In the not-so-distant future, envision a space race that does not involve the familiar titans of space exploration: the United States, Russia, China, or India. Look instead to the Gulf, where the wealthy Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has attempted to develop increasingly sophisticated space programs—and, moreover, attempted to outcompete each other as they reach progressively higher milestones in their quests toward exploration of the cosmos.
The Middle East is not entirely new to space. In 1985, Prince Sultan bin Salman al-Saud, the second son of King Salman and the older brother of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, traveled to space aboard the Discovery space shuttle, becoming the first Arab and first Muslim in space. Fifteen others have followed in his footsteps; most were from Russia and the post-Soviet states, but in recent years, Saudi and Emirati astronauts have also docked at the International Space Station. Still, all of these missions have so far been conducted either under the auspices of great-power space programs or Western-based private programs such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Axiom Space.
Not content with this, the Gulf states have displayed ambitions to develop their own programs. In my 2010 article in Qatar’s Al-Raya newspaper, titled “Qatar Space Agency,” I outlined the ambitious objectives of the Gulf nations in space exploration. In it I suggested that the region intended to participate as an equal partner in the next wave of scientific discoveries, positioning it at the forefront of the new space race. Today, as the great powers relaunch their space programs and private companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Axiom Space enter the field as well, society appears to be teetering on the edge of this paradigm shift, and the Gulf states are eager to participate.
As these global developments unfold, the importance of security gains equal, if not greater, significance; outer space represents a burgeoning defense domain alongside land, sea, air, and cyberspace, and recent world events—notably Ukraine’s use of the Starlink satellite Internet system throughout its war with Russia—have shown the ways in which space can play a decisive role in terrestrial military conflicts. This realization escalates the urgency of the evolving arms race. However, military ambitions do not altogether overshadow the importance of scientific endeavors. This upcoming space contest, in which the Gulf states will take part, symbolizes not only exploration, but an expansion and a quest for dominance, safeguarding both collective interests and unique national aspirations.
The New Space Race
Because the militarization of space is seen by most policymakers as a matter of grave concern—even as each nation separately attempts to develop capabilities in that regard—the scientific aspects of space hold prominence over its military applications. One of the primary goals in scientific endeavors is collaboration and the dissemination of knowledge. As the Gulf countries steer towards space and deep-space exploration, they will likely focus on fostering indigenous scientific advancements in their universities rather than solely relying on the “pay-to-play” method or importing intellect.
However, given the current geopolitical realities, the military dimension is accelerating at an unprecedented pace. Key areas to watch in this sphere include communications security, space situational awareness, supportive ground operations, and the deployment of directed energy. The new space race is primarily linked to international security competition, and this space rivalry will probably grow in fields connected to space and more terrestrial conflicts—cybersecurity, espionage, communications, and global competition. However, the economic competition will likely be the hardest to achieve for each party, as it requires long-term investments in research and development, as well as international cooperation and some level of outside investment.
There are also economic questions regarding space exploration, and the potential for profit, not traditionally a consideration in larger countries’ space programs. From pioneering research and development to fostering foreign investments, this dimension might be the keystone for sustaining dominance in any forthcoming space contest. Instead of a simple research approach, Gulf nations might delve into industry development and foreign collaborations.
Lastly, the Arab states interested in pursuing space programs must see the value in international agreements governing conduct in space, such as the Artemis Accords; Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain have already done so. This aspect of the space race will be difficult to settle, as legislative bodies in the GCC states could be overwhelmed with this intricate topic—particularly after the GCC states, with the exception of Qatar and Oman, joined the Artemis Accords and the SSA (Space Situational Awareness Program Agreement).
The challenge each of these states faces is in balancing local interests, norms, and legislation on one hand, and the emerging international laws and codes on the other hand. A balance will almost certainly be struck after some time, allowing the GCC states to explore space in accordance with the international ‘rules of the road.’ To sum up, the race to space for the Gulf is not just a fleeting thought for the future. It is a present reality—and one that is poised to reshape global dynamics, likely to the benefit of the Gulf.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.