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Space tech gives Gulf nations a launchpad for local talent

Sultan Bin Salman led the Arab world into space exploration Creative Commons
Sultan Bin Salman led the Arab world into space exploration

Saudi Arabia aims to emulate UAE’s success

In 1985, Sultan Bin Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, a former Royal Saudi Air Force pilot, became the first Arab to go into space, flying aboard a US Space Shuttle mission as a payload specialist.

He was appointed chairman of the Saudi Space Commission in 2018 and although he has since moved on to become a special advisor to King Salman, his initial leadership has helped put Saudi Arabia on course to emulate its neighbour, the UAE, with the recent launch of a new National Space Strategy.

The programme is part of a recent shift in power in the global space tech sector, following the success of the UAE’s unmanned Emirates Mars Mission (EMM).

Launched in July 2020, the Hope Probe was sent to the red planet to study weather events in its lower atmosphere.

Space hub

According to Alex Cresniov, director of Deep Knowledge Analytics, an agency producing advanced analytics on frontier-technology industries, there is huge potential for Saudi Arabia in the space tech sector.

“The National Space Strategy is progressing quickly, and I anticipate large-scale projects in the near future,” he said.

“The programme has the potential to turn the country into a regional hub for commercial space activities as well as a sophisticated research and development centre.

“We are used to seeing great space missions led by the US, China, the EU and Russia.

“The UAE Mars Mission clearly shows that other parts of the world are capable and space-ready, too.”

So where should the UAE and the wider Gulf region be focusing their attentions in order to realise further ambitions in outer space?

“The next step for the UAE is to step up its research and production facilities and start developing its own advanced space exploration tech,” Cresniov said.

“The country possesses experience in manufacturing satellites locally, including Nayif1 and MBZ-Sat.

“With the government leading the way, and the private sector largely contributing, it may take up to 10 years for the nation to reach its goal of becoming space-independent.”

The next decade may also witness the UAE building its own launch pad.

“There has never been a better time to attract space tech scientists and develop local talent, providing them with the opportunities and finance to take the sector to new heights,” Cresniov said.

“Space exploration is a very expensive business. Both the public and private sectors should come together in order for the UAE to achieve further prominence and success on the global stage.” 

Space accelerators

The likes of Masdar City Space Economic Zone, tech start-up accelerator Hub71, SpaceChain and Zin Technologies represent key facilitators in the region, enabling the creation of a competitive private space sector, boosting research and development and encouraging the spirit of entrepreneurship in the sector.

“More technological and infrastructural initiatives are slowly coming to the fore,” Cresniov said.

“Local tech parks and accelerators play a key role: they represent a gateway for the government to identify the best in the game from local and international startups and enable their set-up, expansion and prosperity here in the UAE.”

International collaboration is also important. The UAE’s EMM has recently announced a partnership with NASA’s Maven Mars Mission, which completed its Mars orbit insertion in 2014 and which aims to pave the way towards greater scientific collaboration and data exchange.

Omran Sharaf, project director of the EMM, said: “Since the inception of EMM, the project has been defined by strong international collaborations and partnerships.

“The opportunity to work alongside other Mars missions, and derive greater insights by sharing our observations and working together to fit the pieces of the puzzle, is one we are delighted to take.”

In Saudi Arabia, the next step could be a local launch pad and manufacturer following King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology’s launch of 17 satellites in the past two decades. 

Wider applications

Space tech is not only rockets and satellites. It also encompasses health tech, food tech, drones and navigation, among other areas.

Many startups in the space sector also find earthly applications for their solutions. For example, RedWorks is developing an on-site 3D printing system to meet challenges faced by builders, deploying technology originally created for use in space.

The global space tech industry was worth about  $4.5 trillion in 2021 and is expected to reach $10 trillion by 2030.

According to the most conservative estimates by SpaceTech Analytics, the sector accounts for 5 percent of global GDP. 

The city lights of Medina in western Saudi Arabia flicker in a picture taken from space
The city lights of Medina, western Saudi Arabia, flicker in a picture taken from space

Cresniov believes both the UAE and Saudi Arabia are on track to become two of the largest space hubs globally. 

“The two neighbours are emerging as preferred start-up and investment hubs,” he said.

“This market position does not only attract SMEs, but also piques the interest of large space tech-focused enterprises to come and set up shop in the region.

“For instance, I would be delighted to see the likes of SpaceX here in the UAE.

“The high concentration of entrepreneurs and high-tech businesses, low tax rates and huge opportunities is expected to attract big space tech firms to the Arab world in the foreseeable future.”

Joint programme

Other countries in the region could also seek to get in on the action as they look to diversify their economies away from oil.

“Inspired by the UAE’s success, other GCC countries may embark on their own space exploration journeys,” Cresniov said.

“The space race is very expensive and the results may not be seen immediately, so the main drivers for other GCC countries which would follow suit are rapid adoption, patience and continuity.”

“The main engine of development is the will to be part of the future.

“I also look forward to a joint GCC space programme with its own unique diversification dynamics.”

In March 2019 the Arab Space Cooperation Group was established in Abu Dhabi to serve as a platform to co-ordinate regional space efforts.

Saudi Arabia was a founding member of the group, along with Bahrain, Oman, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, Sudan, Kuwait and, of course, the UAE.