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Transcending Middle East conflict in the space race

Published online 30 June 2020

Science historian, Jörg Matthias Determann, reflects on the challenges and opportunities of the UAE’s Hope Mars Mission, aimed for launch on July 14.

Jörg Matthias Determann

Amid the many unexpected developments of 2020, it might be reassuring to note that our universe does occasionally operate with a degree of predictability. Many astronomical events can be forecasted with mathematical certainty. Roughly every two years, Earth and Mars are at their closest in their orbits around the Sun. This orbital proximity offers a window for sending spacecraft to our neighbour. This summer provides us with one such opportunity for Martian exploration. Four missions to Mars were planned for this year. Rosalind Franklin, a joint European–Russian rover mission, has since been postponed to 2022 due to COVID-19-related disruptions. The United Arab Emirates’ al-Amal (in English, Hope) mission is set to launch on July 14, 2020. It is the first venture of its kind in the Middle East and propels Emirati ambitions.

The name of the Emirati probe reflects the great scientific and economic aspirations of the UAE as an emerging space power. The unmanned orbiter will observe the Martian atmosphere, including weather events such as dust storms, which feature prominently in Arabia’s climate. More broadly, the Emirates Mars mission aims to advance the country’s technological capabilities and inspire young Emiratis to pursue careers in science and engineering. As such, the venture is also part of a long-term strategy pursued by Gulf nations to move away from oil and gas and to build a knowledge-based economy.

Such technological ambitions are inseparable from political ones. The drive to create a knowledge economy is not just about diversifying sources of government revenue. By expanding opportunities for employment, the UAE hopes to create jobs for youth whose frustrations could otherwise give rise to instability. Furthermore, big science projects are symbolic displays of leadership and soft power. A country capable of complex space projects is one associated with the future. The probe is scheduled to reach Mars in 2021. This will coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the formation of the UAE.

If the Hope Mars Mission is about power as much as it is about science, could it exacerbate existing rivalries in the Middle East? Could a space race take the regional arms races to a new level? Satellite channels like Qatar’s Al Jazeera have already been part of bitter disputes and Iranian launch vehicles have raised concerns over their military potential. Could further spacecraft, just like rockets, missiles and drones, contribute to an explosive mix? The Emirati probe is unarmed. However, it is not far fetched to wonder if Middle Eastern countries might follow the United States in adding space forces to their service branches. Dual-use technology, like the rockets of the Cold War space race between the US and the Soviet Union, can serve both peaceful and military aims. Similarly, Earth observation satellites can be used for environmental monitoring as well as spying.

Future conflicts would continue already existing patterns in the Middle East. However, one hopes that the Emirates Mars Mission will diverge from these trajectories and contribute to peace. Just like most large science projects, it is dependent on international exchange and collaboration. American institutions, like the University of Colorado Boulder, have been essential partners of Dubai’s Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre in building the probe. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries will take care of the launch from a site in Japan. This is not very different from the United States relying on Russian rockets for human spaceflight between the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011 and the SpaceX Demo-2 flight to the International Space Station this year. Scientific cooperation might not solve conflicts, but at the very least, technological interdependence might prevent them from becoming too destructive.

Middle Eastern governments should extend their existing collaborations in space from distant countries in Asia or North America to their neighbours. The region has many resources other than oil and cash. Despite sanctions, Iran has built up impressive expertise in launch vehicles. Qatar knows how to run very successful satellite channels. Israel has some of the Middle East’s leading universities and technology companies. Even Yemen, though ravaged by war, could contribute its mountains as sites for observatories. All countries have populations full of highly imaginative and creative minds that would like to transcend conflicts over territory or religion. A view of Earth from space makes national boundaries and sectarian mappings disappear instantly.

Exchange, cooperation and mutual understanding in outer space do not need to start from scratch. A variety of forums already exist and should be further promoted. The International Astronomical Union and the International Astronautical Federation have been organizing meetings for many decades. Regionally, the Arab Union for Astronomy and Space Sciences and the Arab Astronomical Society do the same. The Iranian American engineer and space traveller, Anousheh Ansari, herself a symbol of bridging divides, has supported organizations like Astronomers Without Borders. We should follow her example.

doi:10.1038/nmiddleeast.2020.69


Jörg Matthias Determann is associate professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar. He is also an associate editor of the Review of Middle East Studies. His interests lie in the history of science and scholarship and in the history of the Muslim world. He has published three books: Historiography in Saudi Arabia: Globalization and the State in the Middle East, Researching Biology and Evolution in the Gulf States: Networks of Science in the Middle East, and Space Science and the Arab World: Astronauts, Observatories and Nationalism in the Middle East. He is currently completing a fourth book with the title Islam, Science Fiction and Extraterrestrial Life: The Culture of Astrobiology in the Muslim World. You can follow him on Twitter @JMDetermann.