Saudi Arabia’s ambitious space program provides foretaste of exciting collaborations to come

Col. Chris Hadfield believes investment in space technologies also provides societies with a sense of optimism and raises public aspirations. (Supplied)
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Updated 23 January 2022

Saudi Arabia’s ambitious space program provides foretaste of exciting collaborations to come

  • The Saudi Space Commission was launched in Dec. 2018 under the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 reform agenda
  • The state-funded body has struck cooperation agreements with the European Space Agency, UK, France and Hungary

JEDDAH: More than half a century ago, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people to set foot on the surface of the moon. Since this historic milestone, governments, scientists and now entrepreneurs have set their sights on more distant and ambitious goals.

From Jeff Bezos’ forays into space tourism with Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s dream of establishing colonies on Mars to NASA’s launch of the James Webb Space Telescope and the UAE’s Hope probe mission to Mars, space, it seems, is once again all the rage.

The Apollo astronauts’ momentous moonwalk of July 20, 1969, marked the culmination of more than a decade of breakneck scientific advance, fueled by the fierce Cold War-era contest between the US and the Soviet Union known as the “space race.”

Decades later, and with the benefits of vastly superior technologies, private sector finance, and a global profusion of scientific and engineering talent, a new space race led by the world’s emerging economies and wealthiest individuals is now underway.
 




Saudi Arabia is well placed to capitalize on falling costs of launching rockets, advances in technology, and a growing public interest in space exploration. (Supplied)

A recent entrant in this new space race is the Saudi Space Commission, or SSC, launched three years ago by royal decree — its mission: To accelerate economic diversification, enhance research and development, and raise private sector participation in the global space industry.

Since its launch in December 2018, the Kingdom’s state-funded space program has struck deals with the European Space Agency, the UK, France, and Hungary to further cooperation.

The agency has also signed agreements with aerospace giant Airbus, joined the International Astronautical Federation, and launched illustrious scholarship programs to allow Saudi students to attend the world’s best universities offering courses in space sciences and aerospace engineering.

Although its space agency is relatively new, the Kingdom has a long history of involvement in satellite technology, much of it emanating from the King Abdul Aziz City of Science and Technology in Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia also played a key role in the Arab League’s formation of Arabsat, a satellite communications company, which launched its first satellite in 1985.

“The beauty is that you’re not starting from zero,” Col. Chris Hadfield, retired Canadian astronaut and former commander of the International Space Station, told Arab News in an exclusive interview.

“Even NASA, when they were formed in the late 1950s, they weren’t starting from zero. NACA, which was the predecessor to NASA, had been around since the 1920s, when the government recognized that aeronautics was coming.”
 




In Col. Chris Hadfield’s view, the SSC should now set out to clearly define its goals for the future of Saudi space exploration. (SPA)

Hadfield is well known for his hugely popular video segments depicting life aboard the ISS, which famously included a zero-gravity guitar rendition of David Bowie’s "Space Oddity."

A heavily decorated astronaut, engineer and pilot, his many awards include the Order of Canada, the Meritorious Service Cross and the NASA Exceptional Service Medal. He was also named the top test pilot in both the US Air Force and the US Navy, and was inducted into Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame.

Hadfield has flown three space missions, building two space stations, performing two spacewalks, crewing the Shuttle and Soyuz, and commanding the ISS.

Now retired, he is an adjunct professor at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, an adviser to SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, board chair of the Open Lunar Foundation, and the author of three international bestsellers. His TED talk on fear has been watched 11 million times.

In Hadfield’s view, the SSC should now set out to clearly define its goals for the future of Saudi space exploration.

“The real key is to have a clear purpose for what the space agency is trying to accomplish, aims that are in line with serving the people of Saudi in the short and long term,” he said.

The ISS remains a potent symbol of human fraternity as well as the huge technological and scientific possibilities on offer when societies work toward a common end.

The space station’s history began on July 17, 1975, when Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov and American astronaut Deke Slayton shook hands in microgravity, having docked their spacecraft high above the French city of Metz.
 




Col. Chris Hadfield said it is this kind of human fraternity, together with an enduring sense of duty, that will empower further innovations and new milestones in space exploration. (Supplied)

The handshake was the byproduct of a 1972 agreement between the two nations to cooperate on the Apollo-Soyuz Test project. The US built a docking module for the Apollo shuttle that was compatible with the Soviet docking system to allow a flawless rendezvous.

Their meeting became a powerful symbol of unity, which paved the way for the joint Shuttle-Mir program and later the ISS itself.

Building a space agency is no easy feat. As a multidisciplinary domain, the industry demands a wide range of skills and expertise. Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in the sector and already has several achievements to its name.

