When Rayyanah Barnawi entered the history books early yesterday as the first Saudi woman to go into space, it was an achievement the whole Arab world could share in. The scientific researcher, 33, joined another Saudi astronaut, Ali Al Qarni, and two American colleagues on a Dragon capsule as they took off from the Kennedy Space Centre, beginning an epic 16-hour journey to the orbiting International Space Station.
Ms Barnawi’s journey is a milestone but it fits comfortably within the now-established trajectory of Gulf and Arab involvement not only in space exploration but in advanced scientific research. Awaiting Ms Barnawi and her fellow travellers was the UAE's Sultan Al Neyadi, who is on the ISS for a six-month mission. Dr Al Neyadi has been an exemplary ambassador for the UAE and the wider Arab world, sharing scientific and personal insights from orbit, and the symbolism of Saudis and Emiratis working side-by-side in space will not be lost on people across the region.
It also represents a new era for space travel, far removed from the old duopoly of American and Soviet dominance. When coupled with the UAE’s unmanned space projects, such as the Hope probe’s journey to Mars and the advanced work that went into building and launching the Rashid lunar rover, it is not inconceivable that one day we may witness a GCC space mission.
But it is not just in space where the effects of Ms Barnawi’s achievement will be felt. Far from being a simple visit, her journey to the ISS for an eight-day stay is just the first step for more female Arab involvement in space flight. The UAE’s first female astronaut, Nora Al Matrooshi, has been training with Nasa in the US – preparation that could see her in line for a Moon mission one day. Like Ms Barnawi, Ms Al Matrooshi, is a young woman with a strong scientific background, holding a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from UAE University in Al Ain.
They are among an important cohort of high-achieving women in the Gulf choosing a career in the hard sciences. Figures from Unesco state that 61 per cent of UAE graduates in Stem subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – are women, compared to 57 per cent across the rest of the Arab world.
However, challenges remain. Concerns have been raised over the so-called leaky pipeline in Stem, a phenomenon whereby women are entering careers in which representation drops in higher-level positions. Unesco has said that once Arab women scientists and engineers graduate, “they may come up against barriers to finding gainful employment” – including a lack of female role models.
Not everyone wants to go into space, of course. But Ms Barnawi’s journey to the ISS and her work with an international team of astronauts offers an example of what is possible. It has been almost 40 years since Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, an air force pilot, became the first Saudi in orbit, taking part in a US-organised space voyage. The kingdom has changed much in those four decades, and now Saudi girls and young women have a new, hard-working and capable peer to emulate.
It would be a mistake to take space flight for granted. Although better technology and private-sector finance have made space flights more numerous than before – and their crews more diverse – according to Nasa data more than 600 men have gone into space. The same figure for women is about 70.
For now, people in the wider region will be following Ms Barnawi’s journey closely, just as they have been following Dr Al Neyadi’s. Hopefully, the message it sends to millions of young people in the Arab world is that when it comes to achieving great things, the sky’s the limit.