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Space-bound Gulf states’ launch capability quandary

The NS24 rocket blasts off from the Blue Origin base near Van Horn, Texas on Dec. 19, 2023. (Blue Origin/AFP)
The NS24 rocket blasts off from the Blue Origin base near Van Horn, Texas on Dec. 19, 2023. (Blue Origin/AFP)
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22 Dec 2023 01:12:30 GMT9
22 Dec 2023 01:12:30 GMT9

This week marked the return of Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin, as its New Shepard rocket successfully completed its 24th mission. The NS-24 mission carried 33 payloads, more than half of which were from NASA, alongside others from educational institutions and 38,000 postcards from students worldwide. This success marks a significant step for Blue Origin in its goal of making space trips accessible to more people. It came more than a year after the NS-23 mission was cut short due to a booster failure.

This achievement prompts two main remarks. The first and most obvious is that going into space is hard. It took Blue Origin more than a year. The second is the importance for states of having reliable and consistent access to space. This is something that is of strategic interest to governments across the globe. And, unlike the great power competition between China and the US or the Cold War era, this time it is not a bipolar competition. It is also open to middle powers such as India, which is fast becoming a force to be reckoned with. So, should the Gulf countries also develop launch capabilities?

People often wonder about or criticize the investments that are poured into space activities. Sometimes, they refer to the fact that there is a need for investment on Earth to combat key issues. Yet, what they fail to comprehend is how important space is for life on Earth. Whether it is for security, communications or the economy, many capabilities and technologies would not be available if it were not for satellites and space.

First and foremost, military and security agencies could not function effectively if it were not for the data provided by satellites. Secondly, many businesses and activities now rely on the same. As an example, GPS has unleashed trillions of dollars in economic value through the apps we all use daily. In short, without satellites and the services they deliver, none of this would exist. For many nations, this directly raises the question of independent access to space and also protecting their assets in space.

The next logical question is: Should any country beyond the global powers develop its own launch capacity? This means rockets as well as space ports. There are several factors to take into account. The starting point is always security and defense. Does the country have a need for launch capacities or can it work with friends and allies? The idea is that, because getting to space is hard, it is good to have friends. Europe, despite its gap in launch capacity, has been able to rely on the US and SpaceX for its key activities. However, it is actively working on reestablishing its capacity, as it cannot be solely dependent on others, even if they are friendly.

The second factor to consider is the commercial opportunities. Can a launcher, even if supported by government contracts, attract clients from across the globe? Can it be a successful company? As an example, Europe is home to many new micro-launcher companies. A majority will disappear, just as happened in the automotive industry, maybe even before completing a successful mission. We are noticing fast moves from Blue Origin, SpaceX and others to offer competitive pricing. Moreover, the second phase, which is space logistics, is already being marked out by key players in the US. This is where the future value creation will be.

There are several factors to take into account. The starting point is always security and defense

Khaled Abou Zahr

So, this shows us how the US government — by being the biggest investor in space — is catapulting the American private sector toward capturing commercial opportunities from the rest of the world, enabling it to become a leader. Today, we see more and more European companies relying on SpaceX because it offers regular launches and great service at unbeatable prices. However, if they do not have access to space and this access is barred, what would they do? The notion of national or regional security also plays an important role.

Europe understands that it cannot and should not be excluded from the launch business and it is working on filling its current void in the fastest way possible. It also knows that the market has the economic capacity to sustain one or two European launchers. Furthermore, during last month’s ministerial meeting of the member states of the European Space Agency, Director General Josef Aschbacher boldly embraced the concept of competition — a pursuit eagerly sought by the majority of European space entrepreneurs. This marks a notable and uplifting shift for Europe, fostering a positive and encouraging environment for the space industry as a whole.

There are various potential benefits if the Gulf Cooperation Council countries decide to develop their own launch capabilities. Firstly, it would lessen their reliance on outside parties for satellite launches and increase regional autonomy in terms of space development. Secondly, it would help with the development of local knowledge and capacity-building.

On the other hand, there are many other opportunities for investment in space that would bring greater added value and help with the development of a high-tech sector, as well as offering a boost to the economy. Especially as we enter the next phase of the space race, leaping toward these new segments could be more beneficial.

This text was intentionally filled with binary propositions to convey that space is a dual-use business. This means that any application can be used for both commercial and civil purposes, while it can also be used for military or security reasons. Hence, the technology developed is a sovereign security issue. This is exactly why countries are willing to invest or pay more to maintain this access, simply because losing it would be a doomsday scenario. It is also why, in space, cooperation stays among close allies and friends and should not be accessible to enemies or even strong competitors.

It is clear that, when it comes to launching capacity, the GCC countries have maintained close alliances and friendships through partnerships and investments.

• Khaled Abou Zahr is the founder of SpaceQuest Ventures, a space-focused investment platform. He is chief executive of EurabiaMedia and editor of Al-Watan Al-Arabi.

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