OT Interviews: Five Questions With UAE Space Agency Executive Director Ibrahim Al Qasim

19th Nov 2022
OT Interviews: Five Questions With UAE Space Agency Executive Director Ibrahim Al Qasim

In early December, the UAE Space Agency is hosting the first-ever Abu Dhabi Space Debate. Leaders from pioneering space nations and emerging countries will gather together on the 5th and 6th to discuss the pressing challenges and opportunities at the forefront of the space industry today.  TellTellFrom managing the UAE’s first CubeSat launch, joining a team part of the Emirates Mars Mission feasibility study, and now the Executive Director of the UAE Space Agency, Ibrahim Al Qasim chatted with OT all about the nation’s goals and challenges in space, and details about the upcoming debate. 

What is the highest priority for the UAE Space Agency right now?

I think the top priority for the space agency would be to create an innovative and competitive private space economy. So, the focus is on developing startups in space. We’re committed to funding deep space exploration missions, you know, one after the other, with the understanding that this builds capabilities within our economy and then within a larger research income system. So that is meant to create opportunities for the private sector. The idea behind starting a space program in a way, was to diversify the economy and build industrial capabilities. 

What does the UAE bring to the global industry?

I think the fact that we’re a new player in space means that we don’t really have a legacy to constantly maintain and so we can do things differently. Emirates Mars Mission (EMM) is a great example of that. EMM was delivered on time and under budget, and under a budget that was actually relatively low for a mission at that scale, while still delivering novel science and really exploring parts of Mars science that have not been discovered in the past or observed in the past as well.

So it was done very efficiently, with a relatively low budget, and it delivered an incredible result. I think that’s part of what makes the UAE unique in that sense. We are well positioned geographically to work with all the major space players around the world and we have fantastic relationships with all the major space players that are pioneers of space.

So going back to why the UAE started with the space agency, it was about building a more resilient economy. It’s about diversifying the sources of how we generate national value within our economy. And, we look at what has changed over the last 50 years, and we’re about 51 years since the UAE gained its independence; at the time, the UAE was one of the poorest nations in the world. Decade after decade, we saw a major transformation in our economy and in our educational system, health care, and quality of life, and so we got to a point where in order to continue to survive and have a more stable economy, we needed to embed advanced technologies across our economy.

We’ve been fantastic adopters of space technology and I always give the example of the Airbus A380. It’s one of the greatest pieces of aerospace hardware that humans have put together and I think the UAE has bought most of its production line. So we’ve been great at adopting the best technologies and finding commercial value in the downstream.

But we have an opportunity now with our space program, starting fresh and young to design it in a sustainable way but also in a way that is commercially and privately inclined from day one. That wasn’t the case for space programs around the world for decades. It was always subsidized by the government.; it was always about sovereignty. It was about the Cold War; it was about getting things up before our adversaries. But now it’s more about privatizing space. It’s about creating opportunities for startups. So it’s interesting that we are building our capabilities, and our space industry at a time when the focus is mostly on a private space economy. So I guess we’re lucky in that sense.

What are some of the challenges the UAE has seen when it comes to the space industry?

I don’t know that we have any major barriers or hindrances of progress in our space program. I think the only challenge is that we’re growing our space programs organically, and at a great pace. It’s sometimes tough to manage the expectations of research institutions or stakeholders within the ecosystem because they want to do more. But at this point, at that level of where we are today, more might actually be less. So it’s about maintaining the right pace on the right scale.

And just moving forward, I think we have been blessed with a lot of support from the cabinet, and from the government. Actually, after the Emirates Mars Mission, it seems the interest in STEM and specifically in space disciplines has gone through the roof. To see the inspiration and now with the announcements of our second mission to the ISS, our moon rover, and the grand tour of the asteroid belt, it feels like things are progressing well. It’s just about managing the pace and the expectations of stakeholders until we get to where we want to get.

How does the UAE space industry hope to fit in with the global sector?

I personally don’t think that any one nation is 100 percent technologically sovereign, I think there’s that interdependency. If we specifically talked about the UAE’s space ambition, it would sort of reflect the way it’s done with other sectors within its economy. What puts the UAE at an advantage is its ability to create value alongside the global value chain. Space, I would actually argue, is one of the sectors that unless you’re in the US it’s going to be extremely difficult for you to establish full sovereignty and it just doesn’t make sense economically. You can establish sovereignty in other sectors, but it would not make sense for us to try and build everything within the UAE. It would be a very expensive investment, [and] the demand for space technology would not justify that initial investment. 

Ibrahim Al Qasim, what is the Abu Dhabi Space Debate and what the UAE hopes it will become in the future? 

The Abu Dhabi Space Debate is scheduled to happen on the fifth and sixth of December. The idea behind the debate is, we would like to bring the highest level of political leadership in addition to stakeholders outside of what we’d call the conventional players within the space international space community, to a debate where we talk about the politics of space and the emerging challenges that we see. 

So this event will happen once every two years… and I think ultimately we would like this to turn into maybe an institution that drives that sort of global dialogue that addresses the most pressing challenges that we face, as a global community, and talk also about the opportunities. 

I think it’s so naive to think that space will ever be free of politics. The Cold War was a major driver of investment in space, but then that ended and we thought there wouldn’t be another reason to invest in space as potent as the old one was. But the ISS is a great example of what we can achieve when we work together. I think we want this [Abu Dhabi Space Debate] to be a platform that would facilitate future collaboration, that would help address these challenges early on, and to defuse these concerns that we have as a global space community that hinder progress on a global level. 

A warm thank you to Ibrahim Al Qasim

Orbital Today thanks Ibrahim Al Qasim for taking the time to answer our questions. We look forward to seeing the results of the Abu Dhabi Space Debate!

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