Research
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Pathways to Space: A case study of the UAE

Evidence from recent research on the UAE space ecosystem, strategic investments and private sector development.

By Michele Scataglini, Marc Ventresca and Fatema Al Hajri, Many thanks also to our collaborators in this Pathways to Space article: Laura Edwards, Elizabeth Filippouli and Bosco Lai.

Government activity is intensifying globally and in the Middle East.

Today’s renewed interest in the modern state occurs in a time of institutional and social turmoil - making newly visible questions about who builds the future and how. This involves understanding the many ways that states reshape legacy institutions, transform existing institutions and support, fund, and imagine new institutional arrangements. This, in addition to the more regularly recognised work by firms and civil society agencies.

The rise of the space sector is the ultimate frontier for the economic growth and power of nations. In our research on Pathways to Space we outline the scale and diversity of actors, innovations and activities that we are seeing in the global space economy. This article is one more in a series of research updates on space ecosystems taking shape across the world.

Our research argues, supported by relevant research on ecosystem and on national space strategies, that four key elements are critical in the early days of these initiatives:

  • States making markets, including regulation but also through other means
  • Resources available, both domestic and global
  • Growth of expertise in relevant agencies, firms and communities
  • Some linkages with established space-faring nations

Across the Middle East space activity has intensified over the past decade with the emergence of government led space programmes including in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Turkey and Egypt. Najmonauts is the newest word in the space lexicon alongside astronauts, cosmonauts and taikonauts. It is derived from the Arabic word for star – ‘najm’. Overall trends intensifying activities in space can be linked to the push towards economic diversification and the creation of new national capabilities, advancing defence priorities, and more traditional measures of soft power. Euroconsult forecasts the value of the middle east space economy will reach $75 billion in 2032.

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Najmonauts photo credit - Lisa La Bonte

Headline findings on the nascent UAE space sector.

For this case study we are focusing on one of those players – the United Arab Emirates  - which has been involved in the space sector from as far back as 1970s, when President Nixon gifted the UAE a sliver of moon rock collected during the Apollo 17, and where today there is a new wave of sovereign government agencies involved in building the country’s space market. The key takeaways from our analysis show:

  • The UAE’s aspirations for the space sector are visible both in the commercial expansion efforts and in its space exploration missions - current activities that are testament to the country’s long-term ambition in space. 
  • The UAE has established the UAE Space Agency with overall responsibility for policies and strategic goal setting, developing the regulatory framework, and for implementing the agreed measures either directly or via the national operating companies.
  • This approach has contributed to rapid development of the space sector, scientific advancements, talent development, and international partnerships.
  • We also start to see spillovers into adjacent sectors of the economy with government agencies claiming a stake in space and entrepreneurial activity.

To understand how the UAE is building its space sector, we analysed three dimensions:

  1. The regulatory and institutional framework (rules of the game)
  2. The ecosystem actors and the relation between them (relationships)
  3. The public and private funding overlapping, developing and supporting the first two dimensions (resources)

 

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1) UAE has a robust regulatory and policy framework for space.

The UAE has established a clear framework for activities in space, starting with the establishment in 2014 of the UAE Space Agency as national coordinating body, followed by the approval in 2017 of a National Space Strategy 2030.

The Strategy encompasses six main goals, implemented via 20 programmes and 80 initiatives, many of which are underway. 

Examples of some of the achievements include:

  • scientific missions to the Asteroid Belt, Moon and Mars
  • significant agreements with leading international space organisations, such as NASA, JAXA, Roscosmos and the Indian Space Research Organization.
  • the extensive focus on space at EXPO2020 and at the Museum of the Future
  • the space pavilion at Dubai Airshow 2023

And the convening power and leadership displayed by the UAE was visible in the Space Agencies Leaders’ Summit organised at the COP28 UN Climate Conference, where we witnessed participation from more than 20 international space agencies. (Pictured here is Bosco Lai, co-founder of Little Place Labs and Oxford Saïd alumnus, with colleagues at COP28.)

The UAE is also part of, and chairs, the Arab Space Cooperation Group, a regional space-focused entity established in 2019, for coordinating regional space activities, including harmonising regulations among space authorities, adopting a unified position at regional and international forums, and harnessing scientific research and innovation to develop advanced space capabilities.

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2) The UAE space ecosystem is growing in scale and scope

We used an analytical framework from entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystems, adapted to the space sector stakeholders, to take stock of the plurality of actors, relationships and roles emerging in the UAE space ecosystem.

Government agencies and state companies are leading growth.

While the UAE Space Agency is the federal agency organising, regulating and advancing the UAE space industry, there are other notable agencies and companies.

The Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) was established in 2006, with the task of building, developing, and operating a number of Earth observation satellites, providing imaging services, analysing them, and producing relevant scientific data. Over time its scope of activities expanded to include the UAE Astronaut Programme, the Mars 2117 Programme and the Mars Mission Hope Probe which will provide a complete picture of Martian atmosphere.

Space42, is the new entity from the proposed merger of two national space champions -  Yashat and Bayanat. Yashat, incorporated in 2007, offers multi-mission satellite services reaching more than 80% of the world’s population, enabling critical communications including broadband, video broadcasting, mobile voice and data solutions. Bayanat, an AI powered geospatial solutions company developing a constellation of seven earth observation satellites, captures data from Earth and provides services to incumbent industries including logistics, supply chains, mobility and autonomous ride hailing.

