Last February, several earth probes reached the orbit of the planet Mars within a few days. On February 10, a Chinese rover reached its destination, confirming Beijing’s ambitions and space capabilities. On the 18th, a NASA rover landed on Martian soil. But on February 9, it was a probe designed to study the atmosphere of the red planet that was deployed. A probe sent by the United Arab Emirates (UAE). A newcomer to the select club of countries capable of interplanetary missions, which we didn’t expect. If the United States is a veteran, if China is a very ambitious space power, the UAE will be seen as a total outsider. And yet…
Abu Dhabi has real space ambitions. How did this confederation of emirates of fewer than 10 million people rise to the rank of rising space power? The big Saudi neighbor, much more populous and oil-producing, and therefore richer in foreign exchange, has not yet been able to do so, despite Crown Prince Mohammed ben Salman’s ambitions to reshape the country’s economy, which is too dependent on black gold.
Space is already one of the strategic areas in which the UAE is investing heavily to continue transforming its economic model, which has also long been dependent on oil. In 2018 the first Emirati satellite was launched. In 2019, an Emirati stayed on the International Space Station for a week. The Hope Mars probe program was launched in 2014 at the same time as the creation of the national space agency, four years before Saudi Arabia created its own. In 2017, Abu Dhabi announced a highly ambitious plan to build a city in the desert to simulate a life-size future permanent settlement on Mars by 2117. This 180,000 m² test city should cost 150 million US dollars. Finally, in 2022, a domestically designed rover is slated to head to the moon.
The UAE thus has the will to become a real space power and seems to be providing the necessary means thanks to the unconditional support of the Emirati leadership. This space program fulfills several goals. The first thing to do is to awaken vocations. Space has always been a dream, especially for the younger generations, and taking part in this adventure could inspire enthusiasm for university science courses set up by the authorities, sometimes in partnership with foreign countries. Studying the natural sciences can only have a positive impact on the country’s economic transformation, especially in the fields of aviation, electronics, IT and communications. After all, the prestige bestowed by space power status, synonymous with modernity and progress, can only benefit Abu Dhabi. Because space is also geopolitics. Showing the UAE’s successes in a highly volatile and competitive region to the Arab and Iranian Gulf neighbors can only bring benefits in terms of credibility and power here.
However, there is still a long way to go and numerous obstacles to overcome before it becomes a true space power. Abu Dhabi’s efforts are commendable, but it should not be forgotten that the UAE has only been independent since 1971. The population of nationals is small, barely a million, giving limited capacity for engineers and scientists. Although the country has developed an effective school and university system (with many foreign partnerships, such as the Sorbonne), the majority of students turn to courses in international trade, economics and law. The UAE still suffers from a shortage of engineers and especially scientists. As a result, all of the above space programs are in fact very largely international. The Hope Mars probe program was therefore co-managed with the University of Colorado Boulder, which was responsible for developing the module and the probe, which was launched by a Japanese rocket.
women in the spotlight
The Emirati authorities are fully aware of these disadvantages and are taking measures to deal with them. First, by multiplying university structures dedicated to space studies, such as the Aerospace Research and Innovation Center, the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center or the Sharjah Center for Astronomy and Space Sciences. The aim is to increase the number of science students oriented towards the space field. It should be noted that, according to the American partners in Colorado, the Emirati staff is very strong-willed and characterized by a high degree of feminization. Women thus make up 80% of the Emirati scientists of the Hope program and 34% of the total staff, with Sarah Al Amiri being the scientific director. Good evidence of a certain progressivism in a region that is beginning to shed its conservative reputation.
The UAE therefore seems to have chosen the voice of international cooperation and national rearmament for its space program. It is certainly the country in the zone that started best on a solid footing and with pragmatic thinking about the future, the problems encountered and the solutions to be found. Space is a dream and the Emirates’ position appears to be based on positive foundations that combine collaboration, strengthening science education, women’s inclusion and economic diversification through expected benefits. For a partner country France, a historic space power, this can only be good news potentially rich in partnerships.
If the ambitions continue and the support of the authorities does not wane, why not imagine an Emirati among the first Martians?
Tribune written by Matthieu Anquez, international relations and geopolitics expert, President of ARES Strategy and Scientific Advisor of Futuribles International
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