Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei presumably wants to choose his successor, but he cannot publicly name one without creating a rival undermining his own authority.
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On September 19, Abu Dhabi welcomed back Sultan Al Neyadi, the Emirati astronaut who had completed a six-month mission aboard the International Space Station. For the United Arab Emirates, the space program is more than an ambition to explore the universe beyond Earth and project the country’s image as a modern, advanced economic powerhouse. The UAE Space Agency is also being viewed in Abu Dhabi as a vehicle that can help to speed up the country’s journey to net zero.
In the run-up to the United Nations Conference of Parties climate summit, COP28, due to take place in Dubai from November 30 to December 12, the UAE has raised and advanced its climate goals. In July, it submitted the third update to its second nationally determined contribution under the U.N. Convention on Climate Change, setting out tighter emission targets. Where it was once ranked as one of the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters per capita in 2019, the UAE has taken the lead in diversifying its energy mix, introducing massive solar power capacity and bringing online the Arab world’s first nuclear power plant.
COP28 offers the oil-rich country a chance to highlight investments and projects in sustainable infrastructure and technology to an international audience and an opportunity to combat climate change alongside key global actors. An important attendee at the forthcoming summit, along with the UAE Ministry of Climate Change and Environment, will be the UAE Space Agency.
A focus on sustainable development was included in the UAE Space Agency’s mandate upon its establishment in July 2014. In March 2019, the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center announced the agency’s 10-year plan, the National Space Strategy 2030, emphasizing this commitment to sustainability. The plan includes a government investment of approximately $10 billion as well as the development of 10 new spacecraft. These investments and developments are directed, among other things, toward advancing technology and research on sustainability. From advancing satellite technology to track climate change to developing databases with new research findings, the National Space Strategy 2030 prioritizes the UAE Space Agency’s commitment to sustainability. This is on top of existing investments that have surpassed $6 billion and which financed the production of 20 orbital satellites and the establishment of more than 80 international space companies, institutions, and facilities, and five research centers based in the country.
While working to advance the UAE’s aerospace industry, the UAE Space Agency has also cooperated with the UAE Ministry of Climate Change and Environment to develop strategies to combat climate change. This has included a competition, launched in October 2021, offering up to $1 million in funding for proposals addressing climate change and food security using data gathered from space to create services that support agricultural or environmental practices.
In November 2022, the UAE Space Agency launched the Space Data Center, a digital platform that provides scientists, scholars, public and private entities, startups, and community members with access to space data to develop solutions to global sustainability challenges. The Space Data Center has since provided analytical reports of natural disasters, such as the earthquake in Morocco in early September, assessing the damage to help plan relief strategies. In May, the UAE Space Agency signed a memorandum of understanding with the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company to promote collaboration on research and development of satellite technology in the energy sector. Industry leaders hope the advancement of satellite technology will provide real-time observation data of Earth and become an essential tool in the protection and preservation of a number of economic sectors.
In early May, the UAE Space Agency launched Phase 2 of the Space Analytics and Solutions Program, an initiative focused on tackling the impact of climate change on food security, monitoring greenhouse gases, and monitoring changes to the environment and vegetation. Phase 2 is focused on three climate challenges: air quality (monitoring and control of air pollution), infrastructure (enhancing infrastructure monitoring, maintenance, and operations solutions), and loss and damage (the use of satellite data to track and quantify losses and damage inflicted by climate change). By May 27, the agency had started work on Phase 2 by joining with Planet Labs, a leading U.S.-based Earth imaging company, to use satellite data to create a global map of areas that have suffered destruction from extreme weather events. This data will be compiled into a Loss and Damage Atlas, developed by UAE-based startups, institutes, and universities, that will highlight the consequences of climate change and can be used to develop early warning systems for at-risk locations to limit the future impact of extreme weather events. It also aims to provide data to help shape policy decisions and financial support programs that can build climate resilience. The UAE Space Agency and Planet Labs plan to showcase this project at COP28.
On June 9, the UAE Space Agency organized a gala dinner in Vienna, on the sidelines of the 66th session of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, to highlight the UAE’s commitment to COP28 and emphasize the significance of supporting global sustainability endeavors, particularly the role of the space sector in addressing climate change. The agency’s research team has argued that space exploration can play a vital role in mitigating the effects of climate change. By collaborating with advanced technology sectors, researchers hope the satellite data can improve agricultural development, observe weather patterns and sea levels, and monitor the health of the ecosystem and the effects of greenhouse gas emissions with unprecedented accuracy and scope.
Climate Efforts Around the Region
Space agencies in neighboring countries are also working to address climate change. Saudi Arabia, with a goal to reach carbon neutrality by 2060, has invested approximately $187 billion to develop a green economy, while the country’s Public Investment Fund has raised billions of dollars from green bond sales that it aims to use to finance sustainable investments. In September 2022, the Space Authority launched the kingdom’s Astronaut Program to contribute to research in the fields of health, sustainability, and space technology. Saudi satellites are also being used to collect climate data for at-risk countries.
Meanwhile, Oman has plans to build the first space rocket launch center in the Middle East. With Oman’s target to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, the National Aerospace Services Company has drawn up blueprints to build the first Omani suborbital rocket with hybrid-solid engines that use solid fuels that are more environmentally friendly than fuels used for traditional liquid engines.
It’s Not So Sunny
Despite the efforts and investments made to tackle climate change, the oil-rich countries have received criticism on their plans and the motivations behind these initiatives. When ADNOC’s CEO, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, was appointed president-designate of COP28, critics claimed the UAE was making a mockery of the event, and the connection between the oil giant and COP28 has been called a scandal. ADNOC’s plans for a $3.6 billion oil and gas capacity expansion only intensified criticism. The UAE announced it is still committed to meet its carbon dioxide emission targets. However, in July, Climate Action Tracker determined these plans are insufficient to combat climate change, arguing the UAE’s plans to increase fossil fuel production are undermining any efforts to reach net zero. Other critics claim the Gulf country is attempting to “greenwash” the climate change summit.
Regardless of such criticism, the UAE and its neighboring Gulf countries continue to make efforts to combat climate change. With the UAE’s new plans to slash emissions by 40% by 2030, instead of 31%, and ADNOC advancing its target to reach net zero by 2045, instead of 2050, the UAE is calling for an aggressive course correction on climate change. The UAE government has $160 billion in clean and renewable energy investments planned over the next 30 years. The country still has to make significant progress to reach these goals, but working with agencies like the UAE Space Agency can speed up the journey. Emirati leaders hope that these projects will provide the country the opportunity to stand alongside international counterparts in their efforts to combat climate change and help them to position the country as a hub of climate technology and research.
Beneath Saudi officials’ tough talk on the Regional Headquarters Program lies a strong desire for constructive engagement with top global firms and attracting greater inflows of foreign investment.
Through its careful examination of the forces shaping the evolution of Gulf societies and the new generation of emerging leaders, AGSIW facilitates a richer understanding of the role the countries in this key geostrategic region can be expected to play in the 21st century.Learn More