Space: The UAE's Next Frontier?
Authored by: Raymond Kisswany
- The UAE is positioning itself to become a world class hub in the space industry by 2021.
- The UAE Space Agency, established in 2014, holds a dual mandate as both a regulator of the space industry operating in the UAE and to organise, regulate and support the commercial space industry operating, or wishing to operate, in the UAE.
- Space exploration and commercial activity is a new frontier. The challenge is to enable scientific research and peaceful exploration of space while at the same time permitting, enhancing and encouraging commercial investment to tap into the substantial economic gains that may be realised from various space activities.
The United Arab Emirates (“UAE”) will turn 45 years old on 2 December 2016. The UAE has, in that short amount of time, achieved incredible accomplishments. In the course of those 45 years, Dubai International Airport has become one of the world’s most important aviation hubs. Jebel Ali Port is the world's largest man-made harbour as well as being the leading port in the region resulting in the UAE becoming a maritime hub.
Furthering the above, the UAE is positioning itself to become a world class hub in the space industry by 2021, when the UAE turns 50. Part of this ambitious plan is the Emirates Mars Mission which aims to launch an unmanned spacecraft to Mars during the global trade fair, Expo 2020, which will be hosted by Dubai.
The UAE’s journey to outer space can be traced back to just after its formation in 1971. In 1972, the UAE became a member of the International Telecommunications Union, a specialised agency of the United Nations responsible for communication technologies. Fast-forward to October 2000, the UAE agreed to the foremost international space conventions when it ratified the Outer Space Treaty, the Space Liability Convention and the Registration Convention. Weeks after ratifying the aforesaid space conventions, the UAE became the registration country for the satellite Thuraya 1 which launched into orbit on 21 October 2000. Currently, the UAE has four satellites orbiting Earth: Dubai Sat 1 (launched in 2009), Yahsat 1 (launched in 2011), Yahsat 2 (launched in 2012) and Dubai Sat 2 (launched in 2013).
In 2014, the UAE established a federal agency dedicated to space, the UAE Space Agency. The UAE Space Agency holds a dual mandate as both a regulator of the space industry operating in the UAE and to organise, regulate and support the commercial space industry operating, or wishing to operate, in the UAE. The UAE Space Agency also seeks to encourage the development and use of space science and technology to contribute to the diversification of the UAE’s economy through the commercial space industry.
The UAE Space Agency has set four strategic objectives. The first strategic objective is “to organise and develop the space sector ensuring that it meets international standards and serves national interests” which will be achieved by “[creating] a legal and regulatory framework”. To achieve the first strategic objective, the UAE Government, with the assistance of the UAE Space Agency’s Working Group on Space Policy and Law, will draft federal legislation aiming to govern space activity with the ambition of balancing international legal commitments on the one hand, while also fostering a business-friendly environment for the commercial space industry.
It is unclear at this time whether UAE space legislation will be similar to the United States Space Act which was signed into law on 25 November 2015. The Space Act specifically requires the US President, acting through appropriate US Federal agencies, to “facilitate commercial exploration for and commercial recovery of space resources” as well as to “promote the right of United States citizens to engage in commercial exploration for and commercial recovery of space resources free from harmful interference, in accordance with the international obligations of the United States and subject to authorization and continuing supervision by the Federal Government”. Effectively, the Space Act permits US persons (including US companies) to engage in commercial activities in space, including acquiring ownership rights over space objects and resources.
Some commentators have argued that the Space Act violates certain sections of the Outer Space Treaty by permitting private ownership of space objects and resources although the Space Act reiterates that the US does not hold sovereignty or jurisdiction over any such objects. However, an IISL position paper concluded that “in view of the absence of a clear prohibition of the taking of resources in the Outer Space Treaty one can conclude that the use of space resources is permitted”.
The exact details of the proposed UAE space law are not available at this stage; however, what is clear is the UAE’s commitment to expanding and fostering both a national space program for scientific research as well as a UAE commercial space industry. The UAE has evolved from relying mostly on oil and gas to diversifying its economy to other commercial sectors such as retail, tourism and aviation (to name a few). The space industry appears to be the next sector in which the UAE aims to become a world class hub. For example, Aabar Investments PJS, an Abu Dhabi private joint stock company, is a strategic partner with Virgin Group in the ownership of Virgin Galactic, the world’s first private commercial spaceline.
It is undeniable that space exploration and commercial activity is the new frontier. The challenge is for governments and lawmakers around the world to create clear and accessible national laws, while also enhancing international treaties and conventions. This will enable scientific research and peaceful exploration of space while at the same time permitting, enhancing and encouraging commercial investment to tap into the substantial economic gains that may be realised from various space activities. It is certainly an uneasy balancing act, but one which the UAE is capable of meeting through innovative legislation and regulation.
 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (“Outer Space Treaty”).
 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects (“Space Liability Convention”).
 Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space (“Registration Convention”).
 UAE Federal Decree No.: 1 of 2014 on the Establishment of the United Arab Emirates Space Agency.
 U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015, 51 U.S.C. § 51302 (“Space Act of 2015”).
 51 U.S.C. § 51302(a)(1) (2015).
 51 U.S.C. § 51302(a)(3) (2015).
 e.g. see “The Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act: A move forward or a step back?” by Fabio Tronchetti (Space Policy, Vol. 34, November 2015, pages 6 – 10).
The full article was published in the IBA's Space Law Committee News on 1 September 2016
This article, including any advice, commentary or recommendation herein, is provided on a complimentary basis without consideration of any specific objectives, circumstances or facts. It reflects the views of the writer which may, in some cases, differ from those of the firm, especially in the developing jurisdiction of the UAE.