Sarah Al Amiri interview: space will have direct impact on UAE economy in next five years

Exclusive: UAE's space chief tells 'The National' how the sector's growth fits into country's Dh300bn industrial strategy

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UAE space chief Sarah Al Amiri has told of ambitious plans to increase private sector investment in the country's growing space industry and make it a key contributor to the economy.

In an exclusive interview with The National, Ms Al Amiri, the Minister of State for Advanced Technology and chairperson of the UAE Space Agency, said the aim is to make the UAE a regional hub for the development of spacecraft systems.

She said the UAE's plans to increase manufacturing and industry's contribution to the country's economic output to Dh300 billion over the next decade would be at the heart of efforts to develop a private space sector that would build advanced space systems and generate more job opportunities, including for overseas talent.

Last month, the UAE launched the 'Operation 300bn' strategy to position the country as a global industrial hub by 2031. It sets out to increase the industrial sector's contribution to the local gross domestic product (GDP) from the current Dh133bn to Dh300bn.

As we move forward with Operation 300billion, it's very evident that we need to have a private sector and, therefore, an industry in space

Ms Al Amiri spoke of how the space industry would support the economy and revealed what kind of space technology would be in focus under the industrial plan.

"As we move forward with Operation 300bn, it's very evident that we need to have a private sector and, therefore, an industry in space.

“Most of the current space sector within the Emirates is focused on government spending and programmes across both local and federal governments,” she said.

"Today, we're talking about a space sector that has an indirect impact to the economy. In five years, we want to see a space sector that has both an indirect impact on the economy, society, and also a direct impact on the economy."

Once the industry starts to grow, it would mean access to locally manufactured space technologies.

Steps are already being taken to increase public-private partnerships. UAE-based aerospace manufacturing firm Strata, for example, is developing the parts for the coming MBZ-Sat satellite.

A public-private partnership model is being undertaken by space agencies worldwide, as more private space companies emerge to offer their services to governments.

Nasa has been leading the way in this through its partnership with private rocket company SpaceX, which now sends Nasa astronauts to the International Space Station. The firm’s Starship was also selected to send the next astronauts back to the Moon.

"There is a gap that the UAE can latch into and the reason for the existence of this gap is due to the lower cost of access to space, which provided a new form of spacecraft, products and services in the space sector," said Ms Al Amiri.

Home-grown satellites with 'brains'

Several space technologies would be in focus as the private sector grows, including instrumentation of microsatellites weighing between 100 to 250 kilograms.

Another area of focus would include designing the satellite systems and ‘brains’ of the spacecraft, such as flight software.

These are integral parts of a spacecraft that help improve performance and health.

KhalifaSat, which was the first Emirati-built satellite, was a product of the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre, but some parts such as the solar panels, were sourced from an Italian private company.

The UAE’s Hope probe was built by Emiratis along with three American universities.

Investing in local and foreign talent

Through the expansion of the space industry, more opportunities to be part of UAE's and other nation's space programmes would become available to foreign talent.

“The first thing we're focusing on is the sustainability of that sector,” said Ms Al Amiri.

“Because if you want jobs and opportunities to be created, it shouldn't be a one off thing and it shouldn't be for it to be fully sort of driven by demand from the public sector only.

“Step one is ensuring this ecosystem has a demand onto itself, so demand locally and regionally from different sectors, as well as positioning the UAE as a regional hub for the development of spacecraft systems.”

Currently, a government-led space programme makes up most of the country’s space activities.

Mostly UAE citizens have employment in the space sector, but there is demand from international talent who wish to work in the Emirates as space professionals.

“Because this is a new industry, you need to have a methodology by which you build experience for both expats and also for UAE nationals,” said Ms Al Amiri.

“And it's through this that the role of the space agency has evolved to be a space agency for the next decade.

“What we’re now transitioning into is less of a government-funded centres and programmes and more into the creation of a self-sustained space ecosystem.”

“We need to ensure that we have a sustained space industry that carries forward those relatively lower-risk commercial programme and create the necessary value in terms of development of technology for the country and for the region.”

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