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.
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.
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.