Telecoms & IT

The UAE’s National Space Strategy 2030

How did the UAE’s ambitious space program send a probe to Mars, two people to space, and a handful of satellites into orbit in just under a decade?

In 2019, Hazza Al Mansouri became the first Emirati astronaut when he made his journey to the international space station (ISS) This brought space exploration to the forefront of the public consciousness in the UAE. In March 2023, a second Emirati astronaut, Sultan Al Neyadi, made his way to the ISS aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft. During his mission, Al Neyadi made history by becoming the first Emirati and Arab to perform a spacewalk—a 7-hour operation outside the ISS to lay cables and insulations.

The UAE has been keen on space exploration and the potential applications of space technology for almost a decade. United Arab Emirates Space Agency (UAESA) was launched in 2014 in Abu Dhabi to foster growth across the space sector while regulating it. The agency has been trying to achieve this through research, partnerships, and—above all—investments. Building a space program from scratch is by no means cheap.

Thanks to its flourishing economy and its sizable sovereign wealth, the UAE is in a position to earmark huge sums for its space program. In 2017, just three years after its inception, UAESA was promised over USD5.2 billion through government funding and semi-private investment. This made UAESA the most well-funded space agency in the world after the US, China, and Russia.

The UAESA continues to receive financial support. In 2022, President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed launched the country’s Space Fund with the initial investment of AED3 billion to streamline the funding of space programs. “The establishment of a dedicated fund to support the UAE’s burgeoning space program and the launch of a new initiative to develop radar satellites are expected to expand our growing capabilities in this vital sector while accelerating innovation in environmental sustainability,” reads a social media post by President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed.

In addition to investment, the UAESA has formed strategic partnerships with a select group of organizations, some of which are precisely focused on satellite and mapping technologies that Sheikh Mohamed’s social media post is referring to. During an event entitled Abu Dhabi’s Space Debate in 2022, the UAESA and the Emirati IT pioneer, Bayanat, “signed a partnership agreement to develop and operate a geospatial analytics platform for the Space Data Centre, one of the transformational projects announced by the UAE government,” according to Zawya.

Abu Dhabi Space Debate, meanwhile, has been functioning as a forum for those involved in the UAE’s space sector to compare notes on their accomplishments while discussing future cooperations. “The Abu Dhabi Space Debate is a unique platform for global space leadership,” in the words of its organizers. The event also sets out to create synergy between various stakeholders in the sector, which it does by bringing together government officials, including those form the UAESA, and industry players—both domestic and international.

Sarah Al-Amiri, the chairwoman of the UAESA and the country’s minister for advanced technology, believes this kind of conversion between various stakeholders is necessary for the future of space exploration. “There’s been a large expansion over the course of the last decade and a half with regards to the number of players in the space sector,” she recently told the BBC’s Sky at Night Magazine, pointing out that private-sector market players are no longer merely working as contractors under national space agencies. “Now we have seen a wide expansion of new entrants tapping into the space industry, expanding into commercial space and creating demand. And now we see private space playing a part in exploration too,” continued Al-Amiri.

It was exactly this sort of cooperation between the public and private institutions that enabled the UAE to send a probe to Mars within the framework of the Emirates Mars Mission on July 19, 2020, arriving at Mars’ orbit after a 205-day journey on February 9, 2021. The Hope probe was developed by the UAESA and the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) in cooperation with several partners, including the University of Colorado, the University of California at Berkeley, and Arizona State University. The robotic probe was ultimately launched from Japan’s The Tanegashima Space Center. While Emirati decision makers and engineers have played a central role in the Emirates Mars Mission, the UAE’s knack for entering productive bilateral projects is also worth noting.

The UAE also has its local powerhouse of aerospace innovation: the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center (MBRSC) based in Dubai, which closely works with the UAESA in Abu Dhabi. Since its inception in 2015, the space center has made a significant contribution to the Emirates Mars Mission, several satellite projects, as well as the astronaut training program which has so far sent two Emiratis to the ISS. The center is overseeing several projects at the same time: starting with DubaiSat-1, DubaiSat-2, and KhalifaSat which were mainly proof-of-concept projects, the MBRSC is now working on the research and development of fully functional telecom and geo-survey satellites; in terms of the UAE Astronaut Program, the center is faced with thousands of applications for future manned space programs which must be sorted through.