With the launch of the exploratory probe, named Al-Amal (Hope), on July 20, 2020, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) inaugurated the first interplanetary mission undertaken by an Arab nation and is thus entering the very small circle of contenders for the exploration of Mars. The UAE does not intend to stop there, planning to not only launch a spacecraft to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter but also establish a human colony on the Red Planet by 2117 — the centenary of the start of its space exploration.
Long confined to the exclusive reserve of Moscow and Washington, the conquest of space took a singular turn in the years 2000 and 2010. More and more nations have started to develop their space programs for geostrategic and leadership purposes. The United Arab Emirates Space Agency, established in 2014, is part of this space craze and is differentiated by its rapid development due to its hefty allocation of financial resources.
The UAE’s space budget is very large and, according to Florence Sborowsky, a research fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Research, almost twice as large as that of Saudi Arabia, the second-largest country in the region. Although still far below the US budget, this investment represents an important budget for a space program that is less than ten years old.
Sborowsky described how space acts as a catalyst for national development in various sectors of Emirati society, from science to technology and education.
“Space development is to be understood as a strategy with multiple objectives that do not fall into the considerations of the Cold War between the US and USSR. It is a very pragmatic approach where space conquest is not an end in itself, but an instrument of transformation for the whole society.”
Space acts as a catalyst for national development in various sectors of Emirati society.
The Emirati space program is thus a matter of national pride and the starting point for a projection of power of the country’s technological capabilities and its hegemonic ambitions. In addition to diversifying its fossil fuel-dependent economy, the UAE’s space program aims to maximize the potential benefits of the use of space in a wide variety of sectors ranging from economics to politics, security, and the environment.
This rapid development, according to Sborowsky, is associated with their favorable position in the international scene, which has enabled them to create all kinds of cooperation according to their needs. “One of the first cooperation agreements signed after the creation of their space agency was with China. But they also dealt with the US, Russia, and more recently with France.”
This pragmatic approach was also seen when Emirati astronaut Hazza Al Mansouri, the first Arab to reach International Space Station, stated that he worked “with the Russians, with the Americans, with the Europeans in the ISS and we all have one common language: exploration and science. That was the thing that unites us and when we look out of the window from orbit, we see that the Earth is a globe with no borders.”
“When we look out of the window from orbit, we see that the Earth is a globe with no borders.”
The Emirati space program is therefore characterized by a system of cooperation with very strong national benefits and technology transfers enabling them to continue to develop their space missions. As such, the Hope probe was launched from the Tanegashima Space Centre in Japan, while the spacecraft was assembled in the United States at the University of Colorado Boulder, and the mission was closely assisted by the Indian Space Research Organisation.
Space cooperation has even taken on a pan-Arab dimension with the creation of the Arab Space Cooperation Group in 2019, which brings together 14 Arab nations and is chaired by the United Arab Emirates. Sborowsky has deciphered the UAE’s speeches as a combined message to the Arab and Muslim population.
“The UAE manage to combine symbolic and scientific success. The statements made by the UAE Secretary-General emphasize the Arab nation in the pan-Arab sense and the Muslim nation,” Sborowsky told Inside Arabia. “For example, in the context of the Hope mission, politicians and scientists succeeded in communicating that it was the fifth country to reach Mars after the United States, the Soviet Union, the European Space Agency and India, but above all that it was the first Arab country. They also succeeded in making it known that the atmosphere of Mars was going to be studied in an unprecedented way and that it was an Arab nation that was going to do it,” she added.
Therefore, it is not surprising that Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of the Emirate of Dubai, said that the mission represents an “accomplishment for every Arab, a source of pride for every Emirati, and a path-breaking achievement for our engineers.”
The same communication and strategy can be found with The Emirates Lunar Mission. Not only did the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre recently announce that the mission would be two years ahead of schedule with multiple partnerships, but the center also promoted the fact that it would be the first Arab nation to reach the Moon. At the same time, Sborowsky stressed the UAE’s willingness to present itself not only as a forerunner in the space field but also as one of its legislators.
“The UAE has been methodically structuring the space sector over the last decade.”
“The UAE has been methodically structuring the space sector over the last decade, and this has been seen in terms of institutions, in terms of policy, but also in terms of laws,” she said. “The latest space law of 2019 passed by the UAE joins those of Luxembourg, the USA, and Japan to license the exploitation of mineral resources in space. This type of measure creates potentially attractive conditions for their own start-ups and industries but also for foreign industries.”
Similarly, the UAE signed The Artemis Accords, which established a framework for cooperation in the civil exploration and peaceful use of the Moon, Mars, and other astronomical objects. While nothing seems to stop the UAE’s spectacular progress in developing its space program, Sborowsky questions the absence of ambitions regarding the development of an Emirati launcher that would give them independent access to space. Indeed, there is no guarantee that the geopolitical position currently enjoyed by the UAE will be maintained in the future so that it can continue to explore space, but the nation certainly has been getting a major head start.