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The Spectacular Rise of the UAE Space Agency and the Challenges Ahead

An artist's depiction of UAE's Hope Mars Mission orbiting Mars. Image courtesy of the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre.
An artist’s depiction of UAE’s Hope Mars Mission orbiting Mars. Image courtesy of the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre.

Where does the UAE Space Agency go after the Hope Mars Mission is achieved after 2021? Building and sustaining success, and therefore public and political support, is a challenge for all space agencies. The solutions to this challenge, however, can only be found in the United Arab Emirates. ThorGroup’s Chairman and President Dr. John B. Sheldon explores the issues.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has quickly established itself as one of the leading space powers in West Asia, and has made an impressive showing across the international stage. Like many space faring nations, however, it will find it difficult to sustain the successes made so far into the future without overcoming significant policy challenges over the next few years.

Of all the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, the UAE has proven to be the most prepared and resilient in the face of persistent low oil prices and instability in its neighbourhood. The rulers of the UAE recognized years ago that an exclusively oil- dependent economy is unsustainable, and long before their GCC counterparts, took concrete action to start diversifying the economy, constituted large-scale educational reforms and the ‘Emeritization’ of most professional jobs in the country. Progress has been mixed, perhaps to be expected of such an ambitious reform programme, but the UAE has proven to be a remarkably resilient economy in recent years where others have been buffeted by instability.

One of the outcomes of these ambitious economic and social reforms in the UAE is the commitment by Abu Dhabi to establish the UAE as a regional hub for civil and commercial space activities. This has led to the creation of the UAE Space Agency (UAESA), headquartered in Abu Dhabi, and the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC – formerly the Emirates Institute for Advanced Science and Technology), located in Dubai.

The UAESA and the MBRSC are undertaking an ambitious project to indigenously build the Hope Mission to Mars, a spacecraft that will orbit Mars and study its climate and atmosphere. The aim is to launch the spacecraft in 2020 and have it arrive in Mars orbit in 2021 to mark the 50th anniversary of founding of the UAE. MBRSC is also building remote-sensing satellites such as KhalifaSat and DubaiSat with the aim of creating a fully autonomous and indigenous capability to design and manufacture satellites in the UAE.

The UAE is also playing a growing role in international space diplomacy by assuming prominent roles in the UN’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space as well as by hosting a range of formal events and conferences on international space law and policy.

In the realm of space commerce, satellite communications companies Thuraya and Yahsat are already based in the UAE, and the Abu Dhabi investment fund is a 38% stakeholder in Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. There is even talk of the UAE investing in space mining ventures, such as the United States (U.S.) based company Planetary Resources, following the lead of Luxembourg which recently announced a €200 million investment in the space mining sector.

On top of this, the UAE is also establishing itself as a significant national security space player in the region. The UAE Armed Forces have a communications hosted payload on- board Yahsat communications satellites, and two Falcon Eye high-resolution reconnaissance satellites are on order from France, with the first expected to be launched in 2018. In April of 2016, the UAESA signed a space situational awareness data sharing agreement with the U.S. Strategic Command, enhancing the ability of the UAE to track and control its satellites in orbit and establishing a formal link with the world’s largest and most powerful actor in national security space, the U.S.

Lastly, the UAESA has signed a large number of cooperation agreements with most of the world’s leading space powers such as France, Russia, China, India, Japan and the U.S. among others, that creates the framework for more focused and substantive cooperative space projects in the future.

All of these activities and achievements have taken place in only a matter of several years, and this in itself is impressive. Furthermore, anyone who has met officials, engineers, and scientists from both UAESA and the MBRSC are left in little doubt about their seriousness, professionalism, passion, and commitment. The UAE’s space ambitions are both impressive and plausible and are obviously respected by their international peers.

Yet a persistent question arises about the future purpose and direction of UAE space activities, beyond economic diversity and providing fulfilling careers to young Emiratis. Fortunately for the UAE, this is a question increasingly applicable to the space programmes of other countries, including the U.S.

