Experts say new major players have emerged in a field long dominated by Israel and Iran
The Middle East is in the midst of a space boom, as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Turkey are poised to become regional leaders, experts contend. Israel and Iran have long been at the forefront of developing space technologies with the former set to become only the fourth country in history to land a spacecraft on the moon, and the latter successfully having launched a number of operational satellites in recent years.
Now, other nations are following suit.
The UAE is slated to send the first Emirati astronaut to the International Space Station in 2019. The country will also hold a Global Space Congress in March that will bring together private business industry leaders as well as officials from some 700 space agencies and related institutions. Notably, the Emirates’ Space Agency is planning to launch a probe called Hope that is scheduled to reach Mars in 2021, timed to coincide with the country’s 50th anniversary.
“The UAE is by far the leader in the region, with a range of communications and high-resolution Earth observation satellites in orbit,” Helen Jameson, Editor-in-Chief at the SpaceWatch Middle East digital magazine, related to The Media Line. “The UAE is also building the Mars Science City that will be a center for conducting scientific research into human habitats on Mars, as well as planetary science missions. The UAE has set an ambitious goal of helping humanity establish a human outpost on Mars by 2117.”
The $140-million Mars Science City is intended to simulate life on the red planet and will feature a 1.9 million-square-foot domed structure. Once completed, it will be the largest such structure ever created.
Another emerging industry leader in the Arab world is Saudi Arabia, which has boosted efforts to expand its space program through the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST). In recent weeks, the organization launched two locally-made satellites for aerial surveying.
“Saudi Arabia is involved in the Chinese Chang’e lunar mission and has a fleet of communications satellites and is manufacturing increasingly sophisticated Earth observation satellites,” Jameson highlighted. “Other Arab countries with satellite programs include Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, and Qatar, but none of these programs are anywhere near the scope and depth of the Emirati and Saudi programs.”
Both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have few budgetary constraints impeding their long-term space ambitions, she underlined, unlike other regional players. The two countries are also relying on established space leaders to share their expertise such as the United States, Russia, France, Japan and China.
“Apart from Israel, the most advanced space program is that of the UAE, which has a space agency and has launched several satellites into space,” Tal Inbar, head of the Israel-based Space Research Center at the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies, told The Media Line. “The most recent is the Khalifa Sat that was built, designed and tested entirely internally.”
Inbar stressed that developing the capability to launch a satellite is an exceedingly difficult and expensive endeavor. While Israel was the first regional country to launch its own satellite 30 years ago, he explained, Iran only managed the same feat decades later in 2009.
“Most of the heavily-funded space initiatives in Israel are headed by the Ministry of Defense, so cooperation with other countries is very limited,” Inbar said, adding that the upcoming launch of the Genesis spacecraft in February 2019 will be Israel’s first attempt at a lunar landing.
Aside from the UAE and the Saudis, Inbar believes Turkey could also become a trailblazer.
“Ankara already has the ability to build satellites so it could be a very significant force in space in the next decade if it will have sufficient backing from the government and budget,” he remarked.
Earlier this month, Turkey formally unveiled a national space agency tasked with implementing a program based on policies outlined by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Despite the rapid growth of many Middle Eastern countries’ space programs, some argue that a more collaborative approach is needed for the industry to really take off.
“In general, there is neither a competition (space race), nor sufficient cooperation,” Ghanim Alotaibi, Regional Coordinator for the Middle East at the Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC), conveyed to The Media Line. “This is due to the fact that each country has a completely different space program with different missions and visions.
“Cooperation and working together are key challenges,” he asserted. “The Middle East can offer a lot to the wider international space community. To me, it is a disappointment to know that the region can be better.”