In the push to embrace emerging technologies and leverage their potential commercial opportunities, Gulf countries have been launching new initiatives to bolster their growing domestic space industries. In June 2023 Saudi Arabia’s Council of Ministers approved the transformation of the Saudi Space Commission into a full government agency with the new heading of the Saudi Space Agency (SSA), underscoring the Kingdom’s commitment to the space sector and exploration activities.

Cross-Sector Diversification

The creation of Saudi Arabia’s new space agency followed the successful launch of the Kingdom’s first mission in May 2023 to the International Space Station (ISS). The trip was sponsored by the Saudi government and included two Saudi astronauts, one of whom was the Arab world’s first female astronaut, known for her expertise in stem cell research. The trip was led by US-based space infrastructure developer Axiom Space, which is seeking to construct the first commercial space station after detaching from the ISS.

The UAE has also been making major inroads in the space sector. Since publishing its National Space Strategy 2030, it has opened four space research and development centres, established national space laws and regulations, and launched its own Hope Probe, which orbited Mars in 2021, making the UAE the sixth country in the world and the first Arab country to reach the planet and successfully orbit it. Developing the space sector and engaging in ambitious exploration plans requires massive upfront capital expenditure for projects that may not pay off for a number of years. However, these investment time horizons are in line with the Gulf countries’ significant experience in the oil and gas sector, and harmonise with their long-term strategies for economic diversification.

The expansion of space activities is accelerating across the GCC region thanks to advances in the technologies that constitute the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) – blockchain, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, materials science, nanotechnology and biotechnology. These developments have reduced the costs associated with launching satellites and increased the capabilities of smaller ones.

The technologies associated with 4IR represent what could be a SR1trn ($267bn) opportunity for Saudi Arabia that dovetails with Vision 2030, its long-term economic blueprint. More concretely, investing in the burgeoning space industry helps Gulf countries develop technical capabilities and expertise in aerospace engineering, satellite manufacturing, and advanced research and development to bolster their defence, tourism and technology sectors, and diversify their economies.


Alongside the SSA, in March 2023 the Public Investment Fund, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, launched Riyadh Air, a low-cost start-up airline that aims to compete with other regional carriers, with the new airline placing an order for 72 Boeing 787 aircraft. The carrier will have a sustainability advantage due to its fleet of newer, more efficient planes and the use of sustainable aviation fuel. The target year for launching operations is 2025. In addition, in June 2023 the SSA held meetings with French aircraft manufacturer Airbus about enhancing cooperation in the space sector and other potential investment projects.

On the defence end, Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI), which launched in 2017, has accumulated more than $10bn in contracts with foreign companies in a bid to localise over 50% of defence spending by 2030. In April 2022 SAMI announced a joint venture with Boeing to provide maintenance, repair, and overhaul and sustainment services for military rotary platforms operating in the Kingdom.

In June 2023 in a deal that signals possible synergies between aerospace and defence, SAMI subsidiary SAMI Advanced Electronics announced a partnership to make Saudi Arabia the home to US defence manufacturer Lockheed Martin’s Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod Repair Centre for line-replaceable units for helicopters in the Middle East.

Satellite Imaging

In their foray into the space sector, Gulf countries have prioritised the development of domestic capacities to build satellites in an aim to bolster communications and monitoring systems. Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman have all launched satellites in recent years, while Oman is constructing a satellite of its own. In January 2023 Qatar’s Es’hailSat satellite company signed a strategic partnership with satellite communications service provider AXESS Networks to provide teleport and very small aperture terminal services to bolster its satellite communications networks.

The UAE has been at the forefront of developing related technologies through its National Space Strategy 2030. In July 2022 the UAE created a $817m fund to support international and Emirati companies co-operating in space sector engineering, sciences and research applications, with a near-term goal of developing and launching a constellation of advanced imaging satellites. In September 2022 the UAE signed a memorandum of understanding with China for a UAE rover to fly on the Chang’e 7 lunar mission, but the UAE withdrew from the initiative after it was determined that the agreement violated the US International Traffic in Arms Regulations.

In January 2022 the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) launched the world’s first nanosatellite in collaboration with spacecraft engineering company NanoAvionics to monitor and maintain water and power infrastructure. DEWA is the first utility to use satellites in this regard, and it seeks to leverage its expertise and offer satellite-as-a-service to other utilities around the world as they continue to digitise and improve their infrastructure.

In May 2023 Finland-based microsatellite manufacturer ICEYE announced an agreement to develop a five-satellite constellation for Bayanat, a UAE geospatial analysis firm, and Abu Dhabi-based satellite communications company Yahsat that will launch in 2024, further bolstering the UAE’s satellite imaging capabilities. The UAE is also continuing to pursue space exploration with the aim of scientific advancement. In May 2023 it announced plans to send a spacecraft to the solar system’s main asteroid belt by 2028 for a seven-year study. The mission is slated to start with a fly-by of Venus, following the UAE’s successful 2021 mission to Mars.

Global Partnerships

Investing in space is an opportunity to capitalise on what many see as a prime opportunity to commercialise space travel and communications. With the ISS nearing retirement, companies like Axiom Space, Blue Origin and Nanoracks have announced plans to build similar stations in low Earth orbit. China is keen to develop its Tiangong space station, construction of which was completed in December 2022, and the country is looking to partner with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. China announced its intentions at the first China-GCC Summit held in Riyadh in December 2022, specifying areas pertaining to remote sensing and communications satellites, space utilisation, aerospace infrastructure, and the selection and training of astronauts, according to the summit’s keynote speech delivered by China’s President Xi Jinping.

After the establishment of the SSA in June 2023, the agency immediately began to hold meetings with Chinese government agencies and businesses to discuss enhanced cooperation and collaboration in the fields of technology, industry and space exploration. In July 2023 Abdullah Al Swaha, chairman of the board of directors of the SSA, met his counterpart from the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation in Beijing, along with other leading figures from the space sector. A Saudi delegation, meanwhile, held talks with Galaxy Space, a Chinese manufacturer of communication satellites, and iSpace, a Chinese company that specialises in the development and manufacturing of spacecraft.

International public services company Serco launched its Saudi Space Division in March 2023, through which it plans to establish local capabilities for its global advisory, consultancy and operational space services. These span the full lifecycle of a mission, from spacecraft and mission design through to data management, operations and decommissioning, including spacecraft control, ground segment operations and engineering. In May 2023 China-based start-up Origin Space, UAE University’s National Space Science and Technology Centre, and the University of Hong Kong’s Laboratory for Space Research signed a letter of intent in Abu Dhabi to build a joint research and development centre in the emirate. The centre is expected to build remote-sensing satellites and space telescopes, and pursue joint deep-space exploration missions.