Graphic by Tom Abi Samra

The Final Frontier: The UAE and its Space Ambitions

The UAE has been active in the space industry since 2009, but it was only in 2014 that the UAE took a more ambitious leap forward with the announcement of its first mission to Mars.

Dec 8, 2018

Not so far in the future, on a planet not so far away, lies our future. With vibrant desert-like landscapes and hostile weather conditions — not unlike the UAE — humanity’s likely future awaits us — on Mars. The possibility of colonizing Mars may seem far-fetched and distant to many, but the reality is that it is not only possible, but will also likely happen within our lifetime or that of our children’s. In fact, our children might have the choice to live on Earth or on Mars, depending on whether life on Earth even remains a possibility. Perhaps the most famous plan to colonize Mars is that of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which plans to send its first crewed mission to Mars by 2024, with plans to construct a city there in the 2030s. While it may seem as though private companies are taking over the space race, a new government player has made ambitious strides with its space program, potentially reclaiming and salvaging the model of state-funded space travel. That country is the small Gulf nation of the UAE.
In a country that has it all here on Earth — luxurious skylines, a ski slope inside a mall, an indoor rainforest, artificial islands and ATMs that dispense gold bars — it should not surprise many that its ambitions have taken it to the final frontier: space. The UAE has been active in the space industry since 2009, but it took a more ambitious leap forward in 2014 with the announcement of its first mission to Mars. This mission will involve the construction and launching of a probe to study the Martian atmosphere. The probe, appropriately named Al-Amal, or Hope, will be the first mission to Mars by any Arab or Muslim country, a fact greatly touted by Dubai’s Ruler, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who has spoken extensively about how this mission will mark the Arab world’s reemergence as a major player in the field of science. The UAE’s goal is to move from an oil-based to a knowledge-based economy, and the Al-Amal Probe is only the first step. By 2117, the UAE hopes to build a city on Mars.
The UAE’s journey in the space industry began a little less than a decade ago, with the launch of its first satellite, DubaiSat-1, in 2009. The low Earth orbit satellite was built in collaboration with Satrec Initiative, a South Korean satellite manufacturer. The collaboration was largely due to the lack of experience that Emirati engineers had with space projects at this point. Following DubaiSat-1’s success, the UAE proceeded immediately with the construction of DubaiSat-2, which was launched in 2013. Like its predecessor, the satellite was built with help from Satrec Initiative. However, the share of Emirati engineers on the team more than doubled, from 30 percent under DubaiSat-1 to 70 percent under DubaiSat-2. But perhaps the UAE’s crowning space achievement to date is KhalifaSat, its third satellite, built exclusively by Emirati engineers and entirely in the UAE. Launched just over a month ago, KhalifaSat’s Emirati origin has been highly publicized by the UAE government, calling it a groundbreaking moment in the country’s history with space and hailing it as an “unprecedented Emirati achievement.” While the UAE has thus far taken small steps in the progression of its space capabilities, it has now decided to take an ambitious leap forward, all the way to Mars.
In July 2014, H.H. Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, announced a mission to build a space probe that will monitor Mars’ atmosphere. Set to be launched by 2020, Al-Amal will seek to determine why oxygen and hydrogen have been escaping Mars’ atmosphere. Millions of years ago, Mars’ atmosphere could sustain liquid lakes on the planet’s surface. Today, however, water can only exist on Mars as ice or vapor. The Al-Amal Probe will study Mars’ atmospheric cycles to determine the cause of the radical changes in the Martian atmosphere. Toward this goal, the probe will build a model of daily and seasonal weather cycles on Mars, as well as create a round-the-clock climate tracking system. While Al-Amal’s findings will help advance scientific inquiry, they will also serve a more practical purpose: helping to prepare for a future settlement on Mars.
In February 2017, Al Maktoum announced the Mars 2117 mission, in which the UAE plans to build a scientific city on Mars within the next century. In order to achieve this 100-year goal, the UAE plans to promote and provide greater scientific training for young cadres of Emirati scientists. During his announcement at the World Government Summit, Al Maktoum said, “The new project is a seed that we are planting today, and we expect the next generations to reap the fruits.” The announcement has been followed by a huge public relations campaign featuring mockups and projections of what the scientific city will look like. In fact, within only months of the announcement, a virtual reality tour of the city was released to the public.
The so-called City of Wisdom will be home to over half a million residents and will focus on scientific research. Primarily, the city will focus on developing transportation mechanisms and new forms of agriculture on the Red Planet. There are already rumors of research being done on the potential of growing date palms on Mars, which is unsurprising given that dates are central to Emirati culture and cuisine. But in spite of the distance of the deadline, the UAE has pressed on with the project. Within two years, the UAE will build a $136 million mockup of their Martian city in a Dubai desert. The 1.9 million square foot city — twice the size of Alcatraz Island — is being designed by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels and will have intriguing features including 3D-printed walls made from the UAE’s desert sand, and will host a museum dedicated to humanity’s space achievements.
State-funded space programs have been the norm since the mid-20th century. After all, humanity’s entire venture into space was spurred by competing nations during the Cold War. Famed aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin called it the J.F.K. Model. But what sets the UAE apart from the J.F.K. model of country-wide mobilization is that the UAE claims purely scientific motives, not military ones. Unlike SpaceX, which seeks profit, or other governments that have historically sought space exploration for purposes of military or political dominance, the UAE appears to be interested in the scientific and educational benefits of space travel. At the moment, they are prepared to spend billions of dollars over the next century in pursuit of those benefits. But why?
The UAE’s space program is an elaborate, expensive and century-long patriotic project. The hope is that by setting goals like building a city on Mars by 2117, the UAE government will motivate generations of young Emiratis to pursue careers in science and engineering. It is exactly for this reason that the UAE has progressively tried to increase the share of Emiratis involved in its space projects, as well as planning the Al-Amal Probe’s arrival to Mars to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the creation of the UAE. The space program is meant not only to motivate and unite generations of Emiratis, but also to inspire the entire Arab world.
"The first message is for the world: that Arab civilization once played a great role in contributing to human knowledge, and will play that role again,” said Al Maktoum, speaking about the significance of the Emirates Mars Mission. “The second message is to our Arab brethren: that nothing is impossible, and that we can compete with the greatest of nations in the race for knowledge. The third message is for those who strive to reach the highest of peaks: set no limits to your ambitions, and you can reach even to space."
Certainly, a century-long goal is unprecedented in the history of space travel. State-run space programs are often much more short-sighted. What does it mean for a country and its people to set a goal today that they themselves will never see accomplished? However admirable, what is the feasibility? And more importantly, where do you even begin?
Paula Estrada is Managing Editor. Email her at
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