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U.A.E. Reaches Towards The Stars

This February the U.A.E. hosted the 4th annual Milsatcom conference in Abu Dhabi, bringing together international vendors, defense and government officials, and technology experts to discuss satellite communications and space technology. Hosted by Al Yah Satellite Communications, one of the United Arab Emirate’s leading space technology companies, the conference is just one public face of the U.A.E.’s extraordinary efforts at rapidly expanding its presence within the field of space technology.

With leading defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin and Airbus in attendance, and in addition to the plethora of key military officials from the U.A.E. and its neighbors, it can be seen that the conference has a decidedly military focus. Despite this, Milsatcom’s programming also included talks and content aimed at addressing the use of space technology to improve quality of life within the U.A.E., reflecting the government’s increased focus on space technology in recent years. With emphasis placed upon increasing communications bandwidth throughout the country, it is clear that the government aims to capitalize on the economic benefits afforded by using satellite systems to improve the country’s infrastructure. The U.A.E. will also improve their ability to curry political favor with neighboring countries, as current efforts at expanding satellite coverage also aim to improve the government’s ability to respond to and offer aid for the various natural disasters that affect the region. With the increasing relevance that space-based technology has in running a modern and connected country, it is no surprise that the progressively-minded U.A.E. is rapidly shoring up their space assets.

DubaiSat-1 and DubaiSat-2 are remote sensing satellites designed to generate high resolution imagery of the Earth’s terrain in order to provide environmental data and to assist in urban planning. These satellites were developed at the Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology (EIAST) in conjunction with Satrec Initiative, a manufacturing company in South Korea.

Despite not being an established player in the space exploration industry, the U.A.E. made waves last year when Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan announced that the country would be joining the likes of the US, Japan, China, and India in planning an unmanned mission to Mars targeted for launch by 2021. The groundbreaking announcement was the culmination of steadily increasing space expenditure from the U.A.E. (estimated at roughly $5 billion USD in total), and marked a scientific milestone as the Arab world’s first attempt at an interplanetary mission. The magnitude of such a goal was not lost upon the U.A.E. prime minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who remarked over Twitter, “Our region is a cradle of great civilisations. Given the right tools Arabs, once again, can deliver new scientific contributions to humanity”. In a very real sense, the U.A.E.’s push towards Mars alongside their proposed creation of a pan-Arab space agency for Middle Eastern countries harkens back to the Islamic Golden Age of the medieval era, when Islamic science reigned supreme over other nations. Successfully completing a Mars landing would place the U.A.E. within the upper echelon of scientific nations, and additionally garner much repute for the spaceflight capabilities of the modern Islamic world. The achievement would be especially salient if performed on the heels of the rival Iranian space agency’s recent success in 2013, when the country achieved “manned” orbital spaceflight utilizing monkeys as test pilots for their “Safir” line of launch vehicles.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum officially commissions the UAE Space Agency and the EIAST in creating an unmanned mission to Mars for launch by 2021. This image was taken at a signing ceremony in 2014.

It is interesting to consider the political ramifications of the U.A.E.’s forays into space. The dominant space power in Asia and the Middle East had historically been the Soviet Union, transitioning into the Russian Federation in more recent years. Massive investments in space exploration and orbital flight during the Cold War gave the Russians a significant advantage as compared to the other countries in the region, and had established them as the go-to nation in any collaborative space venture. Yet with the political turmoil over Russian involvement in Ukraine, and the ensuing isolation between Russia and the West, future space collaboration is at risk as NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Roscosmos (Russian Federal Space Agency) drift apart amid political tensions. The U.A.E. may potentially provide Russia another spaceflight capable ally, joining the ranks of China and India, and additionally allowing Russia to further reduce its dependence on the West in servicing its extraterrestrial ambitions. The Russian Space Agency already plays a significant role in launching U.A.E. satellite equipment into orbit, and has worked closely with the Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology in launching the geographic imaging satellites DubaiSat-1 and DubaiSat-2. In the words of Russia’s ambassador to the U.A.E., “I would rather say that current political and economic turbulence on the world arena, desire of Western countries, as they call it, to ‘isolate Russia’, only creates new opportunities for our Emirati partners in the Russian market”. It remains to be seen whether or not the comparatively warm political climate between the U.A.E. and Russia will foster future developments, but with the renewed American efforts towards spaceflight in the form of private industry such as SpaceX and the rapid advances made in space science and technology brought on by the so called Asian space race, it is certain that the competitive environment will yield interesting scientific developments in the years to come.


The Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan is the largest launch facility in the world, and operated primarily by the Russian Federal Space Agency. DubaiSat-1 and DubaiSat-2 were launched from here in 2009 and 2013 respectively.





  1. nrassam3 says:

    UAE is the only Arab country that seems to care about it’s own people. If the launch does happen in 2021, then the UAE has unlocked a milestone that will enlighten all the Arabs in the region to revise their education and scientific policies. It will be great publicity to the Arabs, it will encourage other governments in the middle east to follow the scientific approach.