In February 2019, the Kingdom launched its first domestically developed communications satellite — SGS-1 — from the Guiana Space Center. The launch was the result of a partnership between KACST and US aerospace giant Lockheed Martin.

In 2020, Saudi Arabia announced plans to invest $2.1 billion in the space program as part of its Vision 2030 reform agenda, the Kingdom’s long-term plan to diversify its economy away from oil and embrace a wide array of next-generation industries.
 




Prince Sultan bin Salman (closest to the camera) is the first Arab, Muslim and royal in space. (Supplied)

“In the time we live in now, space is becoming a fundamental sector of the global economy, touching every aspect of our lives on Earth,” Prince Sultan bin Salman, the first Arab, Muslim and royal in space, said at the time.

“Space business and the space economy are expected to grow into the trillions of riyals as we go forward. We believe there are a lot of opportunities that exist in the space sector and we, in Saudi Arabia, intend to tap these opportunities at all levels.”

In order to excel in space, the Kingdom will need an army of technical specialists in areas as diverse as cybersecurity, avionics and robotics, together with experts in propulsion, machine learning and artificial intelligence.

“If you look right across the world’s governments, there’s some subset that is working in the areas that are naturally space related, like telecommunications, atmospheric physics, weather forecasting or the military side of threats; there’s always the high ground advantage,” Hadfield told Arab News, highlighting the benefits of building a domestic space industry.

“It’s scientific in just trying to understand the Earth better. If you can go around (Earth) 16 times a day, if you can set a geostationary satellite that is looking at the whole (Arabian) peninsula, that whole part of the world, there is a huge amount of information to be gathered that is really difficult to gather from the surface.

“Then there is the technological development side. If you’re going to challenge yourself to build a satellite or build rocket ships or train people to fly to space or be part of the space station, start setting up a permanent human habitation on the moon, that’s a big technological challenge and that is good for the country from the academic side right through to the manufacturing side.”

But more than the obvious economic, scientific and strategic benefits, Hadfield believes investment in space technologies also provides societies with a sense of optimism and raises public aspirations.
 




Hadfield believes investment in space technologies also provides societies with a sense of optimism and raises public aspirations. (Supplied)

“Apart from the scientific research and the technical development, it is raising people’s eyes beyond the horizon,” he said.

“Space exploration has a significant role in inspiring people to visualize a different future, to attempt things with their own lives, to train themselves to gain a new set of skills and turn themselves into somebody different in pursuit of being an astronaut that otherwise they might never have done with themselves. That, to me, that’s an important component.”

Saudi Arabia is well placed to capitalize on falling costs of launching rockets, advances in technology, and a growing public interest in space exploration. Its willingness to work with other space agencies is also a foretaste of exciting collaborations to come.

Reflecting on his own career in space, Hadfield said it is this kind of human fraternity, together with an enduring sense of duty, that will empower further innovations and new milestones in space exploration.

“It’s a life of service,” he said. “Service to agency, service to country and service to others.”

 

When a Saudi went to space
Prince Sultan bin Salman speaks exclusively to Arab News about his 1985 NASA mission and how he became the first Arab, Muslim and royal in space

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Weather forecasters warn of more sandstorms coming as dust shrouds Riyadh again

Updated 25 May 2022

Weather forecasters warn of more sandstorms coming as dust shrouds Riyadh again

  • Back-to-back sandstorms blanket region, sending thousands to hospitals with breathing issues

RIYADH: Weather forecasters warned on Tuesday that more sandstorms were on the way after Riyadh was again shrouded in choking dust.

The National Center for Meteorology issued weather alerts for the Saudi capital, extending to the Madinah region and the governorates of Yanbu, Al-Rais and Yanbu Al-Nakhl. There will also be dust storms in AlUla and Khaybar.

“Dust particles in the north, center, and southern and interior regions will persist,” center spokesman Hussain Al-Qahtani told Arab News.

More than 1,200 people this month have gone to hospitals in the Kingdom suffering from breathing difficulties, but the phenomenon is region wide. Severe sandstorms have blanketed parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Kuwait for the past month. The storms have sent thousands to hospitals and resulted in at least one death in Iraq and three in eastern Syria.

Sandstorms are typical in late spring and summer, spurred by seasonal winds, but this year in Iraq they have occurred nearly every week.

The Iraqi Health Ministry stockpiled canisters of oxygen at facilities in hard-hit areas.

In Syria, medical departments were put on alert as the sandstorm hit the eastern province of Deir Ezzor.

Iran shut down schools and government offices in Tehran last week as a sandstorm swept the country.

