Arab Space Programs Level Up

People in the Arab world have gazed at the stars with curiosity and genius for centuries. The first observatory was built in the 8th century by Abbasid Caliph Al-Ma’mun ibn al-Rashid in Baghdad, and the Middle East remained a source of brilliantly inventive scholarship and scientific learning in astronomy throughout Europe’s Dark Ages. Along the way, Muslim scholars developed algebra and spherical trigonometry, both essential mathematical tools for understanding the motions of heavenly bodies, and they made crucial revisions to Ptolemy’s foundational calculations on planetary movements. Small wonder that at least 210 of the most easily seen stars have names derived from Arabic and that 27 craters on the moon are named for early Muslim astronomers.

With the February 9 arrival in Mars orbit of the United Arab Emirates’ Hope (al-Amal) probe, Arab space exploration has embarked on a new and ambitious phase. Like the American and Soviet space programs of the last century, these activities are intended to deliver a trove of new scientific knowledge. At the same time, the development of the industrial and scientific base necessary to support space exploration delivers a payload of commercial applications and economic advantages. But there is more to it than that: in fact, Arab governments today have developed a fully 21st-century view of space, one rooted in the quest for profit, power, image, and control.

UAE Leading the Way

The United Arab Emirates’ program goes far beyond the Mars probe. The country established its national space agency in 2014 and has set wildly ambitious goals for the future. In addition to the Mars mission, plans are afoot for an unmanned lunar exploration in 2024 and—aspirationally at least—a human settlement on Mars by 2117.

The first Emirati astronaut, Hazza al-Mansouri, flew to the International Space Station aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in 2019, a feat of international cooperation that highlights the key to the success of the UAE space program: plugging into extensive global networks of government and institutional collaborators to facilitate the transfer of knowledge and technology in order to develop a domestic base of scientific expertise. The Amal probe, for example, was built with the assistance of the University of Colorado Boulder and launched by a Japanese H-IIA rocket from the Tanegashima Space Center. Abu Dhabi has purchased a 37.8-percent share of the Virgin Galactic space corporation, and it has signed MOUs on space cooperation with China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, India, and Japan as well as a weightier “Agreement to Collaborate” with NASA, the American National Aeronautics and Space Administration. In an effort to stake a claim to regional space leadership, the UAE formed the Arab Space Coordination Group in 2019, which includes Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon, Kuwait, and Morocco. Still in its nascent stages, the group has initially focused on joint satellite projects.

However large the UAE’s goals may be, funding is relatively modest so far; the UAE space program has about $5.4 billion in public-private support, compared to NASA’s FY21 budget of $23.3 billion. The Mars mission itself cost only about $200 million. But it appears certain that given the success and acclaim accorded the Amal probe, more is on the way.

The UAE may have the splashiest space program in the Middle East at the moment, but it is far from alone. At least eight other countries have mounted programs ranging from putting satellites into Earth’s orbit to planning for a lunar landing. These include Egypt, which has launched nine satellites and founded a national space agency in 2016; Bahrain, whose space agency (established in 2014) plans to boost a satellite to the International Space Station and from there into orbit by October 2021; and Oman, which aims to orbit its own satellite by 2024 and is working toward establishing a national space agency too. Qatar launched the Qatar Exoplanet Survey in 2010, utilizing telescopes in the United States, Spain, and China to help find planets outside our own solar system, a project that has already posted some discoveries; Doha also launched its first satellite in 2013. Turkey announced a ten-year space plan earlier this year, including a moon mission by 2023. Israel’s space program, operational since 1983, has focused on positioning high-resolution photography and communications satellites in orbit. Its attempts at space exploration have been less successful; a lunar lander launched by the private company SpaceIL crashed into the moon’s surface in 2019.

Among states of the Arab Gulf, the Saudi program is the only one that rivals that of the UAE in scope and ambition.

