Growing space sector is helping the UAE diversify its economy

13 March 2017
Growing space sector is helping the UAE diversify its economy

By H.E. Dr. Khalifa Al Romaithi, Chairman of the UAE Space Agency

The UAE is making serious efforts to reduce its reliance on petrodollars as part of its long term diversification plan. Oil and gas currently represent around 30% of the UAE’s GDP — already an impressive accomplishment by regional standards — but a spread of national strategies and action plans are in place to reduce this to 20% by 2021, the country’s 50th anniversary. Beyond that, our economy minister announced last April an ambitious plan to eliminate oil from the GDP over the next 50 years, as we transition into an entirely post-oil, knowledge-based economy. While this has included, for example, an expansion of the retail and real estate sectors, it also placed the space sector at the forefront of the post-oil agenda. Growing capabilities in science and technology will be a crucial part of the space sector’s positioning.

This vision supported the creation of the UAE Space Agency in 2014, with one of our central mandates being to accelerate space sector growth and enhance industry activities in order to deliver tangible nationwide macroeconomic results. Since 2014, more than $5 billion has been invested across the UAE’s space sector, with the Agency directly funding and overseeing a number of crucial projects, including our 2021 mission to Mars, the Hope Probe — an orbiter that will gather data on the Martian atmosphere. 

Despite our recent establishment, the UAE has a relatively longstanding relationship with space that has contributed to economic diversification in a number of ways. Indeed, another of the Agency’s principal roles is to improve coordination between the pre-existing local and international space actors operating within the country. We are home to two Emirati satellite communications companies, Thuraya and YahSat, which were founded in 1997 and 2007 respectively. Collectively, they operate six satellites that service large international regions, with YahSat scheduled to launch Yah3 this summer. This will provide mobile coverage to South American markets, demonstrating the significant business opportunities made available by space sector investments.

In addition to our native satellite operators, aerospace manufacturers such as Mubadala’s Strata division are responsible for significant job creation. Strata, which produces advanced composite aerostructures and components for global clients, is responsible for fostering specialist skillsets among Emiratis, and works closely with ourselves at the Agency and other stakeholders to maximise our collective efforts.

Perhaps some of the most significant elements of our national space program concerning economic diversification lie in engagement with the international community. We are currently exploring the establishment of a space port in Al Ain with a number of international partners, including Virgin Galactic. Away from our busy airports in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, such a facility would provide private companies with opportunities to launch from the UAE, which offers relative proximity to the equator as well as  the ability to capitalise on the earth’s east-west axial spin.  This and other opportunities provide wide scope for international investment and commercialisation that will help further diversify our economy away from oil rents and the petroleum industry.

We recently held the inaugural Global Space Congress in Abu Dhabi, where some 600 business and industry leaders from around the world gathered to discuss latest developments from space-related fields. One of the panels held during the conference addressed approaches to financing and funding space activities, including the trend towards applying conventional business models and investment practices to private space ventures. Home to a number of major space sector actors, such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin, the UAE is now also catering to smaller businesses and start-ups interested in capitalising on off-planet opportunities.  We believe this approach will successfully drive rapid growth and deliver net results to the nation’s overall economic diversification agenda across the short- and long-term.

Another recent development is the Nayif-1 nano-satellite. Along with a record-breaking collection of 103 other nanosats, Nayif-1 was aboard the PSLV-C37 rocket that launched last month from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India. The project was constructed and implemented by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) and seven Emirati students from the American University of Sharjah. We are committed to investing heavily in education and capacity-building projects, such as the Nayif-1 nanosat, that contribute greatly to driving science, engineering and technology capabilities. Attracting, training and retaining such enthusiastic and innovative young individuals is crucial for initiating healthy growth and activity throughout the sector, which will have a demonstrable impact on our national economy down the line.

Not only do such projects and programmes do wonders for the national space sector and industry, they also have a real impact on other sectors that are related to STEM fields. Many students are encouraged to take up advanced science or engineering degrees because of the exciting projects that the UAE is embarking on. Some of these will no doubt end up in related sectors, such as the UAE’s vast aerospace enterprises that are expected to employ a total of 750,000 with GDP contributions of $53 billion by 2020.

In this regard, our recent announcement of plans to establish a human settlement on Mars by 2117 is getting a lot of traction and attention from imaginative young Emirati students. They acknowledge the need to develop the scientific capabilities required for such a vast undertaking, and are eager to be a part of this ground-breaking project for the advancement of humanity and scientific progress. Motivational frames such as these provide powerful recruitment and awareness-raising campaigns.

Similarly, the Hope Probe was never purely about a trip to the red planet in and of itself. It is principally a journey of national capacity building as we accelerate our STEM projects and encourage an uptake of space studies in order to equip ourselves with the tools needed for developing an advanced space sector that plays a large role in the national economy. This has been a calculated investment in human capital that is already paying dividends as thousands of specialised Emiratis are applying for positions with the Agency and other industry stakeholders.

The UAE’s experience with economic diversification through space sector activities has been notably fruitful, and in many ways exemplary of  the possibilities for the region, with many rewards waiting to be reaped. It’s this focus on building a sustainable economy with a diversified strategy that will help the country achieve its UAE Vision 2021.