The Emerging Space Industry in Kuwait
by Sophie Smith
On 1 February 2021, the Kuwaiti company, Orbital Space, announced that the nano-satellite QMR-KWT (“Moon of Kuwait” in Arabic) is successfully undergoing functional testing and is on-track to be launched in June this year in the United States.[i] This will be Kuwait’s first satellite, funded by Orbital Space in partnership with EnduroSat, a Bulgaria-based space company.[ii] The mission comes as part of the Orbital Space’s Code in Space education programme, which enables students to gain a better understanding of satellite communications by writing software code that will be uploaded and executed on the satellite’s onboard computer.[iii] This seeks to attract young talent to the space industry, while increasing the awareness about the current opportunities in the satellite industry.
Kuwait’s Growing Space Industry
Kuwait first became active in the space sector in the 1960s, when the United States and the Soviet Union were actively competing in the field, building its first ground satellite station, the Um Alaish, in 1969, leading the way in the region. The station was later expanded, incorporating three satellite dishes by 1981 as the government continued to support satellite communication services and the space sector. However, state interest in the space industry came to a halt in 1990 when the Um Alaish was destroyed during the Iraqi invasion and the debris was cleaned out or sold over the following two decades.[iv]
In recent years, Kuwait’s activities in the space sector has gained traction again—this time, however, through a bottom-up, as opposed to top-down, government-led, initiatives. The lack of state interest and the booming space programmes among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, particularly the United Arab Emirates (UAE), led to the establishment of Orbital Space, the company behind the QMR-KWT. It was set up as a private enterprise in 2018 to revive Kuwait’s interest in space and promote the country’s capabilities in space technology, with an emphasis on engaging Arab youth through research and education.[v] It is the first private company in the region focusing on CubeSat technology — 1 kg miniature satellites used for low Earth orbit — and the first to build a private CubeSat ground station in the Middle East.
Another unique project is the Kuwait Space Rocket, initiated and led by a group of young Kuwaitis, who are developing a rocket — to be specific, the first GCC suborbital liquid bipropellant rocket — that will travel up to 100 km into the atmosphere.[vi] The project has the ambition to set the stage for developing a regional smallsat launch provider and ‘starting a Kuwaiti Space Program.’[vii] Set to be completed in a three-year timeframe, the group hopes to launch the 4m-long rocket with permission from the Ministry of Defence in 2023 and is in the process of completing the first of three phases.[viii] Additionally, Kuwait University and the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science are the only Arab partners involved in NASA’s initiative Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP), an earth satellite mission designed to improve disaster management and weather forecasting.[ix] Similarly, the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (KISR) is also cooperating with NASA to map groundwater in the desert to better understand the impact of climate change on groundwater resources.[x]
Further Avenues for Progress
Despite these initiatives, there remains a lack of political will and support from the Kuwaiti government in the sector. Kuwait does not yet have a space agency, nor is space part of its national agenda. This can present an obstacle to receiving funding for space research, as well as to coordinate efforts and establish strategic directions. To address these concerns, establishing a central space agency and adding space to the national agenda would thus prove beneficial. In particular, the government could form public-private partnerships (PPP) with private companies, building on the efforts of Orbital Space and tap into the potential of its youth. This could help coordinate space-related endeavours, as well as resolve concerns regarding funding and any potential backlash from the public about embarking on such an expensive programme that may appear to not directly benefit them — particularly relevant concerns amid the pandemic.
Such initiatives would bring numerous economic benefits. Foremost, it would contribute towards the government’s attempt to reduce its reliance on hydrocarbons and sustainably diversify its economy in line with Kuwait’s National Development Plan.[xi] While the government has already launched numerous projects to promote economic diversification, investing in the space sector would further contribute towards achieving the goal of sustainable economic growth. It would attract businesses and investments to the country, supporting a knowledge-based economy. Likewise, it would provide new employment opportunities for young people as Kuwait’s youth unemployment appears relatively high and on the rise at 16.5 percent of the total labour force aged between 15 and 24 in 2020.[xii] Such new opportunities are ever more important given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has slowed economic growth in conjunction with increased government debt and unemployment around the world. Aside from the economic benefits, it will also contribute to Kuwait’s regional and international prestige.
In recent years, space activities in the Gulf region have been rapidly growing. Unlike Kuwait, however, these have been largely promoted and funded through government initiatives. The UAE, in particular, has a booming space industry as the UAE Space Agency is undertaking numerous space projects.[xiii] In fact, most recently, in July 2020, it launched the Emirates Mars Mission’s (EMM) probe, the first Arab interplanetary mission.[xiv] Saudi Arabia, too, has launched several space-related endeavours, including the setting up of the Saudi Space Commission, which intends to stimulate research and industrial activities related to space.[xv] Both countries have also invested in education programmes in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM) related sectors to generate youth engagement in the space sector.[xvi] Likewise, Bahrain is active in space through its National Space Science Agency (NSSA), which aims to promote the Kingdom’s space capabilities in line with sustainable development goals.[xvii] Similarly, Qatar’s satellite company Es’hailSat focuses on the development of Doha’s presence in space and currently has satellites in orbit.[xviii] And, while Oman does not have a national space agency, it is also developing space activities, having announced in November 2020 that it hopes to launch its first space satellite by 2024.[xix] Undoubtedly, the space industry is gaining traction in the region — a trend from which Kuwait’s space industry could benefit from. The Orbital Space already laid the ground for enhancing regional cooperation through partnerships with Bahrain’s NSSA and the UAE’s Space Agency.
This interest in space is not limited to the Gulf as the space industry is a rapidly growing sector worldwide that is no longer limited to the major world powers. In the future, this attention and investment in the sector are only projected to grow with new advanced technological innovations and commercialisation of space. Kuwait has begun participating in this momentum through bottom-up initiatives, having taken part in several global research projects and launching its first nano-satellite. However, the lack of political will and interest has curtailed the industry’s growth. To fully reap the benefits of the sector, the next step for the country is to establish a national space agency and incorporate the space industry within its national plan. Such efforts will not only advance the progress of Kuwait’s space sector but will also contribute to social and economic development and its international prestige.