In January, Saudi Arabia did something no country has ever done before: It pulled out of a United Nations space treaty. Specifically, the oil-rich kingdom exited an agreement intended to govern activity on and around the Moon.
That treaty, first inked in 1979, never had much influence: Most of its signatories did not have the ability to get to the Moon, and countries that did, the US and the Soviet Union, didn’t join up. The Saudis had only signed on in 2012, and that was before the Moon rush kicked off.
Now, the US and China are launching major exploration campaigns of the Earth’s nearest neighbor, even as companies around the world launch ambitious new communication and sensing businesses in orbit. Indeed, US space companies are counting on oil states with deep pockets becoming regular customers for their rockets, space stations and satellites.
To that end, the US is promoting the Artemis Accords, a set of principles for space activity that includes rules for doing business in space—and that legal experts believe contradict the Moon Treaty’s focus on sharing the benefits of space with humanity writ large. Saudi Arabia has signed on to the Artemis Accords, suggesting it wants to play a role in a future space economy that mines a variety of commodities, from ice to minerals, beyond Earth.
The attractions of space investment for countries economically dependent on fossil fuels are clear: A successful space program requires investments in all kinds of tech, from chips to solar panels to advanced materials, that promise more value in a decarbonizing world. The $1 trillion space economy may not quite be around the corner, but its value in orbit is growing every day.
How to build a brand new space program
The second-ever astronaut from the UAE arrived at the International Space Station last week, joining a NASA mission that reached orbit onboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule. Sultan Al Neyadi plans to spend six months onboard the International Space Station participating in scientific research projects before returning to Earth. Previously, another UAE astronaut flew on a Russian Soyuz mission, and a Saudi astronaut flew on a Space Shuttle mission in 1985.
Two more Saudi astronauts will fly on a private mission to the International Space Station in April organized by Axiom Space, a Houston firm developing a commercial space station. The UAE says it plans to fly astronauts with commercial partners every three to five years.
These missions will help Arab space agencies understand the training and operational expertise needed to put people into space. But developing a domestic space industry will be more difficult. To develop technology, Middle Eastern powers will have to buy it or learn it from the nations that already have it.
One option is simply buying space-as-a-service: That’s what the Saudis are doing with Axiom Space, and what the UAE did with its first Mars mission in 2020. The UAE worked alongside US organizations that provided technical and manufacturing know-how before progressing to the country’s own home-built hardware. Saudi Arabia’s first domestically-built satellite was launched in 2019, after a partnership with Lockheed Martin.
The UAE wants to build its first settlement on Mars by 2117, which, if nothing else, is a reasonable time frame. But according to John Sheldon, a space analyst and former adviser to the UAE government, insiders say Saudi Arabian leader Mohammed bin Salman wants to see one of his citizens on the Moon by 2030, and that may be more of a political problem than an engineering one.
The tricky politics of space exploration
Working with royal families means Western space powers must face the often ugly politics of their countries: The US government believes bin Salman ordered the killing of Saudi-US journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and Saudi Arabia has cracked down on women’s rights and free expression. The country’s attempts to launch a new golf league and purchase a Premier League soccer team have been tracked to controversy that may impact the kingdom’s space ambitions as well.
More broadly, those goals may be complicated by the dual-use nature of space technology: The US and Saudi Arabia have insisted, for example, that Iran’s ostensibly civil space program is actually a ballistic missile development effort. If the Saudis want access to US space know-how, they’ll need to keep focused on civil space, barring big changes in US foreign policy. But the Saudis and the UAE also want to team up with China on various space projects, particularly now that the Russian space program has lost a step due to a lack of investment and Moscow’s decision to invade Ukraine.
That could set up a delicate situation, since the US has made space cooperation with China effectively illegal. Though Europe has also sought to work with both the US and China, in practice it has mainly focuses on its US partnership, especially with new efforts to keep certain technology, like advanced chips, away from Beijing. The US will want to work with Middle Eastern powers in space both because of their resources and to see its preferred vision of space exploration become a global norm, but not if that conflicts with Washington’s terrestrial objectives.
In a perfect world, the Middle Eastern powers might emerge as brokers between increasingly bifurcated US and Chinese space programs, working toward acceptable international norms. A less Panglossian vision might see Saudi Arabia and UAE space programs become wild cards as space technology becomes accessible enough to support more than two frameworks for human activity beyond the atmosphere.
One thing is for sure: With the two powers committing serious money to the space sector, US companies need to be ready to compete. China’s Great Wall Industry Corporation, a major state-owned manufacturer of launch vehicles and spacecraft, has reportedly opened an office in Abu Dhabi.