We have lift-off: The Middle East gets with the space program as it marks World Space Week

The UAE Space Agency is planning a mission to Mars. (Supplied photo)
Updated 26 September 2019

We have lift-off: The Middle East gets with the space program as it marks World Space Week

  • We look at the region’s achievements in space, including the first Arab and first Muslim astronaut, Saudi Prince Sultan bin Salman
  • Countries such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia are investing in the space sector as a way of diversifying their oil economies

DUBAI: Space enthusiasts and experts have planned more than 3,700 events in 80 countries to mark World Space Week, which begins and ends every year with two dates significant to the start of the first space age: On Oct. 4, 1957, the date Russia launched Sputnik 1, the world’s first satellite, and on Oct. 10, 1967, an international space treaty came into effect. 

But as the world moves into the second space age, it won’t be long before the Middle East has its own set of milestones to mark. 

Space science, mathematics, engineering and technology are increasingly gaining ground across the region. And although the call in 2008 to establish a pan-Arab space agency has not progressed as much as many had hoped, experts say the idea led to other positive developments, such as the establishment of the UAE Space Agency in 2014. 

The UAE has quickly established itself as a global player on space-related matters, with other countries, such as Saudi Arabia, closely following suit. 

“With the Kingdom announcing last year it is investing $1 billion in Virgin Galactic and its spinoff companies, it too is returning to reboot its now decades-old space program, that most notably had Sultan bin Salman Al-Saud, the first royal astronaut and the first Arab Muslim, to fly in outer space in 1985,” said Matthew Cochran, chairman of the Defense Services Marketing Council, an Abu Dhabi-based network of partnerships related to regional defense, space and security marketing. “The region is primarily dominated by the UAE Space Program, being the most relevant and mature in 2018 with its Mars mission and astronaut programs.” 

Scientists at the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology in Riyadh have manufactured two space satellites so far. (SPA)

Last year, six countries – Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria and Bahrain – kicked off talks related to space. This year, Sudan, Oman and Kuwait joined the group. Cochran believes the main challenge facing the region is the constant requirement to travel outside the Middle East for relatively simple launches of CubeSats. “Having a launch capability for peaceful space programs from the UAE or the GCC is a must in the short term,” he said. “The space program in the UAE is vital as it provides the reach goals that combine all industries, governments and academic programs behind visionary goals. It also provides the velocity for the regional shifts as major players in the space and aerospace industry.” 

He spoke of the UAE’s space program as a beacon of hope and prosperity for the planet as the human race strives to explore deep space with global partners. But more work needs to be done to achieve the ultimate goal of creating an Arab space agency. 

“The Middle East, and particularly the UAE, is actively pursuing involvement in the space sector,” said Francesco Arneodo, associate dean of science and associate professor of physics at New York University – Abu Dhabi. “The progress has been very fast, with important initiatives like the ambitious Mars Mission, that foresees an orbiter around Mars in 2021, the establishment of the UAE Space Agency and the organization of international events.”

He said the agency is working on involving local and international institutes, including universities, research institutions and companies, to lay the foundations of a durable and productive space sector. 

“Access to space is often seen as a benchmark for the technological development of a country,” he said. “Putting a satellite in orbit nowadays costs much less than 10 to 20 years ago, and the diffusion of relatively cheap micro-satellites, among which the CubeSats – which are small, high-tech cubes of 10sqcm – offers an ideal platform for training and prototyping, a platform that is also becoming accessible to undergraduate students. 

“However, if the goal is to establish a source of sustained innovation, and eventually of revenue, it should not be forgotten that this comes normally as the last step of a complex system that includes basic research that scientists do as an important element.”

And with the UAE’s plans to send the Arab world’s first mission to Mars through its Amal (Hope) probe by 2021, and Saudi working on developing satellite technologies for use in remote sensing and space communications, time is pressing. “It’s really exciting to see how fast the Middle East region is adopting space exploration activities,” said Bas Lansdorp, chief executive at Mars One in the Netherlands. “The world is becoming more and more aware that space is not just a great way to inspire, but also a business.”

As Gulf countries gradually shift their economies away from oil, building national capacity in the space sector can significantly contribute to meeting the countries’ missions. “The UAE’s government built the infrastructure and heavily invested in this sector as it will allow it to be a pioneer in this vital field,” said Dr Ahmed Murad, dean of the college of science at United Arab Emirates University. “Having the UAE Space Agency will help the country to structure and govern this sector in a proper way. The Emirates implemented the best practices in forming the agency.” 

Prince Sultan bin Salman was the first Arab, Muslim and royal in space.

He said establishing a space agency in every country is crucial to lead the sector and further advance civilization. “This will help the region become the hub of advanced research in space while meeting the goals of the UAE’s Centennial 2071 project, for instance,” Dr Murad said. “The Middle East is advancing in adopting space and the sector has become a dream for every student. Different space-related entities have worked to pave the way to build state-of-the-art infrastructure that will help researchers conduct their work in issues and challenges associated with space.” 

The region’s educational sector is also undergoing massive revamping to be able to adapt to changing times, with new and more focused curricula and programs focusing on science, technology, engineering, mathematics and space. 

UAE University is no exception, with its physics department offering a new space science track this fall. Its college of science is also working on developing a minor in space science, which will be open to all students at the university. It is also working with other colleges to develop a graduate program in space science and technology. 

“The main challenges that face the region will be limited to recruiting high-caliber researchers in the field of space in order to transfer the best practices of space to the region,” Dr Murad added. “Rapid developments in technology also pose challenges to the Middle East, but space is extremely important for regional countries because it is one of the main pillars that will help them diversify their economy in the long run.”

