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Private sector ‘always better’ says UAE space industry head

Watching the launch of the Hope Mars probe at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre. The centre's assistant director says private sector involvement is essential Reuters
Watching the launch of the Hope Mars probe at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre. The centre's assistant director says private sector involvement is essential
  • UAE space projects to involve private sector
  • ‘Too expensive’ for governments alone
  • Largest satellite to launch this year

The UAE is working to lure greater private sector participation in its space industry, according to an official from the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre. 

“We are putting a lot of effort towards including the private sector in our projects,” Mohammad Al Ghafri, assistant director general of the aerospace engineering sector at MBRSC, said this week during a panel at Dubai Fintech Summit. 

“It is too expensive for governments to do it on their own. Privatising is always better.”

The decision is a departure from the traditional model of space exploration, characterised by government dominance and massive investments, and moves towards a landscape where private entities are increasingly taking the lead.

Traditionally, space exploration was the domain of governments, with the US and USSR spearheading the race, according to Al Ghafri.

“Fueled by competition and the desire for supremacy, these nations poured vast resources into their respective space programmes,” he said. “However, they realised competing is just going to be a waste of resources and collaboration held more promise.”

The era of collaboration in space exploration led to achievements such as the International Space Station.

Space exploration underwent another shift with the emergence of disruptors – pioneers and entrepreneurs who challenged the status quo, Al Ghafri said. “What was once considered prohibitively expensive became more accessible as advancements in technology made space travel more economical.”

Al Ghafri pointed to companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, American aerospace manufacturer Blue Origin, and the space arm of aircraft company Boeing, which he said “underscore the viability of privatisation in space”.

Governments are recognising the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of private ventures, and have begun shifting their focus towards partnering with these entities, redirecting investments from traditional space agencies to commercial endeavours, according to Al Ghafri.

The MBRSC is preparing to launch the MBZ-Sat – the largest satellite in its history and the most advanced in the region in terms of high-resolution satellite imaging – this year.

The satellite, designed and manufactured by engineers at the MBRSC, also involves contributions from the UAE private sector. 

The UAE Space Agency last year launched the “Space Means Business” campaign, which is intended to highlight business opportunities open to Emirati and international companies in the Emirates Mission to the Asteroid Belt – the first multiple-asteroid tour and landing mission to the main belt that lies between Mars and Jupiter.

The agency has committed to award at least half of the overall contracted mission to private sector companies.

The UAE Space Agency is also offering Emirati support to startups, back-office facilities and ongoing mentoring and funding as part of its Space Economic Zones initiative.

The sector has attracted 14 companies as of 2023.

The value of the Middle East space sector is expected to hit $75 billion by 2032, according to a white paper, Beyond the Stars: Middle East’s Space Ecosystem on the Move.

The region’s space economy trebled over the past decade to an estimated $25 billion last year, the research showed. It is forecast to make up 8.5 percent of the global space economy by the beginning of the next decade.

The UAE is leading the way in the region and its investments in space-related industries surpassed $6 billion in 2023.

It also has prospects in space mining, space stations, sustainability and recycling in space, space tourism, manufacturing and space academies.

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