Space, the final frontier for KSA’s economic ambitions
The recent establishment of a Higher Council for Space headed by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman and the subsequent expansion of the Communications and Information Technology Commission to include space highlights its strategic importance to the Kingdom’s future. It builds on prior Saudi-led efforts during its secretariat of the Group of 20 nations, which considered the space sector a significant part of the global economy. It led to the establishment of the Saudi Space Commission by a royal decree in 2018.
The space economy is not new and has its genesis in the 1950s when the Soviet Union and the US both launched their respective programs. Today, almost 90 countries are participating in the space economy, which is estimated to generate over $300 billion annually.
If this number seems surprising, consider that whenever you order rideshare, such as Uber, space assets provide the GPS signals that guide the vehicle to your door.
Likewise, each time you open your phone to check the weather, you are receiving data from weather satellites which represent a $162 billion a year market in the US alone.
The Kingdom’s focus on the space sector is, therefore, timely and has the potential to create broad economic and social value for the country, particularly in the context of the diversification and futureproofing of the economy.
The development of the Saudi space economy will also accelerate and bolster many other initiatives underway in the country, such as the Saudi Green Initiative, the various supply chain and logistics programs, or the efforts of the government to become a leading information and communication technology-equipped nation and an exporter of digital products and services.
Firstly, as the Kingdom increases its self-sufficiency and mitigates global supply chain risks, particularly with food, the ability to deploy remote sensing technologies in space can help farmers plan better. It can provide early warning of pestilence or weather-related challenges or assess the yield of crucial foods or natural resources. Saudi farmers will, in the future, be able to engage in precision agriculture combining internet-enabled sensors that capture measurements of soil characteristics with satellite data to get precise recommendations on fertilizer or techniques to maximize crop yield.
As we build more resilient supply chains, space-sourced geospatial data will enable us to assess better global risks, such as identifying chokepoints or providing early warning of capacity constraints in downstream materials. Similarly, this technology can allow Saudi firms to sense global demand, such as observing movements of shipping vessels or predicting weather events, such as hurricanes or droughts that drive demand for Saudi materials or products, such as chemicals used in the manufacture of plastic plumbing or irrigation products.
Secondly, space technology will enable pervasive connectivity across the region or globally. It builds on the Kingdom’s current leadership in the deployment of 5G. It allows the country to take even greater advantage of its geographic position to become a significant regional hub for the hosting of data and digital services.
Through its space initiatives and academic efforts, the Kingdom can provide the experience, mentorship and collaborations to help build this talent base.
With a large percentage of the world’s population in Central Asia, Africa, Asia, and elsewhere within close geographic proximity to Saudi Arabia, the ability to provide satellite connectivity to remote people alongside significant hosting and cloud capabilities in the country could further accelerate the Kingdom’s ambition to be a global leader in the digital economy.
Likewise, as we imagine a more connected world, the need to extend efficient connectivity to those connected objects, such as autonomous vehicles or factory infrastructure, will depend on low energy, pervasive connectivity of the type satellites are well-placed to offer.
Thirdly, space infrastructure will also play a significant role as the world deals with sustainability challenges. For example, satellites can give us a unique ability to look around the globe to understand carbon dioxide emissions, the causes and correlations with different activities, and even to identify the leakage or appearance of poisonous or environmentally dangerous gases such as methane. However, deploying sensors all over the country is challenging and prohibitively costly. So, using remote-sensing technologies delivered from space will help nations monitor and manage their sustainability obligations and objectives.
Fourth, as the Kingdom is developing its mining industry on earth, a mining industry must be developed in space.
Asteroids are believed to be rich in gold, cobalt, palladium, platinum, tungsten and other valuable materials. There is an opportunity to develop and deploy novel techniques for asteroid mining, such as using biological agents such as fungi.
Lastly, by pursuing space programs, we know that it can lead to innovations of broad terrestrial applicability. It was the case with prior space programs that gave us innovations such as artificial limbs, insulin pumps, cordless vacuum cleaners, solar cells, invisible braces and even baby formula.
Space forces us to confront challenges, such as how to sustain life, manufacture in new ways, power vehicles or robots and much more; a lot of this know-how is readily transferrable to earth-based domains and industries.
To realize this, we need to focus on talent development for the space economy. It is not just astronauts but also aerospace engineers, mechanical engineers, computer scientists and software engineers, physicians, biologists and more. It is estimated that today around 400,000 people work in the space economy, which is projected to rise to over 1.5 million soon.
Through its space initiatives and academic efforts, the Kingdom can provide the experience, mentorship and collaborations to help build this talent base. In addition, through international partnerships, know-how can be captured locally, leading to the developing of a vibrant space-oriented talent ecosystem.
The recent government announcements focusing on this emerging area of the economy are therefore crucial for today and even more critical for the future. Because soon, the efforts launched under the auspices of the space economy will be a force multiplier and accelerator for many of the other pillars of the Kingdom’s vision.
• Anthony Butler is chief technology officer at IBM-Middle East & Africa.