35 years ago, Saudi Prince Sultan bin Salman became the first Arab, Muslim and royal in space

Prince Sultan bin Salman was the first Arab, Muslim and royal in space. (Supplied)
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Updated 17 June 2020

35 years ago, Saudi Prince Sultan bin Salman became the first Arab, Muslim and royal in space

  • The astronaut blasted off on NASA’s Discovery space shuttle on June 17, 1985

LONDON: Thirty-five years ago today, at 2:33 p.m. Riyadh time on June 17, 1985, the space shuttle Discovery blasted off from launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
By then, four years and 17 successful missions since the launch in April 1981 of Columbia, the world’s first reusable orbital spacecraft, shuttle launches had become, if not exactly routine, then almost business as usual.

But there was nothing routine or usual about NASA Mission STS 51-G.

On board Discovery as it set off on its seven-day orbital mission were three commercial communication satellites, a trial tracking system for the proposed US Star Wars missile defense system, a series of astronomy and biomedical experiments — and a copy of the Qur’an.

Its owner was 28-year-old Prince Sultan bin Salman, who, strapped into seat seven as one of two payload specialists on the flight deck of Discovery, blasted into orbit and the history books at 28,968 kilometers per hour as the first Muslim, the first Arab and the first member of a royal family to fly into space.




Back home, Prince Sultan was greeted as a hero, appointed a major in the Royal Saudi Air Force and, as an unofficial ambassador, met many world leaders. (Flickr/NASA)

The choice of launch pad 39A for the mission had been a hugely symbolic one for the prince, who, as a 13-year-old boy in Riyadh, had watched the grainy television footage of the Apollo 11 lunar mission, which had taken off from the same site on July 16, 1969.

As Prince Sultan recalled in an interview with Arab News for the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing last year, the sight of astronaut Neil Armstrong taking his one small step made a lasting impression.

“Humans made airplanes and made advances in industry,” he said. “But for humans to leave their own planet … that was really something else,” he said.

At the time, the young prince entertained no thoughts of reaching for the stars himself. Even after he learnt to fly aircraft, gaining his private pilot’s license in 1977 while studying in the US, he “dismissed as impossible the idea that somebody from the Arab world” would ever venture into space.

Then, suddenly, the impossible became possible.

“When you see Earth from space you then begin to focus … that this is a gift from Allah, and that there is more to it than yourself and your small community, more to it than your own limited passions.”

Prince Sultan bin Salman

In 1976, Saudi Arabia had played a key role in the Arab League’s formation of Arabsat, a satellite communications company. Its first satellite, Arabsat-1A, was deployed from an Ariane 3 rocket launched from the French space center in Guiana in February 1985.

Arabsat’s second satellite, 1B, was due to follow four months later, and this time it would be carried aloft by NASA’s Space Shuttle Discovery.

The members of the Arab League were invited to nominate a payload specialist and, after 10 weeks of intensive training, Prince Sultan made the transition from pilot to astronaut. Blasting off into the Florida sky, he was watched and applauded by more than 200 Arab guests of NASA.

Ahead were seven days, one hour, 38 minutes and 52 seconds he would never forget. After 111 complete orbits of the Earth, he was left with an abiding sense of wonder.

“When you see Earth from space, you then begin to focus … that this is a gift from Allah, and that there is more to it than yourself and your small community, more to it than your own limited passions,” he recalled.

“Your care and passion for things become more global, more universal.”

Even orbiting 387 km above Earth, traveling over 4.5 million km in seven days, there were reminders of home — a call from his father and King Fahd broadcast live on television; being awoken on day six by mission control playing “Abaad Kontom Wala Garayebein” (“Near or Far”), by the Saudi singer Mohammed Abdo; and, of course, reading the Qur’an in space.




Prince Sultan and Discovery touched down on runway 23 at Edwards Air Force Base in California at 6:11 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time on June 24, 1985. (File/NASA)

“My father, when he called me on the space shuttle, said: ‘I learned today that you finished the Qur’an,’ and he was very happy about it,” the prince recalled last year.

To this day, as Arab News reported, “he holds this accomplishment dear to his heart, knowing that King Salman is proud of him for being the only person to read the Qur’an in space.”

Multiple missions accomplished, Prince Sultan and Discovery touched down on runway 23 at Edwards Air Force Base in California at 6:11 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time on June 24, 1985.

Back home, he was greeted as a hero, appointed a major in the Royal Saudi Air Force and, as an unofficial ambassador, met many world leaders — and his childhood heroes, the crew of Apollo 11.

Mission STS 51-G had been carried out flawlessly. But if any reminder were necessary that space travel could never be regarded as routine, it came on Jan. 28, 1986, just seven months after Prince Sultan’s successful voyage into space.

At the start of the shuttle program’s 25th mission, Discovery’s sister ship, the Challenger, broke apart shortly after takeoff, killing all seven crew members, including Christa McAuliffe, who had been selected to be the first teacher in space.

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

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Prince Sultan’s next mission was earthbound, but equally dear to his heart. Fired by a belief that “our heritage and culture are not just important but are critical to our future,” in 2000 he was appointed secretary general of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage.

There, he began work to preserve the Kingdom’s treasures, overseeing the master plan that in 2008 would see the ancient rock-carved city of Hegra designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

By 2018 it had been joined on the list by four other national treasures.




A page from the Arab News archive showing the news on June 18, 1985.