Among states of the Arab Gulf, the Saudi program is the only one that rivals that of the UAE in scope and ambition. Saudi Arabia’s space dreams have a long history; the country was the primary founder and underwriter of the Arab Satellite Communications Organization (Arabsat), founded in 1976. Since Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud became the first Arab and Muslim in space when he flew aboard the US space shuttle in 1985 as a payload specialist, during which he oversaw the deployment of Arabsat-1B, the kingdom’s space objectives have expanded exponentially. In 2018 Riyadh formed the Saudi Space Commission, and last year it announced a relatively modest $2.1 billion investment in its space program as part of the country’s Vision 2030 development plan. Both moves are intended to help establish Saudi Arabia’s credentials as a player in the global space industry, which by some estimates could generate more than $1 trillion annually by 2040. Saudi Arabia manufactures its own satellites at the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology; since 2000, it has placed some 16 of them in orbit. Like the UAE, Saudi Arabia relies on an ever-expanding technical cooperation network. It has established space technology relationships with the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University, and has signed a number of agreements in the field with the United States, China, Russia, France, Germany, and Kazakhstan. In a bid to advance its own leadership role in the field, Saudi Arabia hosted a meeting of G20 space agency leaders as part of its G20 presidency last year.

Domestic Concerns Driving Space Ambitions

Increasing Arab investment in space has undoubted scientific value, not only for potential contributions to knowledge of the solar system but for earthly needs as well. In fact, the major intent of these developing programs is domestic, not celestial. Satellites are providing new climatological data streams and land-use information to help Gulf states assess and manage climate risks, including pollution levels, greenhouse gas emissions, and dust conditions. Communications and navigation applications of existing and planned Arab-region satellite projects are well-established.

Beyond that, the investments in space programs now being made by wealthy Arab states are primarily aimed at growing their scientific-industrial base by jump-starting educational systems that have been lagging, particularly with respect to the evolving global knowledge economy.

The UAE’s program is notable in this regard, as it overtly links the space effort with the domestic goal of building educational capacity in science and engineering. The early focus is on leveraging interest in the country’s achievements in outer space to build both demand and capacity for a more robust STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) curriculum in grades K-12. While starting from a relatively low base—less than 5 percent of Emirati undergraduate students currently seek degrees in the basic sciences, and under 0.8 percent are pursuing doctorates—the UAE eventually aims to create a cadre of indigenous scientists and engineers to drive not only the space program, but technology-focused domestic projects as well.

The ultimate terrestrial goals of this and other space programs in the region are the diversification of national economies and the reduction of dependence on petroleum exports, aims reflected in Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 and similar national development plans in the Gulf.  The long-term decline in petroleum prices that began in 2014 is unlikely to reverse anytime soon; advancing domestic scientific and technological capacity is viewed as an important key to creating new industries and new jobs to absorb the ever-expanding number of youth entering the job market each year. Governments hope that, like the US Apollo project of the 1960s and 1970s, the technologies developed by the programs will spawn commercial applications and private sector development, creating jobs at home, stimulating domestic start-ups, and attracting foreign direct investment, all while promoting non-extractive export opportunities in technology and human capital that will help Gulf countries remain competitive in the changing global economy.

The long-term decline in petroleum prices that began in 2014 is unlikely to reverse anytime soon; advancing domestic scientific and technological capacity is viewed as an important key to creating new industries and new jobs.

The Dark Side of the Moon

But while Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Gulf countries are eager to point to the scientific and economic possibilities of their programs, other agendas are at work behind the scenes. In many ways, these are more important than the scientific ones—or at least more immediate.

For example, space programs of the Gulf states provide an opportunity to diversify their diplomatic relations just as they help diversify their economies. Building closer ties to the scientific establishments of leading global powers, especially Russia and China, helps build tighter bonds to political leaderships by advancing institutional cooperation and holding out the promise of lucrative government-to-government technology deals, and even closer security relations. To Gulf states, this is particularly important at a moment when the US commitment to its regional allies is seemingly not assured. In addition, Saudi and Emirati efforts to establish themselves as regional and even international conveners in the space field help burnish their credentials as global leaders.

