DUBAI — Three Arab astronauts were aboard the International Space Station (ISS) Monday in a historic first as Gulf countries push collaborations with major private space agencies to develop their fledgling space industries. Their financial investments are attracting the interest of private space companies that see massive potential.
Saudi Arabia launched first-time astronauts Rayanah Barnawi, the kingdom’s first female astronaut, and Ali AlQarni into space on Sunday as part of commercial agency Axiom Space’s private astronaut mission, using the Dragon spacecraft atop the Falcon 9 rocket, both manufactured by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. They joined UAE astronaut Sultan Al-Neyadi, who got there in the same reusable rocket in late February.
Such endeavors are piquing the interest of global space companies. Roman Chiporukha, the co-founder of luxury adventure company SpaceVIP, said it’s not only the billions of dollars in investments some Gulf governments are making that signals opportunity. The already evident results of their long-term space education strategies are also attractive.
“There’s a lot more growth in interest coming out of the Middle East as it compares to Europe and the United States,” he told Al-Monitor. As a result, SpaceVIP is exploring the possibility of setting up bases in Dubai and Riyadh.
After the United States and Europe, the Middle East and North Africa is the region with the third-highest interest in SpaceVIP services such as traveling to space, astronaut training and simulated space research, according to the company. The MENA region shows 80% more demand from potential clients than those in South America, Asia and Africa.
In early 2023, around the time of the UAE and Saudi space launch announcements, inquiries for space travel and related experiences increased tenfold compared to the year before, according to SpaceVIP data. Of inquiries from the MENA region, 60% originate from the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and one in five come from women.
This increasing interest seems a direct effect of educational space programs such as Saudi astronauts Barnawi, a biochemist, and Qarni, who has a bachelor's degree in aerospace science, are currently conducting 20 experiments on the ISS remotely with children on Earth to spark their interest in space science.
“If you take the time to educate the public today then you don't need to explain it to them 10 years from now, they're asking you to go to space,” said Chiporukha, who said he is seeking partners who understand the ecosystem that private companies like his need to operate in and flourish.
Billionaire Jeff Bezos’ space exploration company, Blue Origin, has also increased its stake in the region in the last few years. When its Orbital Reef commercial space station plans were revealed in 2021, it made the announcement from Dubai. Last year, Blue Origin flew the first Egyptian astronaut, Sara Sabry, into space on its New Shepard rocket.
Erika Wagner, senior director of emerging space markets at Blue Origin, said her company’s programs with commercial partners are rapidly maturing.
“Increasing our presence in MENA could enable increased access to new markets, talent and partners with a long-term vision and resources to execute advanced space programs with Blue Origin,” she told Al-Monitor in a statement, explaining that the company is building technology ranging from launch vehicles and suborbital spacecrafts to the moon.
The company is also expanding its presence in the region with space tourism. At the Abu Dhabi Space Debate held in the UAE capital in December last year, Wagner told Al-Monitor that Blue Origin was working with space tourism customers from the UAE and shared the experience of one regional traveler from 2021.
"We recently had the chance to take Hamish Harding to space, who is a UAE-based British businessman, the founder of Action Aviation. He holds three Guinness World Records and he’s quite an explorer," she said in December of 2022.
Jeffrey Manber, president of international space stations at Voyager Space, said working with partners that see the advantage of encouraging its population to appreciate space technology and science is a key indicator of a successful space industry and on-brand for them.
“We understand the value of creating local technology with a local ecosystem of education, so that soon enough the MENA organizations will be contributing with their own students and their own products,” Manber, who is currently working with the Abu Dhabi Investment Office and the Saudi Space Commission, told Al-Monitor in a statement.
Investment in space
The Gulf region has a dynamic and fast-growing space sector investment landscape.
Saudi Arabia established the Saudi Space Commission in 2018 and a $2.1 billion investment initiative in 2020 to build a space sector as part of its Vision 2030 economic diversification strategy. The UAE Space Agency, founded in 2014, set up a $816.84 million (3 billion dirham) fund to develop radar satellites and support strategic national projects in the space sector.
Steve Bochinger, the chief operating officer of strategic consulting firm Euroconsult, said countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council are using investment to develop their space technology capabilities.
“They’re taking advantage of the significant growth potential of the commercialization of space,” he said, explaining that these activities fulfill the goal of enhancing their own defense and intelligence systems in addition to manufacturing capabilities that can help expand their economy.
The GCC also sees space technology, which created the smart phones and global position systems used today, as a tool to solve climate problems plaguing the region, such as how to grow crops with less water and under extreme heat. To allow GCC countries to manufacture locally and attract the needed talent, the GCC is looking to partner with historical names in the business, said Bochinger. The UAE, which imports up to 90% of its food, launched the Emirates Mars Mission Hope Probe in 2021 to collect data about the surface of the red planet and established a cooperation agreement with NASA.
“They want big players; they want fancy flagship companies with the know-how and they're not necessarily looking at newcomers,” he said.
“Boeing, Thales Group, Airbus, Lockhead Martin … these are the giants they’re working with. Ones that have manufacturing capabilities, that can support the development of local competencies and knowledge transfer,” he said.