Why You Need to Pay Attention to the Middle East Space Sector

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The celestial heavens have captured the human imagination since the dawn of time. From ancient gods and legends to science fiction today, venturing beyond the Earth’s atmosphere has remained a common goal across the world.

The Middle East led the world in our understanding of space in the past and today it’s making strides that suggest it could become a powerhouse again in the future.

Five decades ago, we held our breath as Yuri Gagarin left the Earth’s atmosphere for the first time, hoping beyond all hope that he would make it back alive. We watched with wonder as Neil Armstrong left humanity’s first footstep on something extra-terrestrial, turning legend into reality.

These phenomenal accomplishments have sparked the ambition of countries across the globe, igniting a new space age – a race between global superpowers that broke new grounds in almost every industry. From heart monitors to solar panels, billions of people have felt the effects of the space-enabled technological advancements without knowing their origin.

The first “giant leap for mankind” came from the West, but the second may well come from the Middle East. Already a contender, given time, maturity, and cooperation, we expect many exciting breakthroughs from the region. It has done it before, and it is only a matter of time until we witness the Middle East preparing for another industry-wide lift-off.

A look into the history of space in the Middle East gives us a picture of the significant efforts that the region has made.

The following article is the first of a series of articles exploring the growth and potential of the space sector in the Middle East. We are also very interested in hearing from contributors with experience of for future features.

A Historical View

The International Astronomical Union (IAU), founded in 1919, named a lunar impact crater “AbulFeda” to honour Isma’il Ibn Abu Al-Fida – a prince and renowned geographer of the Ayyubid dynasty who lived between 1273 and 1331 in Syria.

Abulfeda wrote the world’s first explanation of the circumnavigator’s paradox – 200 years before it was confirmed by Magellan’s expedition across the Atlantic, demonstrating a profound understanding of the movement of celestial bodies during a time when common belief put Earth at the centre of the Sun’s orbit. Galileo’s publications wouldn’t spark the Copernican Revolution until the 1600s, over 300 years later.

There are currently 24 lunar craters named after influential figures from the Arabian Peninsula, including Abu al-Qasim Abbas ibn Firnas ibn Wirdas al-Takurini (809–887 A.D.), better known as Abbas Ibn Firnas. His accomplishments are many, but he is best known as the first person to demonstrate controlled human flight by jumping off a cliff in a home-made flying machine.

In the Muslim world, Abbas Ibn Firnas is revered as Leonardo da Vinci is in the West. He “flew faster than the phoenix in his flight” and managed to “touch the sky” for a few minutes before a crash landing, in which he injured his back. Learning from this mistake, he wrote a book and inspired generations to research aeronautical engineering.

Modern Space Activities

Centuries later, in 1975, astronauts took part in the historic docking of an Apollo command service module and a Soviet Soyuz 19 capsule as part of the first joint US-Soviet space flight. A year after, we witnessed the meeting between the former president of the United Arab Emirates Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan and three US astronauts.

This event sparked a wider interest in space in the Middle East, and the ‘80s became a decade of expansion, exploration, and transformation of the region’s relationship with space.

In 1985, Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud became the first Middle Eastern and royal to travel into space. During the seven-day mission, he helped deploy a satellite for the Satellite Communications Organization (Arabsat). Two years later, a Syrian military aviator named Muhammed Faris became the first Syrian and the second Middle Eastern in space, carrying a vial of soil from Damascus on his journey from Earth.

In 2019, UAE made history when it sent Hazza Al Mansouri to the International Space Station, making him the country’s first astronaut, and making UAE the third Middle Eastern country to send a man into space. UAE also became the 40th spacefaring nation. Honoured to be representing the UAE in space, Al Mansouri planned to bring with him personal items along with a seed of his country’s national tree, Al-Ghaf, and his traditional Emirati outfit.

He was designated as a “spaceflight participant” and would stay on board for eight days before returning aboard a different vessel, the MS-12, with its crew.

Looking Forward to a Bright Future

Space is no longer limited to the superpowers of the ‘60s, such as the US and Soviet Union, as technological advancements and new commercial ventures have made it accessible to almost everyone.

