After many delays, the first space probe to be launched by any Arab or Muslim state officially blasted off into space in the early hours of 19th July 2020. The United Arab Emirates has worked hard to put together the Mars mission in a short amount of time, from its announcement by Prime Minister Maktoum in 2014 to its launch last weekend. The aim is that ‘Hope’ will reach Mars’ orbit by February 2021, just in time to mark the 50th anniversary of the unification of the UAE. Quite the symbolic gesture.

The probe was launched from the Tanegashima Space Centre in Japan, and significant collaboration occurred between the UAE Space Agency and American universities such as Colorado Boulder, Arizona State and UC Berkeley to make this happen. It represents a significant step forward for the capabilities of this city-state federation, hoping to join the other advanced nations in the new space race and prove that they, too, are a modern and scientifically advanced nation.

The primary goal of the probe is to orbit Mars and analyse its atmosphere, looking at weather patterns and events, topographical and geographical analysis, and why Mars is leaking hydrogen and oxygen into space. The secondary purposes are wide-ranging. The UAE hopes that such large-scale missions will spur ambition, technological innovation, and a sense of nationhood among the two million people who can call themselves Emirati citizens. The UAE has also been heavily focused on human capital and ways in which the UAE can deploy its young, highly-educated population in the transition of the country to a knowledge-based economy.

The project’s team included 150 Emirati scientists and engineers alongside the 200 at the universities mentioned earlier. The next and obvious goals are to improve domestic capabilities so that, in the future, the entire project pipeline from concept to launch will be done entirely in the Arabian Peninsula by Emirati hands. This would require significant investment in both human capital and infrastructure, which is probably what the Emirati leadership hopes to accomplish by providing this ambition as a focal point around which people can organise around and work towards.

AFP infographics on the route ‘Hope’ will take to reach her

A Martian Arab Emirate

The UAE has larger ambitions than weather analysis; by 2117, they plan to have established a fully-fledged Emirati colony on Mars. This, of course, presents a titanic vision that requires a whole set of skills in management and coordination going beyond mere technological capabilities. Firstly, it requires actually surviving as a polity until 2117. In a region where regime change and state collapse is more likely than not, the act of survival alone would be a great feat for any state. The UAE clearly believes in their future as a nation.

Such a mission also requires immense levels of trust and competence to be able to steward a multi-generational mission to colonise another planet. In a way, to simply get a colony on to Mars, it requires new forms of nation-building by itself. As such, this isn’t just about making advances in STEM fields. There needs to be significant innovation in the fields of governance and competent management, as the organizational aspect of establishing a Mars colony is, arguably, just as important as the technological aspect.

Palladium recently published an article on the Apollo Mission, arguing why it should be seen not just as a scientific programme but as a political machine. It’s obvious that beyond being merely a feat of scientific advancement and technological engineering, there are significant political and social elements at play here that cannot be ignored. As an authoritarian state (not necessarily a pejorative), the Emirati population is expected to largely maintain a strict apolitical stance to matters. The question of whether this can be continued, as the mission to erect a Mars colony gets underway, is out in the open.

People may also question the practicality of attempting such a thing. Why build space colonies when people are starving at home? One of the things about space travel is that it is an extremely rigorous process that requires a lot of innovation in areas such as health, food, transport, new synthetic materials, and other things. The Apollo mission led to the creation of integrated circuits (and computers as we know it), frozen food, fireproof material (now used in firefighting), and other things. By setting our eyes on new horizons, further technological innovation becomes necessary, and everyone benefits from that.

CGI’s of the imagined Emirati colony on Mars.

Arabian Governance Futurism

The UAE may well have earned the badge of being the Muslim world’s first true governance futurist state, leading the region in STEM advancement and proactive policy-making in regards to its economy and society, such as its transition from being wholly dependant on oil to a diverse economy including STEM, finance and tourism. This is while its neighbours struggle to wean themselves off their energy dependency, economies are collapsing, or are in the middle of brutal civil wars. Although, some may raise the issue of the UAE’s involvement in some of these things.

This transition has been a long-time coming. After its independence from the UK in 1971, the first UAE President Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan pioneered the their economic development by the astute use of its resources, investing oil revenues into infrastructure development and the establishing of a diverse set of industries, largely escaping the resource curse and middle-income trap. Every year sees oil form less of a majority % of the UAE’s exports (currently standing at 77%). He wasn’t alone in this mission, however. His Vice-President Shaykh Rasheed bin Saeed al-Maktoum famously said,

“My grandfather rode a camel, my father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son drives a Land Rover, his son will drive a Land Rover, but his son will ride a camel."

This was an expression of the anxiety that the Emirati leadership faced when considering how to deploy their oil resources, noting that within mere generations most of it would be gone. In the stories of impressive leadership and development in the post-war period, we hear a lot about the ‘Four Asian Tigers’, for instance, but little about the visions guiding the founding fathers of the UAE. For whatever reason, the UAE has been deemed unworthy of rigorous institutional analysis, something that needs to change if want to understand the motivations and goals of this country.