It hit hardest in the southwest desert region of Khuzestan, where over 800 people sought treatment for breathing difficulties. Dozens of flights out of western Iran were canceled or delayed.

For the second time this month, Kuwait International Airport suspended all flights because of the dust. Video showed largely empty streets with poor visibility.

“It’s a region-wide issue but each country has a different degree of vulnerability and weakness,” said Jaafar Jotheri, a geoarchaeologist at the University of Al-Qadisiyah in Baghdad.


Saudi Arabia finalizing extension of $3 billion deposit to Pakistan — finance minister

Updated 25 May 2022

Saudi Arabia finalizing extension of $3 billion deposit to Pakistan — finance minister

  • Mohammed Al-Jadaan says Pakistan is a key ally and the kingdom will stand behind the South Asian nation
  • On May 1, both countries said they would discuss possibility of supporting deposit by extending its term

DAVOS: Saudi Arabia is finalizing the extension of the kingdom’s $3 billion deposit to Pakistan, Saudi Minister of Finance Mohammed Al-Jadaan told Reuters.

“We are currently finalizing extending the $3 billion deposit to Pakistan,” he said on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Saudi Minister of Finance Mohammed Al-Jadaan speaks at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on May 23, 2022. (WEF/File)

Last year, Saudi Arabia deposited $3 billion in Pakistan’s central bank to help support its foreign reserves.

Al-Jadaan did not offer further details, but on May 1 the two countries said in a joint statement that they would discuss the possibility of supporting the deposit by extending its term “or through other options.”

Pakistan is in dire need of external finances, hurt by high inflation, reserves declining to as low as less than two months’ of imports, and a fast-weakening currency.

Al-Jadaan said Pakistan was an important ally and the kingdom would stand behind the South Asian nation.

Uncertainty over the revival of an International Monetary Fund program has compounded volatility in the economy and markets amid a political crisis since a new government took over last month from ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan.


Saudi low-cost airline announces first domestic flight in kingdom with all female crew

Updated 22 May 2022

Saudi low-cost airline announces first domestic flight in kingdom with all female crew

  • Saudi women have proved themselves in many careers that men dominated for a long time
  • Flight 117, with crew of seven, was co-piloted by Yara Jan, 23, who is youngest Saudi female pilot

JEDDAH: Saudi low-cost airline flyadeal have announced the first domestic flight in the Kingdom with a fully female crew, most of them Saudis.

The announcement was made on the airline’s official Twitter account @flyadeal on Friday: “For the first time in Saudi aviation history! #flyadeal operated the first flight with an all-female crew, the majority of which are Saudis by the newest A320 aircraft. Flight 117, flew from #Riyadh to #Jeddah”

Saudi women have proved themselves in many careers that men dominated for a long time including aviation-related positions.

Flight 117, with a crew of seven, was co-piloted by Yara Jan, 23, who is also the youngest Saudi female pilot.

Jan told Arab News that she was extremely proud to be taking part in such a historic moment in aviation for Saudi women.

“As a Saudi woman trying to lead my country with a proud step it was a moment of pride and joy.”

Jan graduated from flight school in Florida, US, in 2019, and joined Flyadeal a year ago.

She said that being the co-pilot means assisting the pilot in many key role tasks such as navigation and completing many checklists.

Jan is aware of how important this is for young Saudi women.

“Although being a Saudi woman pilot is new, it is not impossible for our generation, especially with the backing that we are receiving from our beloved country and our respected leaders, who have supported me a lot to become the youngest female pilot in a Saudi airline. I will always be pleased to have the chance to make a positive change.”

The number of Saudi female pilots has grown recently. Three names stand out: Hanadi Zakaria Al-Hindi, the first female pilot to fly with a Saudi commercial pilot license; Rawia Al-Rifi the first to fly an Airbus A320 internationally as a civil aircraft from the UAE; and co-pilot Yasmin Al-Maimani, who was the first woman to co-pilot a commercial plane in the Kingdom.


Saudi deputy defense minister, Blinken discuss common vision to ‘confront Iran’s destabilizing policies’

Updated 22 May 2022

Saudi deputy defense minister, Blinken discuss common vision to ‘confront Iran’s destabilizing policies’

  • Prince Khalid, Blinken talk about the role the UN and the international community can play in moving Yemen to peace and development

WASHINGTON: Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman met US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington, the Saudi Press Agency reported on Sunday.

During the meeting, the two sides affirmed their countries’ common vision to confront Iran’s destabilizing policies in the region.

They discussed the latest developments in Yemen, with Prince Khalid reaffirming Saudi Arabia’s aspirations for the Yemenis “to reach a comprehensive political solution that would move Yemen to peace and development.”

