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Pan-Arab Space Agency: Pipe Dream or Real Possibility?

By Sonya Shaykhoun | August 26, 2014

      The Middle East, especially the Arabian Gulf, is fast becoming a heavyweight in the international space industry. Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and, more recently, Qatar are developing their respective space and satellite-related initiatives at various speeds and to different degrees of investment.

      In 1976, the twenty-one member states of the Arab League established Arabsat, the Saudi-based satellite communications operator at a time when the communications industry in MENA was government owned and dominated. The liberalization of the MENA telecommunications industry in the 1990s gave the MENA satellite industry room and air to grow. Consequently, it is especially buoyant now and shows no signs of slowing down in the near future. Satellites whose footprints cover the MENA region and then some are congested with all manner of TV channels not to mention the other communications functionalities provided by such satellites (i.e., Internet and telephony).

      With the MENA satellite and space industry burgeoning and individual countries investing colossal amounts in the hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars, the time is ripe for increased collaboration and more formal regulation as the breadth, scope and intensity of the MENA space industry expands. By way of example, collaboration and regulation of the satellite broadcasting industry are not unprecedented in the satellite industry though that regulation has been merely only prescriptive rather than mandatory as the Arab League is a voluntary organization.

      In 2008, the Arab League formulated what turned out to be the controversial “Arab League Media Charter” (aka the “Arab Satellite Broadcasting Charter: Principles for Regulating Satellite Broadcasting Transmission in the Arab World”). The media charter requires adherence to many broad and sweeping principles that, given the varying degrees of religious, political and social conservatism and complexity in the MENA region, could be misconstrued and applied inconsistently, such as the following provision: “To comply with the religious and ethical values of Arab society and maintain its family ties and social integrity” (Article 6(9)). Signatories to the Media Charter promise to adhere to rather sweeping principles, such as “maintaining Arab identity against the negative impact of powers of globalization and the orientations and the frame of reference of the Arab world” (Article 7(1)), despite the fact that the “Arab identity” from one MENA country to another (or even within one country) can be as different as black is to white (viz. Lebanon: Saudi Arabia). The media charter is still the cause of much debate six years on and is just one example of how challenging collaboration and reaching binding consensus can be between the MENA countries.

      Which begs the question, is the MENA region ready to commit to the Pan-Arab Space Agency for which the UAE called in 2008? When the UAE proposed the Pan-Arab Space Agency, the press reported that the aim, according to Dr. Omar Emam of the Sharjah-based Arab Science and Technology Foundation is — or will be — multifaceted: to reduce the cost of building and launching satellites into orbit, to monitor security and engage in anti-terrorism initiatives, and to monitor shipping, pollution and other environmental developments in MENA. There would be benefits to greater collaboration and information sharing between the MENA countries. Objectively speaking and disregarding politics for a moment, establishing and developing a Pan-Arab Space Agency could be a wise move for the MENA region. The Pan-Arab Space Agency could foster greater progress collectively than individually, especially in terms of developing a region-wide technology industry and much needed jobs for aeronautical engineers who cannot find jobs in the space industry upon graduation, putting poorer Arab nations (i.e., Egypt) on the path of sustainable development, facilitate water and natural resources security as well as physical security. The benefits are inarguable. Dr. Emam stipulated that the proposed Pan-Arab Space Agency would follow the European Space Agency (ESA) model (i.e., civilian entity) not the NASA (i.e., military) model.

      Exploring the Moon and other celestial bodies, according to the Moon Treaty, is a universal right, so the by-products of space exploration are essentially held on trust by the exploring nation(s) for the rest of mankind — hence the paltry number of nations that have signed and ratified the Moon Treaty because sharing is not easy. Any kind of space activity is normally a costly endeavor — though not always (viz. India’s unmanned Mars orbiter cost $74 million) — particularly for those MENA countries that are not oil and gas rich like the Gulf countries (though the Bahraini is not oil-dependent). Sharing is a utopian concept that, if applied in MENA, would have the benefit of reducing the cost of participating in space-related activities. In reality, data and resource sharing may put many MENA countries on edge as it could compromise national security if not conducted properly.

      So what would the Pan-Arab Space Agency do? ESA’s objectives are instructive: “draw up the European space program and carry it through. ESA’s programs are designed to find out more about the Earth, its immediate space environment, our Solar System and the Universe, as well as to develop satellite-based technologies and services and to promote European industries. ESA also works closely with space organizations outside Europe.” This objective is not foreign to the national space programmes (existing and proposed) of several of the MENA countries.

      There is a diversity of satellite and space-related activity in the MENA region (and neighboring Iran). Several MENA countries already have space agencies including Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia, including neighboring Iran. Yemen had plans for space exploration until a religious fatwa (i.e., a religious edict) nixed the Yemeni Space Agency (YASA). Neighboring Somalia put up a “Space Program” website but admitted they are too poor to establish it. In late 2013, Egypt, announced the proposal of a national space agency whose focus would be on sustainable development and the environment (as opposed to space exploration) following the successful example of India whose space program successfully facilitated the alleviation of poverty and the amelioration of the agriculture industry. In early 2014, Syria also announced its intention to establish a Syrian Space Agency as a “public body of a scientific research nature.”

      The UAE, which is the country calling for the Pan-Arab Space Agency (as well as an Arab Space Research Agency), is also the country whose space-related investments and developments have been exponential. In 2006, the UAE established the Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology (EIAST) as a Dubai government entity to promote scientific innovation, emphasizing space technology and sustainable development. EIAST lay the foundation for the UAE to become an international hub for space technology, among other things, and its satellite program produced DubaiSat-1, a remote sensing satellite that observes the earth at a Low Earth Orbit; DubaiSat-2, a lighter, faster whose images are sharper than DubaiSat-1; and Khalifa-Sat, formerly DubaiSat-3, the first 100-percent-Emirati made satellite whose launch is schedule in 2017.

      Abu Dhabi-based Yahsat owns two satellites: YahSat’s Y1A for communications and HDTV, and Y1B for broadband. EIAST is also developing a facility to enable Dubai to have satellite-building capabilities. UAE is home to Thuraya, the mobile satellite communications company, and Virgin Galactic, the Dubai facility of the New Mexico company headquarters. The “Space Race” is underway, notwithstanding religious fatwas against Emiratis going into space. Nilesat, an Egyptian satellite company established in 1996, owns several satellites. Qatar’s Es’hailSat launched Es’hail 1 in August 2013 with the launch of Es’hail 2 planned for 2016. Qatari astronomer, Dr. Khalid Al-Subai, lead the way to discovering Qatar-1b, a large planet that resembles Jupiter (i.e., it resolves around a star).

      The MENA region is a hotbed of space-related activity. The question is, can the MENA countries risk compromising sovereignty in favor of a real and formal collaboration? Collaboration potentially has multiple benefits for peace, security, the economy, the environment and gaining knowledge. With the Arab Spring largely sprung, the Pan-Arab Space Agency could reap benefits and effect meaningful multifaceted progress that could far outweigh any individual efforts for all of humanity, not just for the MENA region. VS

      Sonya Shaykhoun is a TMTS lawyer with a particular interest and experience in satellite law, especially as it relates to the Middle East and North Africa. She has been working in the GCC since 2004, first as senior legal counsel for Orbit Communications Company, a pay satellite TV company that is now OSN, in Bahrain and, since 2011, as senior legal counsel for Al Jazeera Media Network in Doha.