The oasis town of Al-Ain, in Abu Dhabi’s eastern region, is most famous for being the birthplace of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, the founder of the UAE.

But the ‘Garden City’ could soon be better known as home of one of the world’s first space ports.

“Al-Ain has a great airport and only needs some small additional facilities to become a space port,” says the man who could make the vision a reality, UAE Space Agency director-general Mohammed al-Ahbabi.

A UAE space port is just one of the possibilities emerging from the country’s plan to develop its space industry as part of the strategic vision for its post-oil future.

But with many of the major milestones, including landing a mission on Mars, due to be delivered in time for the country’s golden jubilee in 2021, it is a daunting programme, albeit one that Al-Ahbabi is clearly relishing.

In an exclusive interview with MEED, which he says is the longest he has ever given, Al-Ahbabi discusses his country’s space programme with passion, including the plans for a space port.

Open to all

“We would like a space port,” he says. “We would like it to operate like an airport that is open for everyone. Not just one operator but open to all operators.”

The idea of developing a space port in Al-Ain first emerged in 2009, after Abu Dhabi government-owned Aabar Investments became a major shareholder in Richard Branson’s space tourism venture Virgin Galactic.

“Al-Ain is removed from the country’s established airports,” says Al-Ahbabi. “The UAE has busy skies, so it is best to have a dedicated corridor.”

However, following a test flight accident in the US in 2014 that saw a pilot killed, Virgin Galactic’s plans have slowed. Al-Ahbabi says that as a long-time investor and partner, the space agency is continuing to talk with Virgin Galactic, but it is also exploring other models.

“We are introducing a UAE space law to create the right environment to attract investment and we are coordinating with the UK Space Agency to cooperate on the development of space ports,” he says.

The UAE’s interest in space dates back to the 1970s, when Sheikh Zayed received visits from US space agency Nasa. But it was not until 2014 that the government decided it was time to establish its own space agency.

“The space sector in the UAE has had more than AED20bn ($5.5bn) of direct investment since 2014,” says Al-Ahbabi. “We convinced the government it was time to create an agency to provide oversight and regulation, to manage international relations to avoid duplication and overlaps, and to cover certain sectors that the private sector is not ready to take on.”

Personalised model

After studying space agencies around the world, the UAE created a model to regulate and protect national interests and which also will work to build capacity and drive international relations.

“We don’t operate and we don’t buy systems,” says Al-Ahbabi. “We leave that to the private sector and to the government. We coordinate and provide funds and support. We have about 50 people, and we are focused on being effective.”

As a small country with a young space programme, international cooperation and strategic partnerships are crucial. The UAE has 13 space cooperation agreements in place and is targeting four more.

“We will sign agreements with every space agency in the world,” says Al-Ahbabi.

In 2015, the UAE became the first Arab country to join the International Space Exploration Coordination Group.

“We are not the investor, but we can help bring people to the UAE,” says Al-Ahbabi.

“We are drafting a space law to make the UAE attractive to space investors such as Luxembourg, which has 60-70 satellites despite being a small country. We are developing the space law for tomorrow, for future initiatives such as space tourism and space mining.”

Research centres

Following an analysis of the UAE’s strengths and weaknesses, the agency has identified the number of engineers and scientists it needs, and has created three national space research centres at the UAE University in Al-Ain, the Masdar Institute in Abu Dhabi and the American University of Sharjah.

“Thanks to Yahsat [Al-Yah Satellite Communications Company] and Thuraya, the UAE is strong in satellite communications,” says Al-Ahbabi. “And through government projects as well as a long-running international collaboration between the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre and the South Korean space agency [Korea Aerospace Research Institute], the country is strong in remote sensing. We are also working on astronomy.”

The most significant project of all, however, is the mission to Mars. Announced in 2016, the Hope mission opens a major new stream to the UAE space programme.

“The Mars mission is a step into space exploration,” says Al-Ahbabi. “It generates interest. It inspires. It helps us learn how to cooperate with the international community. And it develops research.

“Its first goal is to inspire people, not just in the UAE but across the region. Tens of thousands of young people are confused and frustrated by what is happening in the region.

This sends a message that by trying, and through science and technology, we can get respect as global citizens and we can serve the world and help it solve its challenges.”

But with the mission scheduled to launch in 2020, the agency is under immense pressure to deliver.

“This is a UAE national project,” says Al-Ahbabi. “Everybody is watching. The government has set the 2020 deadline to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the UAE. So the launch is critical. There is only a three-week launch window every two years. We are worrying about that.”

A major milestone comes in May, when the team hopes to conclude its critical design review by a panel of independent advisers. Then the project will move to the design and manufacture of hardware, some of which will be done in the UAE. Then, after assembling and testing the systems, the project will advance to space environment testing and then, finally, launch.

“So far, we are on track,” says Al-Ahbabi.