While the question of purpose and direction in space programmes is hardly unique, the answer is inherently unique to local political and economic circumstances, and therefore hard to come by. The UAE has many ambitions in space, and is certainly not lacking in vision, but will sooner or later overextend itself unless it comes up with commonsense policies and other actions, and the ability to implement them that can nurture those ambitions.

The challenges UAE space ambitions face will be familiar to many space policy experts around the world, but can only be solved by those responsible for space policy in Abu Dhabi. These challenges include:

  1. Creating an interagency space policy process in Abu Dhabi: The UAE finds that space policy touches upon a range of other public policy issues which the space agency alone is not equipped to deal with. National security, trade, transportation, and energy; all interact with space policy in unpredictable ways, and in order to ensure comprehensive and adequate policy making capacity, most spacefaring countries establish a formal interagency policy process to produce a comprehensive space policy. As far as is known, the UAE does not have a formal interagency policy process to do this.
  2. Establishing a comprehensive technological and programmatic roadmap that sustains UAE space ambitions beyond 2021: The UAESA is working on this matter and has some time to finalise its future plans. This said, however, a technological and programmatic roadmap for UAE space activities will be needed sooner rather than later in order to allow adequate planning and budget preparation for the period beyond the Hope Mission to Mars project.

Failure to agree upon a comprehensive technological and programmatic roadmap in the next year or two threatens to undo all of the hard work done until now and dissipate resources, effort, public support, and political backing away from space activities.

  1. Establishing a commercial space ecosystem in the UAE: Long-term political and economic sustainability of UAE space activities will also depend upon the ability of political leaders in Abu Dhabi and Dubai to create the right conditions to encourage greater entrepreneurial participation in space commerce. If the UAE is serious about becoming a regional hub for space activities it will have to continue economic reforms and deregulation in order to incentivize and encourage entrepreneurs and investors to establish startups in the space sector, doing everything from satellite manufacturing to space services such as insurance and satellite applications.

Looking further into the future, the UAE should try to position itself as a regional space commerce powerhouse that can take full advantage of the trends starting to emerge in commercial space exploration and human spaceflight, as well as taking advantage of the UAE’s geographical position as a Eurasian and Indian Ocean crossroads between Asia, Europe, and Africa.

  1. Making international partnerships substantively work for UAE space: The UAESA does not lack partners in space cooperation, but does need to match these partnerships to its future priorities and a comprehensive technological and programmatic roadmap (as discussed above). The UAE is in a unique position in that it can pick and choose partners across a range of space activities since it is not as geopolitically constrained on the world stage as other space powers are.

The UAESA can cooperate with NASA on one programme, with China on another, and with India on yet another, should it choose to do so. These cooperative frameworks are likely to whither, however, without a long- term roadmap of what the UAESA should want to do in line with current wider economic and national security policies and interests.

The UAE has come a long way in space, and is more than likely to emerge as one of the leading space powers in West Asia over the long-term should it be able to address the challenges outlined above. Solving these issues is certainly within the UAE’s capacity, though will not be straightforward.

For UAE’s international partners, such as India, its long-term success not only as a regional space power, but also as an island of stability and positive geopolitical influence in a deeply troubled region of the world, depends on its friends as much as the policy and strategic acumen of policymakers in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Partners such as India are already looking for areas of mutual interest to cooperate in space with the UAE, but should look beyond low-hanging fruit when looking to engage with the UAESA. Looking to cooperate over the long-term would help the UAESA further define its priorities as well as create a valuable spacefaring partner for its friends around the world.

This essay was originally published in the Observer Research Foundation’s Space Alert, Volume IV, Issue 3, July 2016, pp. 2-4, and is republished here with permission of the editor of Space Alert, Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan.

Published at: http://spacewatchme.com/2016/07/spectacular-rise-uae-space-agency-challenges-ahead/

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