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Galactic ambition: the UAE’s mission to Mars is just the start

Canopus-B satellite
Canopus-B satellite. The UAE is planning to become one of the world's biggest hubs for spacetech companies

Fuelled by government investment, the UAE’s burgeoning spacetech sector is making a bid for interplanetary domination

Less than two years ago, the UAE launched the Arab world’s first mission to Mars, sending the unmanned probe, Hope, to orbit the Red Planet. And now it has joined the space race elite, it has huge ambitions.

The Emirati government unveiled a $6 billion investment in the space industry in September 2020 and is planning a lunar mission for later this year. Next year, for the first time, a UAE astronaut will fly to the International Space Station for a long-term stay.

Alongside the state-led missions, a spacetech industry is growing across the UAE. Spacetech startups – the private companies that develop rockets and satellites, as well as the health, food, navigation and communication technologies (to name just a few) used in spaceflight – can capitalise on a welcoming business environment and a growing pool of qualified talent. 

The future of spacetech in the UAE

According to a May 2021 report by SpaceTech Analytics, the UAE is already home to 41 spacetech companies. This is the highest number in the Gulf, albeit fewer than Turkey’s 49 and Israel’s 179. 

With the government’s strong support for the sector – and with Morgan Stanley predicting that the global space industry could generate $1 trillion or more in revenue by 2040, up from $350 billion in 2020 – the prospects for the UAE as a spacetech hub are bright.

One of the first Mars images taken by the UAE's Hope orbiter.
One of the first Mars images taken by the UAE’s Hope orbiter

Nick Trudgen, co-founder and chief commercial officer at SpaceChain, which is using blockchain to build a decentralised and democratised network of satellites, sees significant opportunities in the Gulf.

“The UK, the EU and the US all have many advanced satellite companies doing things such as EO [Earth observation] data … Here in the Middle East, in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, they have huge budgets, but not many space companies on the ground,” he said.

Among those countries, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are leading the way, but “Saudi Arabia specialises more in defence,” according to Trudgen, while the “UAE is marketing itself more as a new space centre. That makes it much easier for companies to come here and set up projects.”

In 2020, the World Bank ranked the UAE 16th globally for ease of doing business, the highest in the region. The UAE is home to two distinct space-focused organisations: the UAE Space Agency and the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre, which is an entity of the Dubai government.

The UAE Space Agency was established in 2014. Seven years later, in February 2021, the Hope probe entered Mars’ orbit.

The agency wants to establish a settlement on the Red Planet by 2117. The first step on this journey is the Mars simulation city being built in the Emirati desert. This $135 million development, which will provide labs and other research facilities, is scheduled to open in 2024.

In January, the agency unveiled another plan that will directly benefit spacetech businesses: the creation of its first space industrial zone, which will be at Masdar City in Abu Dhabi.

Government support

Ali Al-Hammadi, CEO of Farmin, a Dubai-based startup that uses artificial intelligence to process satellite data and produce insights, said the ease of doing business and the presence of the government space agencies was helping to fuel the spacetech industry in the UAE.

They are “providing grants, providing connections, making the development of satellites easier,” he said, adding that they also assist with the day-to-day requirements of running a business by providing subsidised office spaces and labs.

Farmin itself grew with the help of funding provided by the government after it identified internal challenges that UAE-based space startups could solve, if given access to funds. This, Al-Hammadi said, meant the government improved its own efficiency in various ways, while also nurturing UAE-based startups. The result is there are now “more people specialised in this field, and there are more people who are interested in this field,” which gives the UAE access to the skilled human capital required in the space industry. 

A game-changing investment

Sahith Reddy Madara, the UAE’s national point of contact for the UN-affiliated Space Generation Advisory Council, said more projects were in the pipeline and the UAE’s momentum showed no sign of slowing down.

“The world is moving toward the privatisation of the space sector – and the UAE has followed the same direction, by opening it up to the private sector and building flexible policies that benefit international startups and local ones,” Madara said, highlighting the Mars simulation city and the spacetech zone.

Sarah Bint Yousif Al-Amiri, the UAE’s minister of state for advanced technology, also pointed to the importance of the Masdar City zone, hailing it as “a game-changer that will take our flourishing space industry to the next level.” 

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