Anyway, that was the previous generation of Emirati rulers. The next generation, under the leadership of Muhammad bin Zayed and Muhammad bin Rashid al-Maktoum, took the baton and have pioneered the UAE’s forays into science and technology such as artificial intelligence and surveillance security. While regional neighbours such as Turkey make rapid strides in warfare technology, and Saudi Arabia imagines “smartcities” in the middle of the desert, the UAE is clearly looking to improve its domestic capabilities in surveillance infrastructure alongside its other ‘benign’ STEM adventures like the Mars mission.

This hasn’t been without controversy. They have notoriously spent billions on hiring Israeli consultants to build domestic Emirati platforms, train Emiratis on how to use and develop them, then the Israelis are let go and Emiratis replace them. As such, the UAE have been accused of betraying the Arab and Palestinian cause, among other things. I don’t quite see it that way. This clearly isn’t the standard Gulf operation to hire western consultants and let them run the show, nor is it an expression of deference to the western order and their tacit support for Israeli policy in Palestine.

This seems like a form of knowledge transfer aiming to significantly bolster the UAE’s domestic technological capabilities, and they are willing to take this knowledge from anyone, including the Israelis themselves, among the world’s most advanced operators of such technology. I am not privy to the inner plans and workings of the Emirati rulership, but what I see is that they are looking ahead and engaging in a complex strategy of nation-building, and internal repression will play a key role in ensuring this plan unfolds unperturbed by dissident forces.

Women’s leadership

The future of women in the Middle East is said to be bleak. Indeed, in countries like Egypt where sexual assault is skyrocketing, the population continues to boom into the stratosphere, and the economy only gets worse, it is downright abysmal. In this regard, the UAE is quite clearly a leader among the other Muslim nations, with women serving in key ministerial positions from education and culture to science and technology. In addition, 70% of university graduates are women, with 56% achieving STEM degrees.

One example is the talented Sarah al-Amiri, who is Chair of the UAE Council of Scientists, Minister of State for Advanced Sciences and deputy project manager of the ‘Hope’ mission to Mars. This presents an amazing feat and a step forward for the recognition of human capital and its importance to achieving progress in a region that is marred by war, poverty, and the brain drain of its young and hopeful to the western hemisphere. It should also be a strong rebuff to those who assume women cannot achieve public positions and do their job well.

Women at work is a hotly debated topic. This is often misconstrued as being a religious disposition that involves hatred towards women or viewing them as inferiors. However, the main reason is actually a deep rooted anxiety about the effects of westernisation on Muslim societies. The image of the professional, working woman is not just about being an empowered woman. It is about the wide range of consequences that occurred to make this possible. Westernisation is seen as a door to the breakdown of the family, plummeting childbirth rates, and the collapse of faith, among other issues.

Considering the social situation in Europe and North America, these worries shouldn’t be treated as being overblown. Their social and cultural health is clearly deteriorating. Unfortunately, due to aggressive proselytisation of the western way of life, the backlash has been equally as aggressive, and women are caught in the crossfire. But this is a reactionary stance, and we must do better than being sucked into the cesspit of reactionary battles and cheap imitation of western socio-economic norms. If the west has failed in creating the necessary conditions for financial empowerment and the health of the family, there’s no reason why they should be imitated in this failure.

Sarah al-Amiri at a Ted Talk.

Muhammadan Spacefarers

Once upon a time, we were exploring the stars through telescopes and laying the foundations for the disciplines of astronomy, mathematics and physics. One day, Muhammadan spacefarers may well come to sail by the stars in the night sky that are named after the Muslim scientists who found them. For a religion whose rituals are heavily based around the movement of celestial bodies, to be able to tread on them should be our next aspiration, and something that should be celebrated with the grim events we are regularly witnessing that may cause us to lose hope.

In the push to settle Mars, nations like America, Russia and China may be in the lead. However, if we want to be able to maintain our God-centred cosmological perspective, we have to be very aware of the fact that unless we can join and hopefully beat these nations in the race for space, we will continue to play second fiddle to their ideas about the universe’s origins and how it works, and in our technological capabilities. The UAE is giving us our first run at this attempt, so congratulations to them.

However, the theme of technological advancement shouldn’t be restricted to space. Our historical achievements were not only in astronomy but also in agriculture. The ‘Arab agricultural revolution’ coincided with rapid scientific advancement in the early centuries of Islam, making us one of the most fertile civilisations in the world. But today it is the Muslim world most under threat from climate change and their increasingly scarce water resources are driving people to poverty, flight, and war. This is something I touched upon in my article on geoengineering. Space cannot be a distraction from our responsibilities to the Earth.

I would love to see more energy put into creating a 21st century technological revolution in the Muslim world. Technology alone won’t be our saviour, but it will go a long way in improving the material conditions of a long-suffering people, and help to create work, purpose and a spirit of unity towards higher ideals than petty sectarianism, be it religious, nationalist, classist or otherwise. The mental shift this would require has been touched upon in a previous essay I have written on Archeofuturism and harmonising tradition and technology, a theme I hope to continue running on Post Apathy.