Mission to Mars. The UAE journey to space through soft power

Ghazal Poorhasan and Alessandro Tomat

This week marked a historical moment for the Middle East, and even more for the United Arab Emirates (UAE). On February 9th, UAE has been the first Arab nation to undertake an interplanetary mission, and successfully too. The small Arab state has achieved the goal of putting a probe into Mars’ orbit, named “Hope” (Al-Amal in Arabic), which will be orbiting the red planet with the goal of mapping the Martian atmosphere. This was the completion of a space venture that was built up from scratch in only seven years. Launched from the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan, the probe is an entirely indigenous project. It was designed and built in the UAE as part of the Emirates Mars Mission programme, an ambitious project by the UAE Space Agency which was created in conjunction in 2014.

What is even more remarkable is the fact that, before then, the Arab nation had no such organism nor space or planetary scientists, and now it is the 6th nation to put a probe into Martian orbit alongside the US, the Soviet Union, China, Europe and India. Joining the bandwagon of the renewed general interest in space exploration (not exclusively by government entities, but also private ones such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX) not only fulfilled the purpose of establishing the UAE’s position as “a beacon of progress in the region”, but has also captured the spotlights of both the regional news networks, as well as those of major international media outlets the likes of CNN, CNBC, BBC News, Deutsche Welle etc., granting a lot of the visibility that the small state always needs and yearns for. The date of Hope’s entry into Martian orbit also coincides with the UAE’s 50th anniversary celebrations, and the nation’s iconic landmark Burj Khalifa building has been illuminated with the countdown to the spacecraft insertion in the Martian orbit. Another aspect of this accomplishment is that UAE is generally aiming at playing a more important role as an actor in the Middle East, with broader political and strategic implications.

Named the no.1 soft power nation in the Middle East in February 2020, UAE has in fact gone through a long path to achieve this well-deserved title. The use of soft power is not very new in the Middle East, and its exercise throughout the competition between UAE and Qatar for decades has never been hidden. According to Joseph S. Nye, Jr. as the introducer of this concept, “ Soft power—getting others to want the outcome that you want— co-opts people rather than coerce them.” Attractiveness, as one of the characteristics of soft power, is indeed so vivid in the path of UAE toward its objective of being a determinant key player rather than a geographically small state. A small sheikhdom founded in 1971, not only is UAE the pioneer of peace-building among Arabs and Israel, but is now also the first nation is the Middle East to successfully reach Mars.

From this perspective, this remarkable achievement is not just a gift for the 50th birthday of this state, but also a sign of how well-managed were the resources of a nation that managed to rise its status even in the time of a pandemic, while the rest of world is trying to recover from the shock of its economic fallout. Even though the Arab spring illustrated the capacity of UAE to be involved in the regional games also through the exercise of hard power, presumably the leading elites of the country are more keen to be recognized globally by its soft power and its attractiveness, projecting the image of a country with a stable economy and inclined to looking towards a future of science and technology in an unstable Middle East. In this sense, the Emirates Mars Mission represents not only a technological achievement for the UAE, but also an important step as a part of a long-term plan to transform its nation from an oil-economy into a knowledge-based one, by promoting research and creating skills within the UAE itself.

(You can read the last article by Ghazal Poorhasan and Alessandro Tomat here)


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