Both sides reviewed the strategic and historical relations between the Kingdom and the US and ways to strengthen them.

Prince Khalid noted that while the announced truce between the Arab Coalition to Restore Legitimacy in Yemen and the Iran-backed Houthi militia remained positive to a “to a large extent”, there is an important role for the UN and the international community to play.

He said the UN and world organizations need “to put pressure on Houthi militias to open Taiz roads, deposit the revenues of Hodeidah port and engage seriously in peace efforts to move Yemen to security, stability, construction and prosperity.”

Regarding Iran’s destabilizing activities, Prince Khalid and Blinken talked about security and diplomatic coordination “to confront Iranian threats, including dealing with Iran’s nuclear file and its program to develop ballistic missiles, as well as its sponsorship of terrorism.”

Prince Khalid also met US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman. During the meeting, they discussed various topics of common interest and continuous cooperation on efforts to maintain security, peace and stability in the region and the world.

The two sides further “reviewed developments the Kingdom is witnessing within the framework of its Vision 2030, commending the cooperation and dialogue between the two countries on the basis of mutual respect and non-interference in internal affairs.”

Prince Khalid welcomed US affirmation of the Kingdom’s support in developing its military capabilities and meeting its defense needs.

The Saudi deputy defense minister also met US Special Envoy for Yemen Timothy Lenderking and discussed the latest developments in Yemen.

“I affirmed to him the Saudi-led coalition’s backing of the Yemeni Presidential Leadership Council and its supporting entities, and our aspirations for reaching a comprehensive political resolution to the crisis that will lead Yemen into peace and prosperity,” Prince Khalid said in a tweet.

Prince Khalid and his delegation began a series of meetings with key US officials last Tuesday under the US-Saudi Strategic Joint Planning Committee to review the Saudi-US partnership, and present and future strategic military and defense cooperation between the two countries.

Prince Khalid had earlier met White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl, among others.

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How Saudi Arabia can become the vanguard of sustainable tourism

Updated 22 May 2022

How Saudi Arabia can become the vanguard of sustainable tourism

  • An agreement with Jamaica puts resilient tourism at the heart of the industry’s post-pandemic recovery
  • The pandemic highlighted the vulnerability of tourism not only to pandemics but also extreme weather

LONDON: Saudi Arabia is stepping up its efforts to become the vanguard of a UN pledge to develop a sustainable model of tourism after the sector’s levels of resilience were pushed to breaking point by the pandemic and new dire warnings of tourism’s environmental footprint emerged.

Addressing the UN General Assembly on May 6, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Tourism Ahmed Al-Khateeb said lessons about tourism’s vulnerability to sudden, unexpected events must be taken from the pandemic — which cost the sector 62 million jobs worldwide — and changes made.

“COVID-19 highlighted the vulnerability of the sector, not only to pandemics but also to the effects of extreme weather, so addressing climate change must be at the heart of building a more resilient tourism, and there is no resilience without sustainability,” he said.

“We must work collaboratively, putting sustainable, resilient tourism at the heart of inclusive recovery. Only by doing these things together will we ensure better and more resilient futures for the millions around the world reliant on tourism.”

A partial view shows an ancient Nabataean carved tomb at the archaeological site of Hegra, near the northwestern Saudi city of AlUla. (Photo by 

The UN’s World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) welcomed the Saudi efforts, noting that the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 has already provided the blueprint for a “transformative and deeply ambitious” economic strategy, and could do the same for tourism.

A spokesperson for the UNWTO told Arab News: “This ambitious plan aims to reshape the social and cultural landscape, accelerating growth through strategic investment, new industries and leadership.

“It is an opportunity to bring Saudi Arabia’s heritage, culture and hospitality to the world; and deliver on climate and sustainability goals. Properly managed, tourism can play a key role in achieving this vision.”

Scientists have said CO2 emissions from tourism will increase by 25 percent by 2030 compared to 2016 levels, which if left unaddressed could be a bullet for the sector as visitors begin to factor in the impact, and morality, of climate change on their destination choices.

Signaling the Kingdom’s intent to become the shepherd to sustainability, Al-Khateeb and his Jamaican counterpart, Edmund Bartlett, signed earlier this month a memorandum of understanding to collaborate on developing sustainable and resilient tourism between the two countries.

Part of the agreement also included determination to not only embrace the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development but to lay out a blueprint that can be rolled out globally for a sustainable model of tourism.

