It was the UAE that first announced in April this year its space ambitions, aiming for the Mission to Mars plan in 2021 and building the first settlement on the Red planet 100 years later in 2117. The country’s investments in space technologies have already exceeded AED20 billion ($5.4bn).
And now comes Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) on October 26, 2017, announcing a $1bn investment in British billionaire Richard Branson’s space tourism company Virgin Galactic. Sir Richard plans a space mission as early as 2018. The deal comes after Virgin said that it would invest in the Kingdom’s Red Sea project that aims to turn 50 Saudi islands into luxury tourism destinations.
Saudi recently announced a new $500bn Red Sea development called NEOM, which dwarfs any development anywhere in the region.
New measures as part of Saudi Vision 2030 aim at bringing the country into the limelight and painting a new image of openness and transparency, which include plans to sell shares of Aramco, lifting the ban on women drivers and VOIP and investment friendly schemes, among many others.
But why are plans suddenly orbiting around space?
Saudi’s interest in space
Saudi is a pioneer of sorts when it comes to space in the region. In fact, in June 1985 Sultan bin Salman al-Saud, a member of the Saudi royal family, was part of the crew on a Space Shuttle Discovery flight, becoming the first Arab, first Muslim and first member of a royal family to go into outer space.
But ensuing Saudi efforts have since been geared, more than anything else, towards satellite launching.
Dr. John B. Sheldon, Chairman and President of the THOR Group, a full service merger and acquisition advisory firm, said in a recent report that one way to help ensure success towards Saudi Vision 2030 was for the kingdom to harness the technologies and potential of space systems.
Well, the PIF-Virgin MoU that invests $1bn into Virgin Galactic, the Spaceship Company and Virgin Orbit, with an option for $480 million of future additional investment in space services, puts that Saudi program a few months away from going into space with Branson’s commercial space flights aimed at placing satellites around the planet in 2018.
Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al-Saud said: “This partnership with Virgin Group reflects the great strides the Kingdom is making towards our vision for a diversified, knowledge-based economy. The future of Saudi Arabia is one of innovation.”
Branson said: “We are now just months away from Virgin Galactic going into space with people on board and Virgin Orbit going into orbit and placing satellites around the Earth. This investment will enable us to develop the next generation of satellite launches and accelerate our programme for point to point supersonic space travel.”
The intended investment will include the possibility to develop a space centric entertainment industry in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a PIF statement said.
But this is not Saudi’s first foray into space activity. In June 2015, Saudi King Salman led his country’s space program and signed an agreement to partner with Russia in the latter’s efforts to build another International Space Station by 2023.
“Saudi Arabia and Russia have reached an agreement for collaboration between their space programs for peaceful exploration,” said a media statement following a Saudi Cabinet decision on the same.
King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) says that the space and aeronautical sector is of strategic importance to the Kingdom as part of the fourteen-technology strategies set by the National Plan for Science, Technology and Innovation (NPST).
“The Kingdom seeks through the space and aeronautical technology program to achieve a regional leadership in this vital sector relying on its preeminent position and vital capabilities that will allow the country to obtain its objective,” said KAUST.
It added that King Abdul-Aziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) worked on strengthening the Kingdom’s position, in relation to space and aeronautical technologies and systems through the country’s national and international cooperation in research and development programs.
What about the UAE?
UAE’s space goals
The UAE has approved a manned spaceflight programme and could begin training the first Emirati astronauts as early as next year, according to Salem Humaid Al Marri, Assistant Director General at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre.
“Putting a UAE astronaut in orbit is part of a ‘sustainable” human spaceflight programme with a serious purpose, rather than simply for prestige,” he told a space congress in Australia.
“The government would formally seek applications for astronaut training by the end of this year or the first quarter of 2018,” he said, and after six to eight months, a final selection of four to six astronauts would be made towards placing the first UAE astronaut in space by 2021 at the country’s 50th anniversary.
Dubai emphasised its interest in space, announcing that it will host the International Astronautical Congress in 2020.
In preparation for the Mars mission, the country is funding Mars Science City, an AED500 million ($136m) endeavour that will replicate human colonisation of the planet.
Which other GCC nation is interested?
Kuwait aims for the stars
Kuwaiti news agency (Kuna) reported in March 2017 that ideas similar to UAE’s space program plans were surfacing on local streets.
It quoted Dr. Hala Al-Jassar from the Physics Department at Kuwait University as saying: “Establishing a space program, or at least a space agency, is not a fantasy, it is the way of the future.”
“When we start a space program, we will not be starting from scratch,” Dr Al-Jassar told Kuna. “We have the budget, the talents, the expertise and outstanding graduates.”
A 2017 Forbes article said that in 2014 Kuwait University and the Kuwait Foundation for Advancement of Science signed up to NASA’s soil moisture active passive (SMAP) initiative and that the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research was working with NASA on its jet propulsion laboratory project.