When a Saudi went to space
Prince Sultan bin Salman speaks exclusively to Arab News about his 1985 NASA mission and how he became the first Arab, Muslim and royal in space



Iraqi grand ayatollah: I support the people, and they want change

As strikes resume in Iraq, anti-government protesters stand on a concrete wall set up by security forces in Al-Rashid district in Baghdad on Sunday. (AP)
Updated 18 November 2019

Iraqi grand ayatollah: I support the people, and they want change

  • Iran’s blatant interference in Iraqi affairs and its involvement in crackdown on protesters angers Ali Sistani

BAGHDAD: A senior adviser to Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani has told Arab News that he does not support the continuation of the government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and that the existing political forces did not press for early parliamentary elections with a new election law and an electoral commission. Baghdad and nine southern Shiite-dominated provinces have endured mass demonstrations against the government since Oct. 1.

More than 300 demonstrators have been killed and 15,000 others have been injured, mostly in Baghdad, due to bloody crackdowns led by Abdul Mahdi’s government and his Iranian-backed allies.
Al-Sistani is the leader of the world’s Shiite community and the most influential cleric in Iraq and has been the godfather of the political process since 2003. No government or prime minister can survive without Al-Sistani’s support and blessing.
Protesters, initially protesting against corruption, unemployment and lack of daily basic services, were brutally repressed in the first week of October by Abdul Mahdi’s government and his Iran-backed allies, killing more than 147 demonstrators and wounding more than 6,000 others with live ammunition and tear gas canisters, which stopped demonstrations for two weeks.
But demonstrations resumed on Oct. 25 after Al-Sistani announced his support and the Iraqi government vowed not to use live ammunition.
The return of the protests was accompanied by increasing demands to overthrow Abdul Mahdi’s government and the holding of early national parliamentary elections preceded by the change of the election law and the electoral commission.
Abdul Mahdi and his allies from the political forces announced their agreement to meet the demands of the demonstrators except the dismissal or resignation of Abdul Mahdi or early elections.

PM’s survival
The prime minister’s allies insist on his survival, accompanied by a significant increase in killings, kidnappings and arrests of activists and journalists, with the promotion of news that they have an agreement with Al-Sistani that allows the continuation of Abdul Mahdi’s government, new ministerial and constitutional amendments and a set of important laws, without holding early elections.
Al-Sistani’s office denied that they had concluded such an agreement or that they had anything to do with it.
“The real conviction is the conviction of the people. We have no guardianship over the people, but we support it because the constitution says they are the source of powers,” Sistani’s top aid told Arab News.
“We support peaceful demonstration because it is the right of the citizen … If it remains peaceful, it will affect the state’s convictions.
“We have no confidence that those (political forces) will be able to solve the problem. We see that they are part of the problem, not part of the solution and unless there is a real change within the constitutional items, the problem will remain the same.”


• Abdul Mahdi and his allies from the political forces announced their agreement to meet the demands of the demonstrators except the dismissal or resignation of the government, or early elections. 

• Ali Sistani’s top aid tells Arab News that the grand ayatollah does not suppport the continuation of the present government in Iraq.

Iraq ranks high on the list of the most corrupt countries. The system of political, sectarian and ethnic quotas adopted by Iraqi politicians since 2004, which includes the three presidencies and ministries and advanced positions in all state institutions, contributed to the spread of financial and administrative corruption and provided the required protection for corrupt politicians.
“There have been no real treatments for corruption over the past years. Corruption is rampant ... because of the weakness of the judiciary and the regulatory authorities, some of which have sought to use corruption cases to blackmail and enrich themselves.
“Officials are getting rich at the expense of the people. Corruption whales became powerful, while the qualified people have left Iraq and the graduates do not find jobs.
“We have no hope in the existing political forces and the chances of continuation of this government are very small. “They should all leave. This political class must leave.”
Al-Sistani has recently intervened in major events, as happened when the Iraqi Army collapsed and Daesh overran one-third of Iraqi territories in the western and northern parts of the country in the summer of 2014 and advanced toward Baghdad, when he issued an edict (fatwa) demanding that people take up arms and volunteer to support Iraqi forces in their fight against Daesh. Sistani’s intervention this time appeared gradually and through Friday sermons.

Strongest sermon
The last Friday sermon was the strongest to date, as Al-Sistani’s told his followers: “If those who have power (now), think they can evade real reform, with procrastination, they are delusional. The aftermath of these protests will not be the same as before. They should be careful.”
This was understood by most politicians and observers as a yellow ultimatum, which could soon be followed by a warning of expulsion or paralysis of civilian life.
“We do not interfere with particles. We have constitutional mechanisms that we do not want to get out of, but when we found that these mechanisms were tailored to the size of the existing political forces, we demanded a new electoral law that would ensure a genuine representation of the people and a new electoral commission that people trust will safeguard their choices,” Al-Sistani’s aid said.
“We will not allow things to descend into chaos. This is not an option. Our biggest concern is that the law will weaken further, which means slipping into infighting.”
Iran’s blatant interference in Iraqi affairs, reflected by the statements of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who was publicly demanding an end to the demonstrations in Iraq and Lebanon, and the involvement of Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, in the crackdown on protesters, has angered Al-Sistani. This was evident in his three previous speeches.
“We have a real problem: Iraq is negatively affected by the (regional) environment. We will not allow Iraq to be a battleground for any regional or international party ... we will not allow anyone to interfere in the affairs of Iraq, whether it is a friend or an enemy, because all interventions are aimed at serving special ambitions,” Al-Sistani’s aid said.
“He will not leave the people. If the people’s demand is for early elections, then we support early elections, and if they want to change the (political) system, we support it … and if they say that they do not want this government, we support it.
“Our position is clear and unambiguous. We are with the people in what they want ... and Al-Sistani has not used its strongest weapons yet.”