The Taif rose season draws visitors from Saudi Arabia and beyond. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)

Although firm details on the blueprint have yet to emerge, the UNWTO spokesperson noted that policymakers are “best placed” to play a central role so long as their policies include aims to reduce environmental impacts of consumption and production patterns.

“National tourism planning is a well-established practice among national authorities with national tourism policies covering on average a time frame of 10 years and addressing the same thematic areas across regions,” the spokesperson added.

“Aspects such as human resource development, investment, marketing and promotion, employment, product development and diversification have been factored into the policies as these are relevant aspects for the sustainable economic development of tourism.”

Jonathon Day, associate professor and Marriott School of Hospitality and Tourism Management graduate program director, applauded the Kingdom’s “ambition and commitment,” believing it could become a leader in sustainable development.

“Tourism developed sustainably has the potential to contribute substantially to sustainability challenges faced by Saudi Arabia and the world, and I’m sure that through tourism Saudi Arabia can join the destinations leading in sustainable development,” Day told Arab News.

“The Kingdom has the resources to invest in infrastructure to support sustainability goals and knows that tourism that doesn’t adopt the principles of sustainability can make sustainability issues worse. It requires commitment to achieve positive outcomes.”

Day is not alone in seeing Saudi Arabia’s financial resources as key in any effort it may make to lead the way in green tourism, with Prof. Willy Legrand of the International University of Applied Sciences believing it “would translate” in attracting talent and developing policy.

AlUla, home to Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, is at the heart of the Kingdom’s tourism ambitions. (Courtesy: Royal Commission of AlUla)

“Not only this, the resources allow the country to develop and implement state of the art (existing) solutions as well as being a pipeline for the testing of new solutions to tackle some of the greater tourism challenges,” Legrand told Arab News.

Architect and sustainable tourism consultant Amine Ahlafi said that while Saudi Arabia had only recently opened for tourism more broadly, it was important to remember it had a rich history of religious tourism, and this was something it could learn from.

Anywhere from 2.5 million to 9 million pilgrims travel to the Kingdom each year, Ahlafi told Arab News that this results in around 15 million plastic cups being used to cater to the water needs of everyone traveling.

“You can of course use technology to recycle all the disposable cups, but sustainable tourism should be about finding ways to raise awareness so that we don’t have to rely on technology,” he said.

“As for developing new tourism, I think they should promote the desert potential of tourism as they can market it as a very interesting place for sustainable tourism — which does not mean they have to reduce the quality.

“We can do luxury combined with sustainability and not in a greenwashing way with the design of luxury desert camps that optimize the natural resources, the sun and the wind for energy.”

Ahlafi said a blueprint would need to be predicated on pushing technology and the habitat you find yourself in. “Technology is the tool, not the solution, the solution is building to suit the environment, not trying to have the environment suit you.”

Legrand said the Kingdom’s capacity to achieve its aims would depend on a “declaration of transparency” in which it not only set out its goals but communicated actions undertaken and results achieved.

Day said it was also important to construct the blueprint not as a series of steps that would work for every country but rather to realize it as a list of questions that all countries could ask of themselves.

“Sustainability and sustainable tourism are ‘wicked problems,’ which means there are many things that need to be done, and it requires many organizations and parts of government to work to achieve common goals,” Day said.

“And while there are a common set of tasks, each destination will have different priorities. So, the questions may be the same — but the answers may be different. For instance, Saudi Arabia probably will focus on water conservation more than some destinations.”

Legrand agreed that the Kingdom’s ability to produce a global blueprint would depend on its ability to recognize that there would be “no one size fits all” approach, but rather a series of questions and inclusion of all stakeholders in the process.

He suggested the questions could include: What are hoteliers’ views on sustainability? Are the restaurateurs capitalizing on local agriculture? Are local communities involved? What are the challenges for these different actors? Are the destination marketers aware?

But he also noted that there were “clear, key topics” that would need to be addressed in a global, universalized manner, not least of which is the elephant in the room: Long-haul air travel.

“Long-haul travel remains a major challenge on the emission front and will remain so for the years to come, although airlines are making progress both in terms of efficiencies and fuel technologies,” he said.

“Transparency at the booking stage is critical to make the right decisions about a trip, here Travalyst and its many members are making progress in providing travelers with that information, such as the carbon footprint of specific airline routes, for example.”

Both Day and Legrand agreed that for Saudi Arabia to meet its ambitions as the vanguard in a push towards sustainable tourism, the country would need to hang its efforts around the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals for industry, not least “collaboration and cooperation.”

They face many challenges, foremost of which is improving citizens’ trust in state institutions.

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Return of the leopard is at the heart of plans to conserve and regenerate Saudi Arabia’s landscapes and wildlife
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