Launch of the First Arab Interplanetary Mission—Hope
21 JUL 2020 Spotlight
On 20 July, the United Arab Emirates Space Agency sent a probe to Mars, an event that marked the first Arab interplanetary mission. UAE is now the Arab leader in space exploration. This role coincides with the country’s efforts to gain political domination in the region. The UAE’s investments in the space industry also indicate that it is part of its efforts to diversify the state’s sources of income and tighten cooperation with allies. The EU can use the European Space Agency (ESA) and its expertise to strengthen its position in relations with the UAE, which so far has been cooperating mainly with Asian partners.
Photo: Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters Photo: Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters

What is the purpose of the UAE mission and how does it fit into the country’s space programme?

The UAE launched the Hope satellite, which will enter Mars orbit and collect data on the planet’s atmosphere. Investments in the space industry totalling $6 billion since the creation of the UAE Space Agency in 2014 are part of the country’s efforts to transform its economy into one based on innovation and knowledge. Since 2014, the UAE has sent three satellites into space, and the world's largest Mars simulator is being built in the Emirati desert. Its aim is to serve the Mars 2117 programme, which involves sending people to the planet by 2117. In addition, in March 2019, the UK-based Virgin Galactic (31.6% of which is held by Emirati state-owned company Mubadala Investment Company) signed an agreement with the UAE Space Agency regarding cooperation in the development of space tourism, to be carried out from the Emirates’ Al-Ain airport.

What does the UAE mission mean for foreign policy?

The space programme builds on the UAE’s image as a regional leader in innovation and the space industry, which should ensure benefits from cooperation with other countries and international organisations. This is indicated by the declaration that data collected by Hope will be available to 200 scientific institutions around the world, along with the UAE Space Agency cooperation agreement with NASA and the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs, which in 2017 signed an agreement with the UAE on the peaceful and sustainable use of space. The Hope mission and investments in the space industry also serve to strengthen economic cooperation with Asian innovation leaders (Hope was launched from Japan, and the Indian Space Research Organisation participated in the development of the mission). Cooperation is therefore expected to strengthen relations with these countries.

Does the mission create an opportunity for the development of cooperation between Arab states in the exploitation of space?

The development of the UAE space industry has become a stimulus to resume cooperation between Arab states in this area and enables the UAE to take a dominant role in it. In March 2019, during the UAE’s Global Space Congress, 11 countries established the Arab Group for Space Cooperation, with the goal to create an Arab space agency. The group’s first mission will be to build a satellite that monitors greenhouse gas emissions. The project will be coordinated by the UAE Space Agency and the country will host the headquarters of the group’s secretariat. The initiative has overshadowed Saudi Arabia’s efforts to cooperate with Arab states in the field of space exploration, which includes ArabSat, the League of Arab States initiative launched in 1976 that has sent 14 satellites into Earth orbit.

What could the UAE expect from Europe in this regard?

Trainings carried out in 2018 by the European Space Agency in which Emirati air traffic controllers and astronauts took part (one of whom was the first Arab to reach the International Space Station in 2019) indicate that the UAE may need European experience to implement further initiatives. In addition, seven out of the 10 most innovative countries in the world are members of the ESA, which in the context of efforts to transform the UAE’s economy creates the opportunity to strengthen EU relations with the country. The EU, whose funds account for 23% of the ESA budget in 2020, could therefore support the projects implemented by the UAE Space Agency and the Arab Group for Space Cooperation through the organisation. EU and Arab states’ joint initiatives in the space industry may be an opportunity to strengthen the image of Europe as an innovative partner in the Middle East and create a counterbalance to Asian countries that seek to dominate cooperation with the region in the field of new technologies.