The Middle East’s rapidly advancing space sector has seen a slew of landmark achievements in the last few years.

By Alexander Hendry

In 2014, the UAE established the UAE Space Agency to oversee and grow its space sector, and it has since successfully completed numerous projects. In July 2020, it became the fifth country in the world to launch a probe to Mars, and in December 2022, the UAE-built Rashid Rover was launched on a path to the moon. Emirati astronaut Hazza Al Mansouri was the first person from the UAE in space, and Emirati astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi will soon embark on a six-month mission to the International Space Station. The Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre has launched four satellites, and UAE-based satellite company Yahsat currently manages a fleet of five satellites and provides services in more than 150 countries. In 2022, the UAE established an US$817 million fund to support its space sector, including the development of a constellation of advanced radar imaging satellites.

Saudi Arabia is also focused on growing its space industry. In 2020, the Kingdom announced that it will invest US$2.1 billion into its space program. In 2022, it renamed the Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) as the Communications, Space and Technology Commission (CST) and established the Supreme Space Council, headed by the Crown Prince and Prime Minister. The CST and the Supreme Space Council work with the Saudi Space Commission, established in 2018, to oversee and regulate the Kingdom’s space sector. Saudi Arabia has also established initiatives like the CST’s space entrepreneurship alliance and the Saudi Space Accelerator Program to foster collaboration between private and public entities and promote innovation. During the second quarter of 2023, Saudi Arabia will send two astronauts, including its first female astronaut, to the International Space Station, in collaboration with Axiom Space. Arabsat, a satellite company founded and jointly owned by a coalition of Arab states, is headquartered in Riyadh, and operates a fleet of seven satellites, providing services across the Middle East and North Africa.

Other Middle East nations are also pursuing space-related ambitions. Kuwait launched its first satellite in January 2023, with plans already underway to design and launch a second one. Oman has announced plans to build a spaceport, its first foray into the space and satellite sector. Israel has a long-established space program, and is one of only seven countries in the world that independently builds and launches its own satellites.

As the industry develops, so does the legal landscape of international treaties and national laws and regulations. Middle East countries have a long-standing history of engaging with international space treaties. Most are party to the multilateral Outer Space Treaty 1967, which forms the basis of international space law. Many have also signed or ratified other major space agreements and treaties, including the Rescue Agreement of 1968, the Space Liability Convention of 1972, the Registration Convention of 1975, and the Moon Treaty of 1979. In addition, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have joined NASA’s Artemis Accords, a legal framework that establishes principles to facilitate the peaceful and safe exploration of space.

National regimes have been evolving as well. The UAE has issued a Space Law to stimulate investment in the space sector; implement safety, security, and environmental measures relating to space activities; and support the UAE’s commitment to international conventions and treaties related to outer space. Egypt has passed a law establishing the Egyptian Space Agency to develop and transfer space technologies into Egypt and to build and launch satellites from Egypt. Saudi Arabia is reviewing a draft space law to support the development of its space sector, accelerate scientific research in space, and encourage investment in space projects. And Bahrain’s National Space Science Agency is in the process of drafting a national space law.

The Middle East’s space sector will likely continue to experience accelerating growth, driven by increasing focus and funding from regional governments, continuing international cooperation, and the rapidly expanding private sector. The space industry is now global, and the Middle East looks set to be a major participant.

This post was prepared with the assistance of Clarence Cheong.