The Saudi Space Commission and the UK’s Space Agency have signed a memorandum of understanding that will see them build a framework for collaboration in the peaceful use of space. This is the latest step in an ambitious regional space push.
Technology company SpaceChain, which expanded its operations in the UK and Asia by opening an office in Abu Dhabi in March, is one of the first to do so.

Nick Trudgen, the company’s co-founder and Chief Commercial Officer, told Arab News that the amount of ambition in Saudi Arabia and the UAE brought it to Abu Dhabi.

“We’ve always seen a lot of ambition in the UAE, and last year’s Mars mission was a great example of that,” he said.

“I was in Saudi two weeks ago when the MoU with the UK was signed, and they share this degree of ambition,” he added. “It’s coming from both governments and the corporate sector as they want to invest in space itself rather than their agencies.”
“We’re working on initiatives in the United Kingdom and with the European Space Agency.” They have more talent and technological ability, but you get the impression that they have more grandiose intentions in the Middle East than in Europe.”
After the United States and Luxembourg, the UAE became the third country to establish legal frameworks to encourage the exploration and utilization of trillion-dollar asteroids, according to Goldman Sachs.

Sahith Reddy Madara, the UAE’s national point of contact for the Space Generation Council, told Arab News that deep-space asteroid-mining missions are being planned.

“When it comes to the United Arab Emirates, it has built an exceptionally precise near-term, medium-term, and long-term strategy,” Madara added.

“Mining is a 20-year effort, but we’ll see satellite launches and more research missions before that.”

This more proximate focus aligns with Ray Harris, an emeritus professor of geography at University College London, who believes that those who look out to space overlook certain key benefits that the region could get from its quest towards the cosmos.

“The Middle East establishing itself as a cultural player, such as through the World Cup,” he told Arab News, “is part of a larger issue of education, research, and training.”

“A logical extension of this is space.” Many countries around the world have their own satellite projects, and the Middle East has been left out of this until recently, but now we’re seeing them make this push.”

While Harris doubts the ability to commercialize Earth observation, he does not rule it out, noting that one Saudi corporation asked his assistance in determining whether an oil refinery was being built in the most efficient way possible.
“Checking via satellite is significantly faster than checking on the ground,” he said. “And why isn’t environmental remote sensing a developed industry?” Few people think about

monetizing satellites in this way, but with 31-cm pixel resolution, it can provide crucial information on deforestation, river pollution, geological features from which oil might be inferred, and even monitoring big construction projects.”
Given the Middle East’s financial strength, diverse environmental programs, and substantial price cuts in satellite observation equipment and launch costs, Harris believes the area could be the one to pull it out.

“And, given their environmental focus, this would speak to government goals of having their country recognized for good global citizenship,” he added.

Trudgen agrees, stating that SpaceChain already has a UAE-based partner undertaking geo-data analysis on water security, as well as port and mangrove monitoring, indicating the potential benefits the region could gain by focusing on the remote sensing industry.

But, he added, the region must not be complacent with the Janus-like reality of being an undeveloped market for the space sector in order to make the most of this and the wider potentials given by space.

This allows countries to be more flexible in their approach to development, but it also means that in its early stages, it must struggle with a scarcity of native talent and education.
“There aren’t as many high-quality universities (as in the West), so finding expertise in a niche like space is more difficult,” Trudgen explained.

“I know they’re attempting to expand up and establish a potential engineering workforce, and this is something they need to focus on if they want to achieve their goals.”
The SSC is well aware of this, having established scholarship programs to help Saudi youngsters study space sciences and aerospace engineering at the world’s leading universities.
Partnerships with space stalwarts are also helping, with a NASA spokeswoman telling Arab News that the agency has cooperated with countries in the region bilaterally and multilaterally.

“The Middle East recognizes that it cannot outsource everything, including education,” Madara said. “While the region may send its brightest to international colleges, the goal is to learn from them and promote faith in home institutions through the creation of high-quality research.” We may have centuries on them, but we have the will.”

This aspiration is regionally endemic, and the extent to which it can be realized will be revealed when the Saudi space strategy is released later this year, followed by Oman’s shortly after.

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