The early beginnings of the UAE’s race to space

The United Arab Emirates’ participation in the space and satellite sector coincides very closely with the early beginnings of the UAE as a nation. In 1972, shortly after the creation of the UAE on 2 December 1971, the country became a member of the International Telecommunications Union.

The new millennia marked a significant step towards the UAE becoming an active space faring nation. Firstly, on 4 October 2000, the UAE formally became a party to the principal international space conventions when it acceded to the Outer Space Treaty, the Liability Convention and the Registration Convention. Secondly, only several weeks later, the UAE was the state of registration of a satellite named Thuraya 1 which was launched on 21 October 2000 by SeaLaunch on a Zenit 3SL rocket in the Pacific Ocean.

Thuraya 1 was the Middle East’s first mobile telecommunications satellite to be launched. Thuraya 2 was launched in 2003 and Thuraya 3 was launched in 2008.

Foundations of Space Law

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty provides the basic framework for international space law created at the time that the space race was under way, mostly between the USA and USSR.

To ensure that neither nation obtained anything other than a public relations advantage by reaching space first, it was agreed, in the Outer Space Treaty, that there would be no sovereignty in space, space would be for peaceful uses only and space activities would be for the benefit of all mankind. These three concepts are now considered binding tenants of space law which are in contrast to aviation law – where sovereignty is the guiding principle.

Whilst some may consider that ideas of 1960’s are nothing more than quaint sentiments of a bygone era, the main space treaties have been so successful in respect of states ratifications, that they are now considered customary international law and are therefore binding, even on those states that have not, or will not ratify them. This positon should be considered positively, as it has kept access to space open for those countries yet to develop their own space sectors. Indeed, without UN treaties it is very likely that many countries would have been precluded from even launching communications satellites. The UN treaties are by no means perfect but they have prevented the equivalent of a land grab in space.

The UAE’s vision to be a leading space nation

In 2014, the UAE took the essential step towards becoming a space sector leader with the establishment of the UAE Space Agency pursuant to Federal Decree By Law No. 1 of 2014 (the UAE Space Agency Law).

Some of the key undertakings of the UAE Space Agency involve a mixed function as both the regulator of the space sector and facilitator of growth, investment, research and education.

The development of a competitive, efficient, safe and successful space industry which balances between commercial aspirations on the one hand and international legal obligations on the other, requires the establishment of a sound regulatory framework through a “National Space Law and Policy”.

The UAE is well placed to meet this challenge as it has evolved to be a model jurisdiction to invest, do business and innovate. This has been demonstrated by the evolution of the UAE from an oil and gas dependant country to a highly diversified economy and a leader in the retail, tourism, aviation and aerospace sectors. In the past 15 years, the UAE has created a business environment that allows 100% foreign ownership in the many and varied off-shore freezones, including the innovative financial markets, legal systems and courts within the Dubai International Financial Centre and those planned for the Abu Dhabi Global Market which will be based on English Common Law.

As the UAE continues to enhance and develop its regulatory framework to attract foreign investment and the brightest and best human capital, there will be collateral benefits to the growth and evolution of the UAE space industry.