Thuraya Telecommunications Company was established in 1997 becoming the mobile satellite services. In 2018, it became a subsidiary of Yahsat. It is UAE’s first home grown satellite operator and offers communications solutions to a variety of sectors including energy, government, broadcast media, maritime, military, aerospace and NGOs.

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UAE Space Agency stand at Abu Dhabi sustainability week 2020. Credit UAE Space Agency.

Industry incumbents and national champions are present

Corporates generally provide resources to enable the innovation ecosystem. In the case of the UAE this includes foreign aerospace incumbents working in the UAE defence and aerospace sector (eg Lockheed, Boeing, Airbus, Thales). But there are also national champions such as EDGE, a technology group established to develop solutions for defence. It has been selected by the UAE Space Agency as the prime contractor for the new Sirb programme (Arabic word for a flock of Birds) which seeks to enhance the country’s capabilities in developing and manufacturing various satellite components, including payloads. The three initial satellites will provide a better understanding and management of the Earth's resources and environment. This initiative signifies the first space capabilities development programme undertaken by a consortium of local industries in the UAE.

Research and technology activity fields are burgeoning

Critical to the space ecosystem is a vibrant R&D sector. Examples include:

  • The Propulsion and Space Research Centre (PSRC) and Directed Energy Research Center (DERC) part of the Technology Innovation Institute (TII), are premier global research hubs with teams of scientists, researchers, and engineers, focusing on new and ground-breaking directed energy systems and propulsion ideas.
  • The Khalifa University Space Technology and Innovation Lab (KUSTIL) builds on the current space-related capabilities developed within Khalifa University to support the space industry.
  • The National Space Science and Technology Centre (NSSTC) is developing innovative space activities and research programmes. 
  • The Sharjah Academy For Astronomy, Space Sciences and Technology is developing and promoting education about astronomy and space sciences in the UAE and across the Arab world.

And supporting the R&D there is investment in education and talent. In November 2023 the National Space Academy was launched for young Emiratis, and during COP28 educational sessions were held focussing on space and remote sensing for students of different ages.

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The venture support for innovation and entrepreneurship

In the UAE there is a substantive number of programmes dedicated to innovation and entrepreneurship, but it is early days for those with a focus on space. There are promising signals coming from mature ventures such as Sadeem (engineering services), 971Space (control and management of spacecraft operations), and Stellaria (geospatial solutions). MBSRC is again a player here providing support for startups both downstream and upstream in the space sector.

The establishment of the Masdar Space Economic Zone comes with the promise of supporting space entrepreneurs in growing their ventures through incubators and accelerator services. It has already announced the establishment of 10+ space ventures and there is a growing professional services industry with space competencies. But the potential is much bigger with organisations like Hub71 and DIFC Innovation Hub which have strong expertise in running startup support programmes around emerging technologies and new markets.

The 2020 Space Investment Promotion Plan outlines strategies for growing an innovation ecosystem for space ventures, with the ability to attract deal flow at various stages, vetting opportunities, connecting them with private capital as well as providing entrepreneurship support services for early-stage ventures. A key actor in the private capital space is Mubadala Investment Company, which has recently confirmed its commitment to further investments in SpaceTech.

And innovation is not limited to the private sector. The Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) is running its own space programme, Space-D, using technologies such as remote sensing to improve the operations, maintenance, and planning of its networks.

3) Playing and investing for the long-term.

‘Pathway to Space’ to date in the UAE is visible in the role the government has played in setting strategic priorities and in nurturing a growing ecosystem of actors across the economic value chain. The country also has the necessary financial resources to support the growth of the sector, which in turn brings private funding into the wider ecosystem. According to various news outlets, UAE’s investments in space-related industries have already surpassed $6 billion and government investments look set to continue through vehicles such as the $820 million National Space Fund.

The Strategic Development Fund (fully owned by EDGE) is investing in early-mid and growth stage companies with strong technology which add value to the businesses and potentially benefit the UAE space economy (for example SDF investments in international space companies like HawkEye 360, an American geospatial analytics).

The variety and volume of activity across the space sector in turn generates more anticipatory attention and innovation across expected and unexpected areas both nationally, regionally and globally. A clear illustration of this is the ‘Courts of Space’, an initiative launched by the Dubai International Finance Centre and Dubai Future Foundation, signalling the intent of the UAE to play a leading role in advancing its judicial systems to specifically direct capacity and capability to commercial space-related disputes. The initiative has produced a set of guidelines to support space-related disputes and is training judges to become space-related dispute experts with courses on space regulations by international bodies and regional agencies. 

Conclusions in policy and practice 

The UAE space sector is growing rapidly and key elements are present to sustain this growth: critical to this is the stable support of UAE leaders and the growth of governance, but also milestones that ‘pace’ growth in capacity, and national linkages across the UAE agencies and firms that also explore international linkages.

The UAE is betting on space as one of drivers of its future economies. While the development of a national space economy is inevitably linked to global developments in technologies and regulatory frameworks as well as to security and defence, today the UAE pathway remains clear and promising.