While space might be humanity's final frontier, it seems like just the beginning for the UAE

By Xische Editorial, July 4, 2018

 Source: Space Canyon. Copyright: Brian Miller, 2018

Source: Space Canyon. Copyright: Brian Miller, 2018

Space may be humanity’s final frontier, but it also can provide a major boost back on Earth. Space exploration has always been deeply connected to national aspirations. The space race between the Soviet Union and the United States, which began in the 1950s, was as much about global power as it was about humanity's desire to see if we are alone in the universe. Out of the space race came leading science and technology research programmes that continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible. While the goal was domination of space, the result was cutting-edge innovation on Earth.

Advancements in technology since the 1950s have enabled smaller countries to embark on pioneering space research of their own. In the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates is leading the region’s interstellar efforts with an ambitious plan to send an unmanned probe to Mars by 2020.

 Source: 1972 Stamps of Ajman, Copyright Alf van Beem

Source: 1972 Stamps of Ajman, Copyright Alf van Beem

For those outside the region, the UAE's space programme might sound far-fetched. Unlike space juggernauts US and Russia, the UAE is not a global superpower seeking to maintain a qualitative edge in space. With a relatively small indigenous population of just about 1m people, the UAE’s pool of scientific talent is limited. It may come as a surprise then that the UAE already has a space programme, but it’s no surprise the country is heavily invested in developing it further.

Take Yahsat as an example. The satellite operator owned by Abu Dhabi's Mubadala Investment Company is a regional leader in satellite broadband services along with fellow UAE satellite operator Thuraya. Yahsat recently launched a new satellite called Al Yah 3 and is anticipating growth in its broadband services in the region thanks to a boom in internet of things (IoT) devices. The IoT services market, according to a recent report in The National, is expected to grow from $6.9bn in 2018 to $12.6bn in 2021.

Building on the commercial success of Yahsat, the UAE operates at least seven other satellites for commercial and defence purposes, with Dubai Municipality’s environmental monitoring satellite DMSAT1 scheduled to launch in 2019.

In 2014, the UAE took a big step forward with the creation of its own space agency. In the past four years, the UAE Space Agency has signed partnership agreements with some of the leading space programmes in the world, including those in the US, Russia, France, and China. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Ruler of Dubai, recently announced that the UAE will send its first astronaut to the International Space Station in April 2019. Managed by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre, the success of the UAE Astronaut Programme will be a historic milestone in the country’s quest to explore space. 

Propelling the UAE space sector forward are a handful of research initiatives designed to groom a new generation of scientists. The Khalifa University Space Lab in Abu Dhabi and Space Research Centre in Al Ain are two such research institutions. The UAE Space Agency and Boeing have also joined together in the National Space Programme, while UAE companies have invested more than $5.5bn in the space sector — and that figure keeps growing.

 Source: Mars Simulation City, BIG 2017

Source: Mars Simulation City, BIG 2017

Beyond the dizzying headlines, space is about more than rockets and satellites. It is the ultimate aspiration of advanced societies everywhere that brings together a nation’s best talent, intelligence, and resolve. For the UAE, space holds the untapped potential for capturing the country’s imagination. As the country invests heavily in building a genuine knowledge economy able to withstand inevitable declines from hydrocarbon sales, space is a prototype to educate a generation of innovators, entrepreneurs, mathematicians, and scientists. And for younger generations, missions to space show them anything is possible.

The space race is already having positive effects beyond the country’s borders. In a region beset by high rates of youth unemployment and economic uncertainty, Dubai has become a beacon for hope. A 2017 survey of Arab youth shows that the region’s young people look to Dubai as a place where they can make a positive impact. As such, investment in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education is bound to have a ripple effect across the Middle East and other emerging markets.

With leading research institutions, a viable space programme, and the beginnings of a lively knowledge economy, the UAE is harnessing not just Emirati talent but Middle Eastern talent as a whole. The leadership’s decision to transform the UAE into a space power will inspire young generations of Emiratis to pursue careers in STEM subjects while attracting the best Middle Eastern talent to Dubai necessary to building the country’s knowledge economy. While space might be humanity’s final frontier, it is just the beginning for the UAE.