On 25 July 2022, the UAE announced the selection of an Emirati astronaut, Sultan Al Neyadi, as the first Arab astronaut who will spend six months on the International Space Station. Al Neyadi will be part of the SpaceX Crew-6 mission scheduled to launch in the first half of 2023 from Kennedy Space Center in Florida in the United States, making the UAE the 11th country to participate in a long-term space mission. These efforts follow the UAE’s announcement last April that it had secured a six-month mission to the International Space Station for an Emirati astronaut after booking a seat on a SpaceX rocket from the private company, Axiom Space.
The UAE’s space program has made many major developments in recent years, including:
1. Expansion of the Astronaut Program: Since the announcement of the ‘UAE Astronaut Programme’ in 2017, both Sultan Al Neyadi and Hazza Al Mansoori have undergone major training exercises designed specifically to perform all types of missions, including long-term missions. The pair received training from the Yuri Gargarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Moscow, as well as in Houston, Texas, and Cologne, Germany, as part of partnership agreements with the major space agencies, namely NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). Moreover, Sultan Al Neyadi spent five years preparing for long-term human spaceflight, undergoing intensive training until he obtained an astronaut badge from NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
2. Establishment of a national fund to support the space sector: On 17 July 2022, the President of the UAE, His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, announced “the establishment of a national fund to support the space sector with a capital of AED 3 billion. In turn, the fund will contribute to supporting the establishment of national companies in the space sector, supporting new national strategic and research projects, and developing the space-technology capabilities of Emirati engineering cadres.”
Also on 17 July 2022, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, emphasized the importance of the fund, noting on Twitter: “Today the UAE launched the Space Fund with a capital of AED 3 billion, aimed at supporting the establishment of national companies in the space sector, supporting new national strategic and research projects, and developing the space-technology capabilities of our Emirati engineering cadres. Only with advanced sciences can we contribute to the course of human development.”
3. Announcement of plans to launch radar satellites: On 17 July 2022, the UAE revealed its plans to launch a group of radar satellites. According to official statements released by the Emirati government, the National Radar Satellite Project includes the first Arab radar-imaging satellite. The six-year program will provide continuous data from space around the clock in all weather conditions, using advanced technology to produce accurate imaging to less than one meter, and it will develop a “swarm” of commercial radar satellites to support economic and other vital sectors in the country.
4. Betting on the exploratory capacity of the Hope Probe: The Hope Probe is the first Arab-Emirati project to explore other planets, and its construction was supervised by a mission team that includes 200 Emirati engineers and 200 engineers and scientists in partner institutes in the United States. In this context, the success of last year’s Hope Probe mission to the uninhabited planet of Mars, which was launched from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center, has reinforced the UAE’s standing as the first Arab country, and the fifth country overall, to visit the Red Planet.
5. Major interest in the strategic and institutional dimensions: The UAE’s approach to the space sector involves a major interest in formulating integrated space strategies and forming national institutions aimed at achieving the country’s goals in the field of space. The UAE relies on a set of legal and strategic frameworks for space, similar to the National Space Policy issued in September 2016, which aims to “build a strong and sustainable Emirati space sector that supports and protects national interests and vital sectors and contributes to the diversification and growth of the country’s economy.”
In addition, in March of 2019, the UAE launched National Space Strategy 2030, to develop and coordinate the country’s projects in the space sector. In September of 2020, the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre launched a new space strategy for 2021-2031 that includes a number of pioneering projects, most notably the Emirates Lunar Mission that includes the development and launch of “Rashid,” the first Emirati lunar rover.
There is also an institutional dimension to the UAE’s space policies. For example, a decree was issued in 2006 to establish the Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology; in 2014, the UAE Space Agency, a public federal agency under the Council of Ministers, was created; and in 2015, the establishment of the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre was announced, under which the Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology was merged with the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre.
6. Supporting partnerships with other countries: Over the past years, the UAE has sought to promote partnerships with other countries, especially those that have advanced expertise in the realm of space. This was apparent, for example, in April of 2022, when the Emirati Mars Project’s Hope Probe signed a cooperation agreement to analyze scientific data with NASA’s MAVEN mission to explore Mars. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum commented on this agreement by saying that “scientific cooperation between the two countries in the field of space will bring knowledge to everyone.”
Likewise, the UAE has strengthened its cooperation with several other countries, like Japan, with the signing of a number of agreements and memoranda of understanding, such as the 2016 memorandum of cooperation between the UAE Space Agency and JAXA to strengthen the common space sector. Russia is also among the UAE’s important partners in this area; for example, in 2018, an agreement was signed between Russia and the UAE to send the first Emirati astronaut to the International Space Station aboard the Soyuz MS spacecraft.