However, Prince Sultan was not yet done with space. In December 2018, he was appointed chairman of the newly formed Saudi Space Commission (SSC).

On June 17, 1985, he took his own one small step, for himself, for his faith — and for the future of his country in space.

As chairman of the SSC, with its mission “to empower the generation of tomorrow to lead in the field of space science and its applications,” he continues to inspire the youth of Saudi Arabia to follow in his footsteps.


Blessing in disguise: How pandemic was a catalyst for Saudi SMEs to change

Saudi Arabia’s consumer behavior was transformed during the lockdown as soon as malls and stores were ordered to shut their doors, creating a frenzy among consumers. (SPA)
Updated 20 September 2020

Blessing in disguise: How pandemic was a catalyst for Saudi SMEs to change

  • E-platforms played a crucial role in SMEs’ survival
  • COVID-19 transformed people’s shopping habits

JEDDAH: Saudis continue to shop online despite the government easing the COVID-19 lockdown, with the surge in e-commerce prompting small and medium-sized enterprises to adapt.

E-commerce saved global retail markets from collapse and stopped consumers from having to go out during the first wave of the outbreak. However, SMEs were the most vulnerable to the pandemic’s consequences and e-platforms played a crucial role in their survival.
Saudi Arabia’s consumer behavior was transformed during the COVID-19 lockdown as soon as stores were ordered to shut their doors, creating a frenzy among consumers although they were quick to adapt. SMEs were also forced to adapt, not only to accommodate the growing demand for online shopping but to ensure they survived with minimal losses.
Marion Janson, the chief economist at the UN’s International Trade Centre, said in June that around 20 percent of SMEs globally may not survive the pandemic.
A recent report from Visa revealed increased anxiety among merchants in Saudi Arabia, with 67 percent of small businesses noticing a decrease in average consumer spending.
Many Saudi consumers started shopping online for the first time, primarily for essentials. The Visa report showed that two-thirds of the Saudi consumers surveyed said that COVID-19 led to their first online grocery purchase, while 59 percent made their first online purchase from pharmacies.
“With the confusion at the beginning, we didn’t know what was acceptable and what wasn’t,” said Dr. Suhad Zain, a government employee in Jeddah. “Can we risk going out to shop for our daily needs or not? We needed to be sure that everyone in the house was safe, including the driver, and not expose ourselves to the invisible menace that changed our lifestyles. Most of our groceries were obtained online, from produce to water bottles to even appliances and leisure items. It had to be done, even though we needed time to accept the new change.”
Fear of the virus is expected to change the way consumers behave forever. “It became more convenient even after the lockdown was lifted,” Zain added. “After a few months we got used to it and, as a family, it became our new preferred means of purchase.”
Such conditions were a catalyst for online commerce, according to the Visa report, with 38 percent of merchants in the country reporting the introduction of online offerings as a direct result of the pandemic while more than half had an e-commerce presence before the pandemic.

Two-thirds of the Saudi consumers said COVID-19 led to their first online grocery purchase, while 59% made their first online purchase from pharmacies. (GettyImages)


The report also said there was a surge in e-commerce, a preference for trusted brands, a decline in discretionary spending, and a polarization of sustainability. Consumers have a larger basket, but reduced shopping frequency, and will shift to stores closer to home. A change can easily be detected in Saudi consumer behavior.
But the shift to online commerce, with cash transactions being replaced by digital payments, has negatively influenced cash-only retailers and presents a tough challenge to these merchants, who have to understand the shift in consumer behavior and adapt accordingly and urgently.
“Saudi business owners currently face multiple challenges that they need to deal with when they want to shift to e-commerce, some of them even lack the knowledge of how technology could benefit them and what options it could offer,” Talal Abdullah, a business development and marketing consultant, told Arab News.
“Also some will need to find a technical partner to successfully transform to e-commerce and, most importantly, they need to revisit their business model canvas to determine how they want to employ this technology for the best of their businesses.”
In order to overcome these challenges, Abdullah suggested that business owners look for the right technical partner based on their new model.
“If they fail to find a suitable technical partner, then they need to set a clear budget for the application or website they need to set up. But before reaching out to any company that offers support with these technical services, you must get in touch with real clients of these companies and inquire about their business and how they deal with them.”
He added that seeking assistance from technical consultants or owners of similar projects could cut down on time and effort. Joining business accelerators and incubators, as well as entrepreneurship and technology communities, could help with expanding knowledge and relationships and contribute overall to a smoother transition.
But these changes have their costs too, imposing new financial burdens on an already weakened business due to the pandemic and the time required to build and adapt a new business model that targets a completely different group of customers. It is a serious challenge for many small retailers.
Abu Mohammed has been in the retail business for 20 years. He used to have frequent customers who came in for a specific type of clothing with a certain price range. But, with the lockdown, he could hardly sell anything.
“I began targeting a different kind of customer in the past couple of years where I was importing new clothes and selling them through Instagram and e-commerce websites,” he told Arab News. “However I still cannot completely substitute my current store with a completely virtual one. That needs time and money to build a reputation.”
He said the lockdown had been a harsh experience for him and that he recognized the need to expedite his old plans to transform his store into an actual brand, since people were gradually moving toward online shopping from well-known brands.
“This transformation is not going to be easy at all,” he added. “It will need a good marketing plan and well-spent money not only on tools but also staff. It is a completely new experience, however. I know e-commerce is here to stay and it is our only way forward. Otherwise my work for years will gradually vanish. This crisis could be a blessing in disguise, who knows.”