Tuesday 01 September 2015

Developing a future national vision is fundamental to security in our complex age. Crafting such a vision requires an understanding of future geopolitical circumstances and best approaches for achieving national interests. To do that one must understand how national power and influence might be used in the future international system. One domain that will certainly impact the future of the Arabian Gulf is space. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid has made one vision very clear, saying “the establishment of a fully fledged space sector in the UAE, with all necessary human resources, infrastructure and scientific research, is a primary national objective.” The creation of the UAE Space Agency empowers this country to take a greater role in future challenges.

Space provides an essential backbone for telecommunications, navigation, broadcasting and climatology. Satellites enable weather forecasts, supply precision navigation for all sorts of applications (mobile phones, car navigation systems and financial markets), and they provide high resolution imagery to aid monitoring and disaster response. The UAE currently operates satellites for both commercial and military use, including communications satellites and Earth mapping and observation satellites. Locally, satellite data and connectivity touches every aspect of daily life in the UAE. More than 70 countries currently have space programs, with varying degrees of investment; the UAE’s investment currently exceeds AED 20 billion, putting it among the top 5 in the world. While only a handful of states have independent orbital launch capability, a few additional states (including the UAE) are leading efforts to innovate in space.

In July 2014, the UAE announced plans to travel to Mars by 2021 (the first by an Arab, Islamic country) to enrich Emirati capabilities and increase knowledge about space. So space technology is now a new impetus for diversified economic growth here. The UAE Space Plan notes: “the future success of the UAE economy will require not just technical knowledge, but a new generation of Emirati leaders in science, technology, engineering and mathematics … a knowledge-based society that will lead to sophisticated space innovation and exploration and stimulate a sustainable high-tech based economy.” Another strategic justification for the program is the UAE’s key position in the Arabian Gulf and a hub of global commerce; a growing space program enables the UAE to take greater advantage of these strategic attributes. Space is vital to our national security and our ability to understand emerging threats, project power, conduct modern operations, support diplomatic efforts, and maintain global economic viability.

Space is increasingly congested, contested, and competitive and that makes space capabilities ever more important; as more nations and non-state actors recognize its benefits we will be faced with new opportunities and new challenges in space. Space activities can generate cost-reducing technology and game-changing innovation; they bring political prestige, international influence and leadership on the international stage; they create or reinforce technological capabilities and they provide an informational advantage to security operations and to strategic planning. Space activities can also significantly expand intelligence collection and analysis for assessing threats and providing enhanced warning. Also, space and cyber security are crucially interrelated; having an enhanced space capability will strengthen the cyber security of the country and will also help decision makers ensure the future security of the UAE. Nations that make best use of space will have a distinct advantage over their adversaries and competitors.

Space technology enables the UAE to take advantage of the strategic attributes of space power — perspective, access, presence, and extended strategic depth — and offers significant economic and strategic benefits. The UAE has huge potential as a leading space innovator in the Gulf and the wider Middle East region. There is no doubt that the UAE presence in space will accomplish those goals and rebalance the power and influence ratio in space to better benefit the UAE.