Drivers of Interest
The UAE’s interest in astronomy and space science dates to the 1970’s, when the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan met with the NASA team responsible for the Apollo moon landing. This meeting spurred national interest in space, which has increased in recent years with the announcement of several space exploration programs and initiatives. In this framework, it can be said that the UAE’s space-sector policies are linked to several key drivers, such as:
1. Development of the communications sector: In one way or another, the UAE’s interest in space began with ambitions to develop the communications sector. Two companies were founded, Thuraya Communications and Yahsat Satellite Communications Company, which is a leading Emirati company in the operation and provision of satellite communications services to connect communities worldwide. Today, the company covers more than 80% of the earth’s population, providing them with key communications services, including the internet, satellite broadcasting, networking, and communications solutions, and the company also provides a wide range of solutions on the C, Ku, Ka, and L frequency bands for land, sea, and air platforms. The company is considered the preferred provider of satellite solutions for government agencies in the UAE.
2. Use of resources available in outer space: Many studies indicate the possibility of usable resources on celestial bodies and other planets, which the UAE could exploit to strengthen its capabilities. For example, studies have shown that water present on the surface of the moon could be used as fuel for rockets, which could reduce the cost of future missions to outer space.
3. Increasing the space sector’s contribution to the UAE’s economy: The UAE’s space policies reflect Abu Dhabi’s efforts to support its economy and increase the space sector’s contribution to the Emirati economy. Over the past years, the space sector has become a promising economic sector for many countries. Estimates indicate that the global space economy reached nearly USD 366 billion in 2019, and 95% of these revenues were linked to services and goods produced for the space-for-earth economy that includes, for example, telecommunications, internet infrastructure, earth observation capabilities, and national security satellites. Morgan Stanley predicts that global space industry revenues will total more than USD trillion by 2040.
4. Supporting the UAE’s global standing: The UAE’s interest in outer space is linked to efforts to support its global standing and position as an active country in the field, especially since outer space has become a tool to enhance the reputation and image of countries at the global level. As Robert C. Harding expressed it, countries “pursue active space policies in their belief that space is, in many respects, the ultimate measure of national strength, international prestige, and demonstrated national potential.” In Harding’s view, a successful space program with independent launch capability is an effective vehicle for the state, not only to achieve practical benefits, but also to enhance its national standing at home and abroad.
5. Strengthening the UAE’s human cadres: The UAE Space Agency identified six key initiatives to train the country’s human element, with the goal of strengthening the space sector with qualified national cadres capable of leading future space projects and missions, and ensuring the sustainability of the country’s space objectives in the next stage. Thus, a set of initiatives has been proposed for school and university students to encourage the submission of ideas and solutions that will be applied to Emirati space missions. These initiatives will help generate new ideas for building miniature satellites, like the Light-1, which was a result of the Emirati Satellite Challenge and will soon be added to the UAE’s suite of miniature satellites.
In this context, the ‘UAE Astronaut Programme’ was created, and it is considered one of the most inspiring programs for meeting the aspirations of young people with unique scientific abilities and personal skills. The program produced the first Emirati team of four astronauts: Hazza Al Mansouri, Sultan Al Neyadi, Mohammed Al Mulla, and Nora Al Matrooshi—the first female Arab astronaut. The group has been equipped to conduct specific missions in the future.
6. Attaining space self-sufficiency: The UAE is progressing in the field of space from a central vision of increasing its own capacity and reaching the stage of space self-sufficiency. After the existing future projects in the UAE space sector, the UAE will take serious steps towards building a rocket launch platform, or what specialists call “spaceports.” The UAE’s surroundings and strategic location provide optimal conditions for a spaceport, which will benefit the state socially and economically and create significant returns, as well as encourage the learning of new sciences and the creation of new jobs.
In sum, the UAE’s initiatives over the past years can promote its presence among leading countries in the space sector and help the country market its international reputation, especially with the ongoing development of strategies and objectives and the introduction of ambitious plans, like the Emirates missions to explore Venus and a belt of asteroids in 2028 and the moon in 2024, and a civil sciences project on Mars. This also confirms that interest in space involves economic gains for the country, especially since recent years have seen increasing overlap between space and many sectors and areas vital to the economy, such as communications, meteorology, remote sensing, and so forth, not to mention defense uses. These variables multiply the economic importance of the space sector.