Beyond Borders: Saudi Arabia’s Ambitions in Outer Space
by Sophie Smith
On 4 December 2021, the Saudi Space Commission and the French National Centre for Space Studies inked a joint cooperation agreement on the peaceful use of outer space. The agreement offers a framework for collaboration in space activities, such as information and technologies exchanges, capacity building and workshops, while articulating a mechanism for space-based climate monitoring and establishing a conducive environment for investments in the sector.[i] This follows from Saudi Arabia’s October 2022 accession to the International Astronautical Federation — a space organisation that facilitates international cooperation and dialogue between scientists.[ii] The space sector has gained increasing significance in Riyadh for its prospects regarding its economic diversification push, security and international reputation.
Saudi Arabia’s Space Activities
Saudi Arabia’s activities in the space sector date back to the 1970s and it played a leading role in the formation of the Arab Satellite Communications Organisation (Arabsat), a satellite communication provider established by the Arab League in 1976 in Riyadh.[iii] It was the first Middle Eastern country to send an astronaut to space as Prince Sultan bin Salman Al-Saud joined the mission in the American space shuttle Discovery, during which the Saudi Arabsat-B1 satellite was also deployed.[iv]
Recent years have seen a significant uptick in Saudi Arabia’s interest in the space sector under the auspices of the King Abdulaziz City for Sciences and Technology (KACST) and the newly formed Saudi Space Commission (SSC). The former works to develop space technologies and infrastructure, as well as focuses on research and skills development, while the latter leads Saudi’s space strategy and oversees its implementation to boost research and industrial space activities.[v] Under their direction, Saudi Arabia has set up numerous initiatives, while forging bilateral and multilateral partnerships, with the support of an 8 billion riyal (€1.9 billion) injection to the industry by 2030.[vi] This, notably, encompasses a focus on strengthening domestic capabilities in the space sector through investing in human capital and resources to self-sufficiently develop space technologies. Indeed, both are underscored by the SSC’s ongoing projects:
The Ajyal Space Program—which focuses on developing national human capital in space and technology and encouraging young Saudis to become involved in STEM subjects.[vii]
The Orbital Sites Reservation Project—that looks to match national demands for orbital slots (so-called ‘parking spaces’ in space) to reduce its reliance on foreign partners.[viii]
Within this environment, KACST has launched 17 satellites over the past 20 years, including the first Saudi satellite for communications (SGS-1) in 2019 and the first satellite launched by a Saudi university (CubeSat) in 2021.[ix]
To further enhance such initiatives, Saudi Arabia partnered with several countries to deepen space cooperation (research efforts, launching satellites, etc.). This includes larger European powers — Germany and France — as well as Russia and China. And, diversifying beyond these, Riyadh has also inked agreements with Kazakhstan, Greece, South Korea, and Ukraine. Beyond bilateral engagements, it joined the UAE-led Arab Space Coordination Group in 2019 to develop the advanced “813 Satellite” to monitor the earth, environment and climate.[x] And, as part of the G20 in October 2020, Saudi Arabia hosted the first Space Economy Leaders Meeting where the discussions centred on strengthening space cooperation, maximising the benefits of the space economy and using space peacefully.[xi]
Why the Interest in Space?
Saudi Arabia’s interest in space comes at a time when its Gulf allies — including, notably, the UAE, which launched the first Arab interplanetary mission to Mars last year — and the international community at large are increasing their focus on the sector.[xii] Against this backdrop, Saudi Arabia’s outer space drive can be considered from a security perspective. Space has blurred the traditional notions about borders and sovereignty with relatively few international laws and norms governing the area. To that end, it has the potential to become a source of discord as the international community’s space capabilities are growing. Indeed, to an extent, it already has emerged as a contested realm with competition heating up between the US and China. It is likely that this will only increase as other actors become involved, including, Saudi Arabia’s regional foe, Iran, which is reportedly preparing for a space launch.[xiii] From this perspective, emphasising outer space may be regarded as adding a layer to protect its national security interests, while also coinciding with its larger ambitions to enhance its international standing as a regional and global leader in a post-oil era.
Perhaps more significantly, Saudi Arabia’s space investments support its economic diversification efforts under Vision 2030, which regards the space economy as one of its main target sectors. Indeed, the focus on the space sector will aid Saudi Arabia shift away from reliance on hydrocarbons to a knowledge-based economy as the growth of the space economy is expected to reach $2.7 trillion (€2.5 trillion) by 2050.[xiv] It encourages the creation of an attractive business environment, which attracts foreign investment and enterprises while generating further employment opportunities for younger generations in a high-skilled sector. In this respect, it has the potential to improve the national economic outlook vis-à-vis economic growth and unemployment, especially welcome amid the COVID-19 pandemic as the annual GDP growth reached the negatives (-4.1%) for the first time since 2009 and the unemployment rate increased to 8.2% in 2020.[xv]
Future Projections and Collaborations
With space exploration still in its nascent stages, the interest in outer space is bound to grow as it becomes increasingly lucrative from an economic stance and a matter for national security interests. To that end, Saudi Arabia appears well placed with concrete signs that its space sector will continue expanding.
