From Earth to space, Emirati astronaut, Dr. Sultan Al Neyadi proudly donned the UAE flag on his spacesuit while conducting the first spacewalk achieved by an astronaut who is both Arab and Muslim. A testament to the vision and ambitions of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, founding father of the United Arab Emirates, Al Neyadi raised the hopes and aspirations with this new milestone for future Emirati generations to come while positioning the UAE as a key player in the global space sector. The UAE’s commitment to space research and innovation is evident through its various initiatives and program to ensure the long-term success of its home-grown space industry.
Space exploration is of great significance to the United Arab Emirates and has taken another major leap with Al Neyadi arriving at the International Space Station (ISS) this past March as part of NASA’s SpaceX Crew-6 Mission, marking the Arab world’s first long-duration space mission and the UAE’s second mission to the ISS.
Dr. Al Neyadi’s presence onboard the ISS provides the UAE with an opportunity to participate in collaborative scientific research. In addition to collecting data that will help enable doctors to treat and prevent space-related heart conditions, Al Neyadi will also assist in technological experiments including the fabrication of 3D printed tools and components—a practice critical for the success of future deep-space missions.
There are, however, broader objectives that the UAE is seeking to accomplish.
The UAE's broader goals
By investing in space-related activities the UAE intends to diversify its economy and reduce its dependence on oil. The UAE has set a goal of transitioning to a knowledge-based economy, and space exploration is seen as a key area of growth and development for the country. In addition, the UAE sees space exploration as a way to enhance its international reputation and promote the country as a global leader in science and technology. By investing in space-related activities, the UAE aims to position itself as a hub for space research and innovation in the Middle East and beyond.
As a rising space power, one of the most notable examples of the UAE’s space diplomacy is the Emirates Mars Mission, which sent the country’s first spacecraft, the Hope Probe, to Mars in 2021. The mission involved collaboration with scientists and engineers from several countries, including the United States, Japan, and the United Kingdom. The UAE’s participation in the mission demonstrated the country’s commitment to international cooperation in space exploration and research.
The UAE made history by becoming the first Arab country and the fifth in the world to reach Mars with the successful insertion of the Hope spacecraft into Mars’ orbit. Back in 2017, the UAE announced the construction of the Mars Scientific City, a simulation of a human settlement on Mars. The city will be used to conduct research and develop technology for human exploration of Mars.
Another example of the UAE’s space diplomacy is its participation in the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. The UAE has been an active member of the committee and has contributed to its work on promoting peaceful uses of outer space and developing international space law.
The country’s space agency, the UAE Space Agency, has established partnerships with several nations and international organizations and signed collaboration agreements with NASA, Japan, China, and the European Space Agency, and memorandums of understanding with the US Strategic Command, UK, China, and the National Space Science and Technology Center. The UAE has also doubled the size of its astronaut corps, including the selection of the first Arab female astronaut.
In 2022, the UAE launched an $820 million fund to boost space initiatives, with the first investment going toward the establishment of a remote sensing satellite constellation. One of the UAE space program’s main objectives is to ensure the security and sustainability of its space assets. The UAE operates several satellites for various purposes, including remote sensing, Earth observation, and communication. These satellites are critical for the UAE’s economic, social, and strategic development.
In terms of space security, the UAE has taken several steps to mitigate the risks to its space assets. For example, the UAE Space Agency has established a Space Debris Mitigation Guideline to minimize the risks of collision with space debris. The UAE has also invested in space situational awareness technologies to enhance its ability to detect and track potential threats to its space assets.
Minimizing human impact
Regarding space sustainability, the UAE Space Agency has developed a space sustainability rating system to evaluate and promote sustainable space practices that ensure the human impact is minimized on the celestial environment.
There are several initiatives and programs that are a testament to the UAE’s commitment to situating itself as a hub for space research and innovation in the Middle East and beyond.
The Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre is a key player in the UAE’s space industry. It is responsible for developing and implementing the country’s space strategy and advancing its space capabilities. The center also conducts research, develops technology, and operates space missions.
In 2020, Dubai launched its space science strategy, which aims to enhance the emirate’s space science capabilities and contribute to the global space sector. The strategy focuses on developing the necessary infrastructure, research and development, and human capital to support Dubai’s space ambitions.
Space exploration also serves as a means to inspire and engage the country’s youth in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. The UAE has placed a strong emphasis on education and workforce development in recent years, and investing in space exploration is seen as a way to encourage more students to pursue STEM careers.
With ambitious Emirati-driven space initiatives, the UAE aims to play a critical role in paving the way for future space exploration and research, inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers while contributing to the peaceful and sustainable use of outer space. As the UAE’s pioneering spirit guides its pursuit to become one of the first nations to send a manned mission to Mars, the nation is poised to cement its position as a leader in the global space community.
Dr. Kristian Alexander is a senior fellow and director of the International Security & Terrorism Program at TRENDS Research & Advisory, Dubai. Gina Bou Serhal is a researcher at the Strategic Studies Department at Trends Research & Advisory, Dubai.