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The UAE’s Vision for Space Affairs

by Arnold Koka

Exploring the UAE’s HOPE Project

On 20 July 2020, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will set a landmark on space exploration history with the launch of the Emirates Mars Mission’s (EMM) probe, (Al Amal/Hope), set to be the first Arab interplanetary mission.

Developed in partnership between the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre and the UAE Space Agency (UAESA), the Hope Probe will be launched from the Tanegashima​ Space Centre​ in Japan and will travel 493.5 million kilometers, to reach Mars’ orbit seven months later, in 2021. It will be the first spacecraft in history to provide a complete picture of the Martian atmosphere, giving comprehensive information on the planet’s climate dynamics and its atmospheric erosion, which renders it unsuitable for life.[1]

The mission was originally announced in 2014, tied to the establishment of the UAESA, which functions as a centralised institution to lead the country’s outer space programmes and research and development (R&D) activities. Despite the youth of the institution, the Emirates’ interests in space are neither whimsical nor new. Over the past two decades, the country has invested about AED 20 billion ($ 5.4 billion USD) on space-based activities such as data services, communications satellites, Earth-mapping and observation satellites, among others. [2] However, such space programmes lacked long-term foresight which combines the scientific and the strategic dimensions of space, while being limited to the aegis of the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre’s Satellite Programme, launched in 2006 and largely conducted with South Korean expertise, which had left the country’s space-related capabilities externally dependent. [3]

A unified vision was only established with the UAESA strategic plan, resulting in a spike of short-term achievements. In October 2018, the UAE launched KhalifaSat, a remote sensing Earth-observation satellite, entirely designed, developed and manufactured in the country. [4] And, in September 2019, Hazzaa al-Mansoori became the first Emirati and third Arab to go to space – deployed to the International Space Station (ISS). [5] The launch of the Hope Probe will come as the third major accomplishment in a row for a country that is eager to become an advanced space-faring nation in a relatively short time.

A Shifting Model for Space Affairs?

The results achieved in the last decade mark the transition of the UAE’s approach towards outer space from an external knowledge-dependent model to an indigenous innovation-based one. Similarly to procurements methods in the military sector, emerging powers in space might prefer to acquire their space capabilities ‘off-the-shelf’, mitigating costs, time and risks for R&D activities, which could impact on the economic and political sustainability of their space programmes. Such models can be effective when it comes to limited commercial and communications satellite programmes, but leave the countries dependent on their technological partner or providers, limiting the strategic broadness of their national space agenda. From this perspective, the Emirates’ are rapidly shifting to a space model based on national knowledge and capabilities, although such objectives have yet to be fully achieved. If the KhalifaSat represented a milestone of such evolution, being fully designed, developed and manufactured in the country, the UAE’s first astronaut deployment to the ISS was made on a Russian Soyuz space capsule, directly purchased from the Russian Space Agency (Roscomos) due to the country’s lack of its own spacecrafts – which led NASA to define al-Mansoori as a spaceflight participant and not as an astronaut – revealing how the country’s eager craving to enter the space arena did not yet meet its original capabilities.[6] The EMM and the Hope Probe were fully developed by the UAE, although the unmanned spacecraft will be launched on a H2A202 rocket produced by the Japanese Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, in a further step towards reaching a model for space affairs based on national capabilities. [7]

The Strategic Framework

Beyond its ambitious scientific goals, the EMM is encompassed within the country’s wider strategic agenda of enhancing international cooperation – in this context, through high-level technological R&Ds’ partnerships – as well as of reaching its long-term economic diversification objectives, through space-related knowledge and capabilities transfer to its commercial sectors, such as the ones of energy, food and water.

  • International Cooperation: UAE, the Pivot

As the UAE aims to become a beacon of technological innovation in the region, establishing itself as a reference point for advanced technological international partnerships will enhance bilateral relations with other countries and aid further science, technological and innovation (ST&I) objectives withing its national strategy. The UAE’s plan to become a space-faring nation will allow it to leverage its space power to enhance its influence on shaping security and activities’ standards for space on an international level through its participation to international forums and organisations.  It could even be argued that its growing presence in space, if combined with a medium-term development of other GCC countries’ space programmes, could lead to the establishment of a regional set of rules, similar to the ‘Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities’, originally drafted by the European Union in 2008. [8] Such diplomatic leverage would not only be limited to the space dimension of politics, but could become a relevant – although not essential part – of the Emirates’ international soft power, also through increasing R&D and commercial space-capabilities procurement programmes and their economic leverage. Additionally, the UAESA cooperates with major international space agencies such as NASA[9], Roscomos[10] and the European Space Agency (ESA)[11]. Such cooperative status could allow the UAE to assume a pivotal role on advanced technological partnerships among politically-antagonistic powers and enhance its diplomatic influence.

  • From Space to Earth: HOPE for Sustainability

The UAE’s Hope mission and its broader space vision are functional to the country’s strategic goal of building a diversified and sustainable economy – a common objective to the other Gulf countries – as it seeks to do so also leveraging on Technology Transfer (TT) driven innovations, which represents an essential drive to space-related activities, extending the spectrum of space technologies and know-how to a variety of non-space sectors and functions; the investment return is essential for the sustainability of space-related innovation programmes. The EMM is no exception to that.

The mission of the Hope Probe itself, related to the analysis of climate and atmospheric dynamics on Mars, mirrors the strategic concept behind the UAE’s economic vision: to meet the country’s technological needs in a number of key sectors for its economy, such as energy, food and water, through technological transfer and development.

Mars 2117

The Emirate’s ambitious vision for space is projected over a longer term with the analog mission Mars 2117, which aims to establish a human settlement on the Red Planet for the year 2117. [12] Regardless of the mission’s final result, the project will lead to further knowledge on the survivability challenges that would be face on Mars, related to food, water and energy security, and it highlights the extent of the UAE’s vision for space.

Space represents a functional dimension for many small and medium-powers in regards to internal and external aspects of their economies. The UAE’s vision for space and its growing enhancement represents an opportunity not only for the country’s economic development and technological innovation but also a strategic space for enhancing its international status on Earth and beyond.



[1] Emirates Mars Mission «Hope Probe»,

[2] UAE to set up Dhs100m space research centre, Gulf Business, 2015

[3] Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre, Satellite Programme,

[4] As it happened: Launch of UAE KhalifaSat, Gulf News, 2018,

[5] Hazzaa al-Mansoori, First U.A.E. Astronaut, Launches to Space Station, The New York Times, 2019,

[6] ‘Spaceflight participant Hazzaa Ali Almansoori’, NASA, 2019,

[7] EMM Hope Probe, Launch Vehicle,

[8] The code was redrafted on March 2014, the full version is available at the European Union External Action’s website:

[9] NASA, UAE Space Agency Sign Historic Implementing Arrangement for Cooperation in Human Spaceflight, NASA, 2018,

[10] UAE-Russia experiment to explore survival in Martian conditions, Khaleej Times, 2019,

[11] ESA expertise aids UAE spaceflight, European Space Agency, 2019,

[12] Mars 2117, Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre,

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