Defense Priorities Boost Gulf States’ Space Program

Hasan Alhasan

AFP Forum : Ozan Kose

Space technology is emerging as a cornerstone of modernization strategies in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both in terms of economic development and national prestige. In a region plagued by conflict, however, both space programs also serve clear military and security purposes, including countering Iran’s advances in space technology.

The UAE, which has invested $6 billion in space technology according to 2018 data, launched the Arab Space Cooperation Group (ASCG) during the Global Space Congress held in Dubai last March. The group includes 11 Arab countries in a crucial step toward ensuring that Arab states have a seat at the global table on space norms and policy.

In Saudi Arabia last December, King Salman bin Abdulaziz appointed Prince Sultan, his eldest son and the first Arab and Muslim astronaut to venture into space in 1985, as president of the kingdom’s new space agency. Since the prince’s appointment, Saudi Arabia has launched three satellites into orbit.

At first glance, these investments appear to be conspicuous nation-branding initiatives that help to project an image of these countries as modern and forward-looking. The most obvious example is the UAE’s plan to put a probe into Mars orbit by 2021, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the UAE, and the proposal to build a human outpost by 2117, with work continuing on a $136-million science city to simulate conditions on the planet.

Beyond national prestige, however, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are also eyeing potential economic returns on their space programs. The launch of the first Arabsat satellite in 1985, for instance, has made Saudi Arabia a key provider of satellite television services in the Middle East. Riyadh is actively promoting the space sector as a technological base for building a knowledge economy as part of Vision 2030, although both Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s ability to commercialize indigenous space technology remains in a nascent phase.

More urgently, perhaps, the space programs serve clear security and military objectives. Advances in satellite technology allow for more secure communications platforms and broader surveillance capabilities, as demonstrated by Saudi Arabia’s three satellite launches since December last year. SGS-1, a Saudi-designed satellite built by Lockheed Martin, provides internet connectivity and TV services, but also enables secure communications, while Sat 5a and Sat 5b provide remote sensing and potentially surveillance capabilities.

The broader regional context, especially Iran’s space capabilities, also frames Saudi and UAE investments in related technology in terms of security. In January and February 2019, Iran tested indigenous space launch vehicles that would allow it to place larger payloads into orbit than previously possible. Despite the test failures, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the launches as cover for Iran’s ballistic missile program. Although some analysts have contested that view, it probably represents how the Gulf states perceive threats posed by Iran’s space program.

A starker development is Iran’s fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which it has increasingly fielded in regional proxy wars. Just designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) recently claimed that it possesses the largest fleet of drones in the region, and in March held its largest military games involving drones near the strategic Strait of Hormuz, where Iran has strengthened its UAV bases over the past several years.

According to the arms-control organization, Conflict Armament Research, Iran has also transferred drone technology to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who have refitted UAVs as explosive-laden “kamikaze drones” – a tactic also used by ISIS in Syria – to attack Arab Coalition forces in Yemen, successfully targeting top Yemeni commanders at a military parade in January. However, the Houthis have exaggerated the drones’ capabilities, including falsely claiming to have attacked Abu Dhabi’s international airport and Aramco’s oil facilities in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their Yemeni allies have previously neutralized drone attacks by shooting them down, but that is either risky or expensive. Stray bullets can damage critical infrastructurearound sensitive areas such as airports, while firing Patriot missiles at low-cost drones – as Israel has reportedly done – is prohibitively expensive.

As a better alternative, both countries are increasingly acquiring anti-satellite jamming technology that interrupts a drone’s satellite link and disables its GPS navigation, causing it to land or return to its launch point. The systems are meant to negate the advantage that Iran derives from its satellites through asymmetrical tactics.

In Saudi Arabia, the King Abdulaziz Center for Science and Technology (KACST) acts as an umbrella organization for the kingdom’s satellite, electronic warfare and drone programs. The KACST hosts the Electronic Warfare and Radar Conference in Riyadh that brings together industry leaders including BAE, Airbus, Thales and Northrop Grumman. In March, Saudi Telecom Company signed an agreement with Australia’s DroneShield to procure anti-drone technology to help protect critical infrastructure.

In the UAE, this year’s IDEX defence exhibition attracted various manufacturers producing anti-drone technology, including US-based Raytheon and Italy’s Leonardo. UAE government delegations have also paid visits to France and Finland to scout innovations in similar systems.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia’s investments in space technology respond to a range of imperatives, including security, economic diversification and nation-branding. While their space programs seem ambitious in scope, the challenge that lies ahead is to translate investments into concrete commercial returns and military capabilities in the coming years.

Hasan Alhasan is a researcher at the India Institute at King’s College London and the National University of Singapore. His research focuses on contemporary Indian foreign policy in the Middle East. Previously, he served as a senior analyst at the office of the first deputy prime minister of Bahrain.

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