  2. jyount6 says:

    A pan-Arab space organization seems like it would be a great opportunity for some of the brightest minds in engineering and mathematics to come together and make advances in space technology. It is cool that those that held the keys to understanding the stars so long ago would now take part in exploring them. I wonder if the tension between the US and Russia could increase with potential Russian backing of the space program in the UAE. I hope that regardless there is a lot of advancement in this field as a result of the increased competition.

    • amiteichenbaum says:

      I really liked your point about how the study of astronomy really began in that region of the world and now they are beginning to be a part of it. I think there are many engineering students that don’t have opportunities in their home countries. Not only will this allow for increased economic growth (and international competition, not to mention the potential for other countries to begin to invest in their own programs), but more pride as students can stay and work.

  3. wcarter31 says:

    This is not surprising given the wealth of the UAE, and I too am excited to see what can result from this program. I would like to see advancement in space-related technology and engineering, and any country willing and able to advance this field should, in my opinion, absolutely do so.

  4. zhu64 says:

    I hope U.A.E success as a nation becomes an example that many other middle-eastern countries will follow. They have been able to reconcile between their religion and culture with modern ideals of freedom. While their women does not have all the freedom that western countries are able to enjoy they do have more than the other middle east countries. I hope the other middle east countries will soon also model and reconcile their outdated views.

  5. lalaninatl says:

    It’s good to see UAE investing in a great venture. I like to think that they probably have the audience that would like to take trips to outerspace. I also like the fact that at least one part of the Middle East is once again trying catch up from what they missed since the Golden Age. That being said, I don’t think they should limit themselves to only space exploration.

  6. nsumi3 says:

    I find it interesting that the $5 billion this tiny Arab country spends on their space program is more than a quarter of what we spend annually on NASA. I’m always a fan of anyone spending money on space exploration since we appear to be taking a backseat these days. I find it fascinating and encouraging just how many countries, companies, and individuals have been infected with the space bug, considering just 50 years ago we first made it to the moon.

  7. Travis says:

    It seems as if space exploration for the U.A.E would provide many benefits. However, I wonder what negative consequences may result. Will competition among other Middle East nations be a good or bad thing for the U.A.E? Sometimes competition isn’t desired for different reasons. Also are their finances in the space exploration venture being used efficiently? Also, is there something else the U.A.E could benefit more from if they invested less time for space exploration. Knowing the tradeoffs they’re making to execute the project would be interesting.

  8. cryan3232 says:

    I found this very interesting and am excited to see what they can accomplish. Obviously U.A.E. is a wealthier country than it’s neighbors so it is afforded this opportunity but I still think it will be good for all of the Middle East. Hopefully their success in this can inspire other countries to push different boundaries to help advance technology in the region.

  9. ssweeny3 says:

    It is interesting why U.A.E. would be interested in space at all. I do not believe the “we want U.A.E. to become in the upper echelon of the world” for a second. They are already an insanely strong economic power and would achieve an upper echelon seat by gaining a stronger military. Seeing as obtaining a strong military (and by strong I mean the size of most European countries) is probably not possible for such a small possible, the only way to achieve an upper echelon is by becoming a stronger economic power. U.A.E. is really interested in the surreal long goal of mars or asteroid mining. If they have to funds to develop the program, which I have no doubt that they do, they can be one of the first space programs to do so and gain a monopoly on the entire system.

  10. jackjenkins2015 says:

    I think it’s very interesting to see UAE moving towards a space program, wanting to join the ranks of an established scientific community. I am also very curious and interested in what you mentioned about tension with Russia and other countries with space programs. I am interested to see what the political ramifications of a space program would be, but I hope that for the pursuit of science and advancement that political adversity does not limit their goals.

  11. mlucchi says:

    Space travel is generally a sign of becoming a modern, industrialized nation. Places like the EU, Russia, China, and the US all have economic and industrial influence, and while having a space travel is may not be a cause of this, it is a symptom. Perhaps UAE will also soon become a major economic superpower. Also worth noting is that Russia first satellite into space, launched the space race with the US and lead to great technological advances. I wonder if a similar sequence of events may happen in the Middle East as a result of UAE’s space program.

  12. ashumway3 says:

    As a physicist, it really excites me to see other countries gathering the brightest minds and advancing their space programs. At the same time, it makes me sad to see that the US is cutting more and more funding from NASA and I worry that our space program will stagnate. I believe that space exploration is a very important endeavor so it’s great that other countries like the UAE are picking up the burden that the US seems to be passing off.

  13. jjacob7 says:

    The geopolitical element that you bring up is fascinating. Despite Russia’s economic strife, they seem to be doing everything they can to engage with new markets in light of Western sanctions and isolation. It will be interesting to see whether Russia’s turn eastward to China, India, and especially the Middle East will be successful. It will also be interesting to watch how the UAE’s prestige transforms both in the region and globally. A space program is a serious investment, but its advantages in terms of infrastructural development and power projection must shift the balance between cost and benefit.

  14. jkempa3 says:

    This was a very informative piece. I did not know the U.A.E. was even involved in space technology. The investment is a big gamble for the country but if it pays off it will solidify their status on the world stage as a major player in the exploration of space.

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