Saudi Arabia and the UAE stand out as the most advanced within the regional space race based on satellite launches, geospatial intelligence, and SpaceTech R&D. The two allocate the largest resources to space projects compared to their Gulf counterparts.
Saudi Arabia’s interest in space has grown significantly thanks to the King Abdulaziz City for Sciences and Technology (KACST) and the Saudi Space Commission (SSC). As the owner and operator of 17 satellites, the Kingdom is the strongest regional space contender. It has established several space initiatives, and plans to spend SR8 billion to boost its space program by 2030.
The UAE has developed several organisations to support R&D in space science. The UAE Space Agency oversees the country’s space sector and promotes its economic contribution. The agency’s mission is to create awareness about the value of space technologies, strengthen national capabilities and promote the peaceful use of space research. The UAE has so far launched five satellites.
Bahrain’s National Space Science Agency (NSSA) aims to align the Kingdom’s space capabilities with the SDGs. It has launched a satellite in collaboration with the UAE Space Agency, Khalifa University of Science, Technology and Research, and New York University Abu Dhabi.
Kuwait’s space efforts have regained traction, albeit through a bottom-up approach rather than a government-led one. The development of Orbital Space, the firm behind the QMR-KWT, was the first private enterprise in the region to specialise in CubeSat technology, which consists of 1-kilogram satellites used in low Earth orbit. It was also the first to build a private CubeSat ground station in the Middle East.
Qatar Aeronautics and Space Agency (QASA) aims to venture into space through R&D facilities and contributions to the projects of other GCC countries. The Oman Astronomical Society is working on astrological and space projects including the Space Oasis Hall and the first Omani cubic satellite.
Space race contenders
The high levels of cooperation among GCC countries and between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the regional space programs can be tapped to create a joint regional space agency. The first UAE astronaut, Hazza Al Mansoori, was supported by ESA-trained operations during his flight to the ISS. The Saudi Space Commission also has several cooperation agreements with the ESA.
The ESA can become a reliable international partner for a potential GCC Space Agency, while benefitting from innovation and new resources to leverage the effectiveness of ESA Earth observation activities.
The rise of a GCC Space Agency requires unprecedented levels of collaboration between government space agencies and private space companies. The good news is that there have already been several avenues of cooperation between both private and government organisations within the Gulf.
Kuwait’s Orbital Space has already set the stage for regional cooperation through partnerships with Bahrain’s NSSA and the UAE’s Space Agency. Furthermore, the latter has been collaborating with the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), promoting the use of space for sustainable development. The UAE has built strong ties with over 25 potential global members and organisations to identify and establish capacity building initiatives in the GCC.
The establishment of an R&D headquarters in the UAE or Saudi Arabia can bring scientists and resources under one roof, creating massive synergies and bolstering regional space capabilities. Specialised space centres based on each country’s specific capabilities can be set up in various Gulf nations to support the overall efforts of the regional hub. This consolidation could position the region as a leading hub for talent outsourcing to international space agencies.
Regional SpaceTech fund
Setting up a regional space fund would play a key role in attracting government and private financing. Creating a regional space accelerator is also essential to attract start-ups and companies providing innovative space technologies.
Space exploration is an expensive business, and its development requires an immense amount of funding from governmental, institutional and private investors. A regional space hub can create economies of scale in modern space exploration, leading to efficiency and cost reduction.
It’s always better to have your own launchpad as opposed to renting. Egypt, Libya and Algeria are the only Arab countries with space launch capabilities. Building a central GCC launchpad will eliminate rental fees and offer more control over launches and overall project timelines.