Mohammaed Nasser Al-Ahbabi,
Mohammed Nasser Al-Ahbabi, director general of the UAE space agency. Credit: EIAST

A significant first step was taken in the sphere of space law and policy by the United Arab Emirates with the inaugural meeting of the UAE Space Agency Working Group on Space Policy and Law on March 16. The purpose of this temporary working group, which was led by Mohammad Nasser Al Ahbabi, director general of the UAE space agency, is to discuss common goals and responsibilities for interested parties in order to identify suitable priorities to implement government directives. The group will also encourage cooperation and coordination between a variety of stakeholders within the UAE space sector with the ultimate goal of creating a national space policy, federal laws to implement that policy and any necessary regulations. The step toward a national space policy is important as it not only positions the UAE to coordinate its domestic space program but also ranks the UAE as a player in the arena international outer space law and policy.

The UAE is a comparative newcomer to outer space activities beginning with the formation of its space agency, the Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology (EIAST), in 2006 by government decree of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE vice president, prime minister and ruler of Dubai. EIAST was established with the goal of prompting a strategic initiative to promote scientific innovation and space technology advancement, to inspire sustainable development in the UAE, and to be recognized as a center of excellence in the field of space science and technological innovation.

UAE, through EIAST, currently operates two Earth observation satellites. The first, DubaiSat-1, was co-developed with South Korea and launched in July 2009. The second, DubaiSat-2, which was also co-developed with South Korea, launched in November 2013.

Prior to EIAST’s formation, the UAE formally and legally recognized the existing framework of international space law on Oct. 4, 2000, when it acceded to the Outer Space Treaty, the Liability Convention and the Registration Convention.

With this international legal foundation, the UAE’s decision to implement a national space policy and national space laws is the next logical step, which also positions the Gulf nation to join the ranks of spacefaring nations as a significant player.

During the Cold War and the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, technical prowess and spectacular space firsts were used to define the hallmark of a great space power. However, with the proliferation of outer space technology and the participation in outer space activities, the sign of a truly spacefaring country is not only technical prowess. Increasingly, the creation of internal and external space policies and laws to implement those policies is the mark of an important player in the sphere of outer space activities. It is here where the UAE can make its mark as a recognized participant.

When a country implements a national space policy it is with the intent of providing policy directions for the conduct of that government’s civil, military and national security space programs as well as covering relations with the commercial and research space sectors, and international partners. More importantly, a national space policy can be planned with the intent to make a country a geopolitical player in the international space arena, which will allow it to influence international space law and policy to its geopolitical benefit. Put simply, a national space policy will be a geopolitical marker that a country has the intention to become a considerable player in the geopolitical sphere regardless of its level of technical ability.

Dubaisat-1. Credit: Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology

The UAE’s space policy has yet to take substantive form, but there are some basic areas that it will likely address. For starters, the space policy can be expected to focus on internal needs and goals to develop its domestic space program, to include human capital needs, technology and what outer space activities will be pursued to benefit its resources and economy. The proposed policy can also be expected to state the need for development of domestic space laws and regulations to address government activities and incorporate the UAE’s existing legal obligations under the international agreements it has acceded to.

Commercial space activities will also be a likely component of the proposed space policy. The UAE has made agreements with commercial suborbital operators, in particular Virgin Galactic, where the state-controlled investment fund will acquire “exclusive regional rights” to launch tourism and scientific research space flights from Dubai under the Virgin Galactic label. Additionally, XCOR Aerospace has expressed interest in performing revenue-generating flights from the UAE, which means the proliferation of commercial space activities and the resultant benefits are sure to be expressed in the anticipated policy in terms of recognizing the potential for hosting commercial space activities and the need to implement laws and regulations to administer the industry.

International cooperation in outer space activities is another important consideration the future space policy is sure to address. The importance of cooperation is clearly recognized by the UAE, even more so considering the recent announcement of talks with the United States to enter into outer space cooperation. International cooperation for the UAE not only will reap access to resources that it would not otherwise have, but will also give the UAE further legitimacy in the international community with the resultant national prestige, which is sure to make the issue of interaction with foreign space players an important consideration in crafting the UAE space policy.

The utility and value of outer space for national security is well recognized, and the UAE is no exception. The UAE’s geographic location is such that it is surrounded by countries with whom it has good relations, but it is also close to historical adversaries. This, coupled with the inherent instability of the region, makes the consideration of the use of outer space for national security activities of paramount importance to the UAE’s space policy. It is here where the UAE space policy could conceivably diverge between a public, unclassified space policy that articulates general statements of the use of outer space for national security activities and a classified, nonpublic version detailing specific national goals to utilize outer space for national security purposes. It is not out of the norm for a national space policy to have unclassified and classified components, and with one of one of its neighbors pursuing nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear proliferation throughout the Middle East, the utilization of space-based assets to monitor activity in the region will be a necessity that UAE space policy will need to address.

The UAE space policy will attract geopolitical interest and the respect of other geopolitical players in outer space activities. By taking the initiative and the time to develop a coherent space policy, the UAE will exhibit that its interest in outer space activities is not just for show but rather represents a national commitment. The ancillary benefit will be that the UAE will be looked upon as a significant player in the outer space community, and it will join the ranks of those nations who have articulated a national space policy and with it the respect that accompanies it.

Michael J. Listner is an attorney and the founder and principal of Space Law & Policy Solutions, a legal and policy think tank/consultation firm that identifies issues and offers practical solutions for matters relating to outer space security and development.