The Middle East and North Africa region is catching up with the global race to space, thanks to the leadership of the UAE. As the recent Global Aerospace Summit concluded in Abu Dhabi, the region geared up to establish an Arab space organisation.
“In spite of our advanced mature space programme, we have a moral obligation, which is the vision of our leadership, to help Arab countries to set up some sort of space programmes and, at least, start thinking about space,” said Mohammed al-Ahbabi, director-general of the UAE Space Agency.
“If you don’t take steps today, you will be left out and it’s going to be harder to join the race because people are moving fast and regulation will become strict, so there will be many limitations.”
The summit gathered experts and officials in the space and aerospace industry to recruit Arab countries into the discussion and create an Arab-centric space agency, much like the European Space Agency.
“The Middle East doesn’t have that yet and it’s a problem because we’re getting lost in the middle,” Ahbabi said. “We initiated the idea last year and our leadership gave us the green light. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, UAE vice-president, prime minister and ruler of Dubai, asked me to bring Arabs together to speak to them and work together. It’s to our benefit.”
“The good evidence is that, almost 50 years ago, there were two countries involved in space — the old Soviet Union and the United States,” he added. “Today, more than 60 countries want to go to space because of strategic, scientific, economic, educational and societal benefits. Space is an indicator of how mature you are, it stimulates and encourages investment.”
Ahbabi underlined the importance of space exploration in the fields of science and research. The Middle East is deeply involved in exploration of water resources at all levels and space exploration offers new opportunities due to its lack of water resources. “We want to know where the water is located so, if you utilise space images and applications, it’s easy to identify,” he said. “The same applies to find the best soil for agriculture, where we can build roads, cities, farming and to see what resources are beneath the ground.”
The region suffers from environmental issues. In that regard, space exploration can help analyse dust and gases in the atmosphere. In communication, it can provide supporting the connection of schools, hospitals and villages in vast desert areas.
Last year, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan, Algeria, Morocco and Lebanon joined the Arab space conversation. This year, another five, including Kuwait, Oman and Sudan, were added.
“It’s growing but countries are also maturing,” Ahbabi said. “The region’s culture sometimes involves doubt but we’re here to help. We need to expand and focus on certain areas.”
The second Arab meeting brought the coalition closer to forming a regional organisation. Ahbabi said the only way it will work is by focusing on science and education rather than politics.
“Space is expensive and hard so we try to help them see that it’s a priority,” he explained. “Smart countries use space programmes to solve their issues on the ground, like India, which is spending billions on space, although many people are homeless. The idea is that we are spending on space to solve people’s problems.”
The most efficient model, he said, is to help every country establish a space programme in a cooperative manner. As the UAE has a shortage of skills in the space workforce, qualified engineers from Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Nigeria can be a part of the solution. In turn, the Emirates possesses satellite imagery and capabilities that can be shared with other countries, as well as three universities boasting space degrees, which can accommodate other Arab students.
So far, Bahrain, Algeria and Egypt have formed a space-related agency. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Sudan are initiating internal discussions.
In the UAE, the agency is building a testing facility in Al Ain as part of the Middle East’s first space research centre. It will act as an incubator for development and innovation. Ten specialised students are building two satellites in a temporary facility nearby.
The Emirates has seven satellites in orbit, with a plan to launch an educational satellite in mid-2018 and KhalifaSat later this year — the first designed and built in the country and which will take high-resolution images of Earth.
Two other satellites are to be launched next year, reaching 12 by 2020 in communication, remote sensing, science and environmental and climate change studies. The UAE also plans to have a mission to Mars in 2020.
“It is transforming the UAE from a user to a producer and some countries have now expressed interest in building satellites here,” Ahbabi said. “We try to lead by practice so they see that it can be done and it’s unbelievable to be a part of the conversation of the future of humanity.”