance its space sector. The outcome of this endeavor extends beyond the country’s participation in scientific and research achievements, as it also yields financial, strategic, and political benefits that the UAE will leverage in the long run, aligning with its interests in the space sector.

The development of the UAE space sector

In 1997, the UAE began its journey toward developing a space sector with the establishment of the Thuraya Communications Company, specializing in satellite communications. The company’s services have progressively expanded to include satellite-based solutions benefiting a variety of sectors, including audiovisual, military, energy, internet, and communication. Today, two satellites owned by the company cover over two-thirds of the globe.

Approximately ten years following the establishment of Thuraya Mobile Satellite Communications Company, the Mubadala Development Company, Abu Dhabi’s investment arm, established the Al-Yah Satellite Communications Company, now known as Yahsat. Yahsat provides satellite communication services in the Middle East, Africa, and Central and Southwest Asia, much like Thuraya. The company now operates three satellites launched from France and Kazakhstan to facilitate its operations.

In 2006, the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center was established by the Dubai government, and since then, it has launched four satellites of varying sizes and purposes. One of the center’s most noteworthy satellites is the advanced KhalifaSat, entirely designed and manufactured by Emirati engineers. Unlike Thuraya and Al-Yah’s communication-centric satellites, the center’s projects have broader objectives, encompassing earth observation, research, imaging, sensing, and education.

The UAE currently operates 14 satellites, making it the second-largest operator in the Middle East and North Africa region. To regulate and develop this sector, the UAE Space Agency was established, serving as the official regulatory body with the authority to define work standards for companies operating within the field.

Significant economic gains in the field of satellite communications

Emirati companies have become formidable competitors on the global stage in satellite communications services due to their early entry into the sector. These companies now offer their services to public and private sectors across more than 140 countries. Additionally, they collaborate with the majority of foreign businesses in industries like aviation, shipping, media, and communications, offering satellite communication services in regions that account for 80% of the world’s population.

Furthermore, the UAE leveraged the development of the satellite communications sector to enhance its local communications infrastructure, which uses satellites to connect with the world. As a consequence, the UAE ranks third globally in internet speed, according to the Digital Quality of Life Index. In 2022, internet speed in the UAE was approximately 4.3 times faster than the global average and 1.4 times faster than the average speed in a developed country like Norway.

Between 2015 and 2020, commercial investments in the space communications sector reached AED10.9 billion, or nearly $3 billion. Meanwhile, the UAE government invested close to AED22 billion, or about $6 billion, as part of its long-term strategy to diversify the economy and reduce dependence on oil.

To further expand state investments in this field, the UAE launched the “National Space Fund” in 2022, with a capital of three billion dirhams (about 817 million US dollars). The fund aims to establish new national companies in the sector, increase revenues from satellite communications, finance research activities and space studies, and develop Emirati human cadres for future leadership in the sector.

Several initiatives are currently underway, including the development of a specialized academy to enhance the capabilities of satellite engineers, the establishment of a complex for space data and information, and the creation of an incubator for small companies working on projects funded by the National Space Fund.

UAE National Space Program

In April 2017, the UAE unveiled its ambitious plans for the space sector, far exceeding its previous investments in space communications. The UAE National Space Program was launched, setting a 100-year plan that aims to establish the first human settlement on Mars by 2117.

As part of this program, a special initiative was established to train Emirati astronauts, resulting in astronaut Sultan Al-Neyadi participating in the final flight towards the International Space Station. The first scientific city was established to simulate life on Mars, as well as specialized laboratories and facilities to simulate zero gravity. The Global Council for Space Settlement was also established to connect data, research, and activities of the most prominent experts and scientists in the field in cooperation with universities and research centers around the world.

Thanks to this program, the UAE has become an international player in crewed space flights, conducting scientific experiments and exploring space. Notably, the UAE was the first country in the Arab world to establish a center specialized in astronaut training, giving it a head start in participating in long-term crewed space flights.

The UAE’s astronaut training center continues to receive generous funding from the Information and Communication Technology Development Fund (ICTFund), which will enable it to train more Emirati astronauts for future extraterrestrial missions.

Strategic goals for ambitious new space projects

The UAE has achieved significant financial gains in the past from the development of the satellite communications sector, and now seeks to achieve new strategic goals from its ambitious space projects.

According to Morgan Stanley Corporation, the space sector’s revenues are expected to exceed $1 trillion in 2040, including space activities related to security, Earth observation, weather tracking, communications, the Internet, and others. Therefore, the UAE clearly aims to increase its share of these revenues through its space projects.

Moreover, the UAE aims to support its global position and enhance its image and reputation as a leading country in research that is beneficial to humanity. In turn, this will help to raise the state’s standing in the eyes of the international community, which will subsequently have an impact on world politics and foreign affairs. The hosting of the “Expo 2020 Dubai” events is also one example of how the UAE is positioning itself as a developed nation.

The UAE is additionally interested in investigating the potential for extracting economically valuable materials from space. The nation is likewise interested in expanding academic specializations in space study and exploration at Emirati universities and reaping the financial rewards that research, patents, and discoveries may generate.

Furthermore, the growth of the space sector will contribute to the development of other related sectors, such as the knowledge economy sector, and will also enhance the culture and capabilities of discovery and research locally. Reaching the stage of self-sufficiency in manufacturing satellites and other space equipment locally will create new job opportunities and revitalize companies that supply goods and services to the space sector, thereby further diversifying the UAE economy.

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