The revolution of the space industry has made access to space affordable and attractive. Emerging countries in particular see space commercialization as a huge opportunity. Launching small satellites can improve their economy, utility systems, infrastructure, scientific research, environment and living standards. Among those emerging space nations are the Arab countries.
Already excelling in the space sector is Saudi Arabia. Its achievements started in 1985, when it sent the first Arab astronaut to space and the Arab world’s first satellite. Back in the future, in 2020, the country allocated $2.1 billion for its space programme under its Vision 2030 agenda to transition its economy away from dependence on oil and gas and towards tech investment. In addition, Saudi venture funds have started to bankroll national and international space startups and the Saudi Communication, Space, & Technology Commission (CST) has announced the formation of a Space Entrepreneurship Alliance to achieve further growth and sustainability.
And only this week, the Saudi Space Commission sent the first Arab woman astronaut, Rayyanah Barnawi, to the International Space Station on Axiom Space's Ax-2 mission.
At an application level, the CST, the oil and gas company Saudi Aramco and the Saudi Ministry of Energy collaborated in 2022 and successfully trialed a 5G narrowband-IoT nanosatellite in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) connecting Aramco’s remote assets such as pipelines and smart meters.
Showing its future aspirations, the country has signed Artemis 2020, implementing its first astronaut program, and is planning to fly the first Arab woman astronaut to the International Space Station.
One of the Arab countries at an early stage is Kuwait, which in January 2022 launched its second satellite, aimed at collecting information about its topography and environment. The mission is supposed to be the first of a series of nanosatellites each with specific tasks.
Another early stage country is Bahrain, which launched its first nanosatellite in December 2021, monitoring and studying gamma-ray flashes from thunderstorms and clouds. Their next satellite, part of the National Space Science Agency’s new strategy, is targeted for launch late this year.
A country that could become quite important for the region is Oman, which is building the Middle East’s first spaceport. It would empower the country’s own space goals and those of other regional players.
The other big player among Arab space countries is the United Arab Emirates. The country started in 2000, when it launched the Middle East’s first mobile telecoms satellite, followed by its first government-owned satellite in 2009, and its first nanosatellite in 2017. In 2006, it founded the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC), home to the UAE National Space program and engaged with space start-ups through its Space Ventures initiative.
More recently, and demonstrating the advanced progress of the country’s space ambitions including a Mars settlement by 2117, the UAE made history with its “Hope” probe entering Mars orbit in 2021. The Arab world’s first interplanetary mission. And only last month, the UAE’s Rashid Rover was aboard the Japanese Ispace lander attempted Moon landing.
Also in 2023, Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) became the world's first utility with its own satellites (DEWA-SAT 1 and 2) in orbit. Part of DEWA’s Space-D program, they are aiming to improve the operations, maintenance and planning of electricity and water networks.
And it’s not just satellites, earlier this year, a second astronaut from the UAE joined the crew aboard the International Space Station.
These initiatives, achievements and plans of Arab countries show their determination to utilize and commercialize space exploration, their capabilities, and their potential. But do these individual efforts mean that we are going to witness the rise of a new global space-tech powerhouse?
At a country level, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are getting close to joining leading space countries such as Japan, France, Germany, and the U.K. And their efforts to grow their technological and economical capacity through space are accelerating while other Arab countries are also increasing their efforts to expand their footprint in the space sector.
However, to elevate these countries to become equals with leading space agencies and large space nations such as the U.S with NASA, India, Russia, the EU with the European Space Agency (ESA), or China, would require a combination and sharing of resources.
The foundation for such an Arab space bloc began in 2019 with the establishment of the Arab Space Cooperation Group (ASCG), which today comprises 14 member states: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia and the UAE.
Its charter includes harmonizing regulations, regional and international cooperation, adopting a unified position regionally and internationally, as well as guiding joint initiatives to enhance knowledge exchange, technical expertise, experiences, and information. It also encourages research and innovation to develop advanced space capabilities, and spurs members without space agencies or programs to develop them.
There can be no doubt about how crucial this development is and the potential it has. What’s still missing though, are joint innovation funding programs and joint projects such as Europe's global navigation satellite system Galileo or the Ariane rocket. A space station could also be such a project. Saudi Arabia, for example, is already in talks with other nations over plans for the next generation of space stations and is exploring the idea of space hotels. Adding regional launch capabilities would also accelerate the manifestation as a global bloc player.
Undoubtedly, they have the financial resources, long-term vision and ambition to play a much bigger role. It only remains to be seen how far their collaboration and their individual efforts can take them. VS
Omar Qaise is the founder and CEO of OQ Technology as well as the chief architect of the company’s 5G SatIot concept. Prior to OQ Technology, Omar worked for SES Satellites, where he was responsible for Satcom sales and business development, especially in the M2M and oil and gas sector, in regions such as the Middle East and Africa.
Photo: The city lights of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on the coast of the Persian Gulf captured from the International Space Station. NASA/Koichi Wakata