Keeping this in mind, there is significant potential for Europe to further collaborate in the sector beyond the existing bilateral partnerships with countries such as France and the UK. Indeed, deeper cooperation between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the SSC would prove beneficial as the two have overlapping interests in numerous areas. In that regard, the following policy recommendations can be made:
Exchange practices on space regulation: the EU has adopted (in April 2021) an extensive Space Regulation that touches upon secure space-related data and services among other issues. In this regard, as Saudi Arabia too looks to adopt a space law — having approved a first draft in April 2020 — the EU could offer its best practices and experiences on the matter.
Cooperate on safety and security: the EU and Saudi Arabia share common goals on the peaceful exploration of outer space. Such ambitions are best achieved through collaboration, which could take place in the form of a consultative mechanism where the two sides, for example, share information on space data and surveillance, cooperate on technological support and improve joint space operations capabilities.
Advance educational exchanges and partnerships: similar to Saudi Arabia, the ESA focuses on educating younger generations in STEM subjects. Indeed, the ESA has an extensive education programme spanning from primary to university level education. To that end, educational exchanges and partnerships between schools and universities could be established to stimulate discussions and the exchange of knowledge between the two sides.
[i] Saudi Press Agency, ‘Saudi Arabia Signs Cooperation Agreement with France in Peaceful Use of Outer Space,’ Saudi Press Agency, December 4, 2021. https://www.spa.gov.sa/viewfullstory.php?lang=en&newsid=2309617.
[ii] Saudi Press Agency, ‘Saudi Space Commission Joins International Astronautical Federation, Saudi Press Agency, 25 October 2021, https://www.spa.gov.sa/viewfullstory.php?lang=en&newsid=2298530.
[iii] Arabsat, ‘About,’ Arabsat, n.d. https://www.arabsat.com/english/about.
[iv] House of Saud, ‘Sultan Bin Salman Al Saud,’ House of Saud, n.d. https://houseofsaud.com/saudi-royal-family-profiles/sultan-bin-salman-al-saud/.
[vi] Marwa Rashad, ‘Saudi Arabia plans $2 billion boost for space programme by 2030,’ Reuters, October 28, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-saudi-economy-space-idUSKBN27D1ZH.
[vii] Saudi Space Commission, ‘Ajyal Space Program,’ Saudi Space Commission, n.d. https://saudispace.gov.sa/en/projects/ajyal-project/.
[viii] Saudi Space Commission, ‘Orbital Sites Reservation Project,’ Saudi Space Commission, n.d. https://saudispace.gov.sa/en/projects/mawhibah-project/.
[ix] Saudi Press Agency, ‘Kingdom launches first Saudi communications satellite (SGS-1) successfully, HRH the Crown Prince signed the final piece to be placed on the satellite with the words, “Above the Clouds”,’ Saudi Press Agency, June 2, 2019. https://www.spa.gov.sa/1882460; Saudi Press Agency, ‘Saudi Arabia Launches Two Satellites for KACST and KSU,’ Saudi Press Agency, March 22, 2021. https://www.spa.gov.sa/viewfullstory.php?lang=en&newsid=2205334.
[x] Emirates News Agency, ‘UAE Space Agency announces details of new 813 satellite,’ Emirates News Agency, March 21, 2019. https://www.wam.ae/en/details/1395302749464.
[xi] Saudi Press Agency, ‘Saudi Arabia to Host Space Economy Leaders’ Meeting – 20,’ Saudi Press Agency, Ocotober 3, 2020. https://www.spa.gov.sa/viewfullstory.php?lang=en&newsid=2140847.
[xii] Emirates News Agency, ‘UAE’s success in launching first Arab probe to Mars a regional, international turning point,’ Emirates News Agency, July 20, 2020. https://www.wam.ae/en/details/1395302856398.
[xiii] Politico, ‘Satellite images, expert suggest Iranian space launch coming,’ Politic, December 12, 2021. https://www.politico.com/news/2021/12/12/iran-space-launch-satellite-524132.
[xiv] Saudi Press Agency, ‘Saudi Arabia is on the Verge of New Phase in Space Industry, With its Global Investments are Estimated at More Than $350 Billion,’ Saudi Press Agency, March 18, 2021. https://www.spa.gov.sa/viewfullstory.php?lang=en&newsid=2204535.
[xv] World Bank, ‘GDP growth (annual %) - Saudi Arabia,’ World Bank, n.d. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.KD.ZG?locations=SA; World Bank, ‘Unemployment, total (% of total labor force) (modeled ILO estimate) - Saudi Arabia,’ World Bank, n.d. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.UEM.TOTL.ZS?locations=SA.