These advancements have shown that as long as countries have the ambition and resources, they can quickly become a significant asset to the global community of visionaries seeking to conquer the final frontier.

Al Mansouri’s flight was a step further in advancing UAE’s plan to be a hub for space tourism, moving the country ahead of neighbouring Saudi Arabia, and leading the regional jostle.

The UAE is looking at space technology as a serious business venture that will decrease its economic reliance on oil and build its international standing.

Economic diversification and shifting from an economy dependent on producing and selling oil is a common element among many of the countries in the Gulf Region. In addition to the UAE, countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait are all investing billions of dollars into research and development to expand to new industries, hence the gradual regional interest in space.

With cumulative billions of oil dollars flowing into domestic research and development facilities, many Gulf Countries are poised to become scientific powerhouses, within and outside of the immediate space sector. For example, Saudi Arabia introduced its National Science, Technology and Innovation Plan (NSTIP) in 2002, and as part of its first phase (2008-2014), the Kingdom invested 7B riyals to R&D. In 2016, the Nature Index, a platform that tracks the quantity and quality of scientific publications all over the world, named Saudi Arabia as “the most prolific producer of high-quality research in the Arab world.”

The bulk of the Gulf research focus has been in pursuit of a more infrastructure-level upgrade to scientific output; it is inevitable that some scientific value will flow into the potentially lucrative space sector.

Qatar, for example, has shown a keen interest in the development of its own satellite industry, and an increasing number of Qatari engineering students are looking to join the sector upon graduation.

Bahrain has experimented with sending humans into space on training missions with the Russian government, and the country has been largely supportive of global space cooperation.

Saudi Arabia established the Saudi Space Agency in late-2018 and granted it a $1Bn budget to promote Saudi Space policy and strategy across commercial, civil, and military sectors, as well as to cooperate with other Saudi government ministries and agencies.

Perhaps the most prominent country of the Middle Eastern space endeavours is the United Arab Emirates. The UAE launched the ambitious National Space Programme, with the bold goal of building the first settlement on Mars by 2117. This city would be used primarily for scientific purposes, but will include a museum and laboratories for zero-gravity experiments, as well as a “Living on Mars” project, which will use 3D printing technology to design and print buildings suitable for living on Mars.

Final Thoughts

The Middle East sits on a multi-trillion-dollar trove of oil resources and is seemingly eager to invest heavily into economic diversification. Countries such as Saudi Arabia are eager to deploy their sovereign wealth fund with the intention of advancing the economic and scientific goals of all people in the region.

The push for space in the Middle East will likely come from centralized government entities and agencies, and funds that work closely with the government. Simply put, there is no shortage of investment money awaiting the nascent Middle Eastern space sector.

The Mubadala Development Company in Abu Dhabi is a $67Bn sovereign wealth fund that focuses primarily on four areas: aerospace and engineering, technology and industry, energy, and emerging sectors such as infrastructure, healthcare, and real estate.

Although substantial, the dozens of sovereign wealth funds in the Gulf Region pale in comparison to Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund of $160Bn and is expected to grow to an estimated $2Tn, making it the largest investment fund in the world.

However, perhaps the most exciting aspect of the Middle East’s investment in space is that the newest milestone of the final frontier is closer within reach than ever.

With goals such as establishing a permanent settlement on Mars, it is difficult to not include the Middle East among the top international collaborators seeking to advance humankind into the Great Unknown. 

As much as looking to the past for inspiration propels the plan to make space a part of the region’s future, it is noteworthy that the Middle East’s resources have been a significant contribution to the development of its space industry. With both historic and contemporary luminaries paving the way for innovation, and its vast oil and mineral resources to support the global space sector, the future of space in the Middle East is bright and potentially lucrative for the many savvy business minds within and outside the Gulf Region.

Sa’ad Homoud is an international business development and project finance professional with 9 years of experience in originating and delivering impact generating projects on behalf of government stakeholders, private enterprises, and institutional investors.

Sa’ad is leading activity to build partnerships and collaborations to the benefit of the UK and Gulf region.  To start a conversation, please connect with Sa’ad at saad.homoud@sa.catapult.org.uk