Space programs serve the domestic interests of their governments as well. They are a useful element in authoritarian branding, the process through which autocratic states deflect domestic and international criticism of their human rights records and aggressive foreign policies by projecting an image of forward-looking modernity. Occasionally the strategy backfires, as when Sir Richard Branson, head of the Virgin Group Ltd., temporarily suspended a partnership with Saudi Arabia in 2018 and froze a proposed $1 billion investment in Virgin Galactic from the kingdom’s public investment fund due to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. By and large, however, such embarrassments are few and far between, and both governments and private corporations continue to welcome collaboration with states of the region in this field, even at the cost of ignoring or whitewashing their human rights abuses.

Unsurprisingly, space programs in the Middle East have a not-so-hidden military agenda, too. It has not been lost on the region’s other aspiring space powers that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) put a military satellite into orbit last April, its first after a series of launch failures. It is no coincidence that the UAE has purchased the Thales observation satellite, and that Saudi Arabia launched two satellites of its own with military observation capabilities in 2018 from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China, aboard a Chinese Long March 2D rocket.

Advanced military communications satellites were reportedly on offer to Saudi Arabia as part of a $110 billion arms deal concluded during former President Donald Trump’s visit to Riyadh in 2017. The technology packages are designed to provide early warning of ballistic missiles and countermeasure initiation capability. Deals such as these are the tip of the iceberg, as space technology purveyors such as France, the United Kingdom, Russia, and China seek to take advantage of the burgeoning space technology market in the Gulf. To be sure, these states’ enormous sovereign wealth funds are well-positioned to invest in this growing field both to support private business and to step in, where needed, to back up governments and their security interests.

The Middle East and the Emerging Domain of Warfare

The growing nexus of the Arab region’s economic, political, and military interest in space raises the question of where this may be headed in the course of the next decade. There are reasons to believe that while a genuine interest in space exploration and economic competitiveness will be a major factor driving the emerging Middle East space race, the same traditional rivalries that drive conflict and instability on the ground may eventually be transferred to the exosphere. As IRGC commander Gen. Hossein Salami noted after the successful launch of the group’s military satellite last April, “Today, the world’s powerful armies do not have a comprehensive defense plan without being in space, and achieving this superior technology that takes us into space and expands the realm of our abilities is a strategic achievement.” The Gulf Arab countries, in addition to Israel, no doubt share Gen. Salami’s views on the importance of space as an emerging domain of warfare; they can’t afford not to. This is one reason why states in the region have been so keen to develop their own space technology, much of which has clear dual-use capability (such as reconnaissance satellites) as well as their own ballistic missile forces.

There is no evidence at present that Arab states are also pursuing space-based offensive capabilities, loosely defined as either kinetic or non-kinetic systems that operate Earth-to-space or space-to space.

There is no evidence at present that Arab states are also pursuing space-based offensive capabilities (space-based weapons), loosely defined as either kinetic or non-kinetic systems that operate Earth-to-space or space-to space. This could change, however, if advances in the field (now largely the purview of the United States, China, and Russia) make the technology more accessible and available to regional rivals in the Middle East, if one or more parties seeks such capability unilaterally, and if existing treaties limiting the militarization of space remain static even as space-based weapons technology advances.

What the Future May Hold

The final frontier remains peaceful for now, and Arab space programs have begun to make significant contributions to human knowledge as their capabilities and ambitions become more sophisticated. The cynics, however, would do well to keep in mind this lesson of history: humans have traditionally done that which they are prepared to do, no matter how outrageous. Given the lengths to which states of the Middle East have gone to pursue their rivalries on Earth, it would not be surprising to see them play out, eventually, in outer space.

Charles Dunne is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about him and read his previous publications click here