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WORLD ECONOMIC SERIES: Launching the Emirates Mission to Mars

With H.E. Mr Mansoor Abulhoul, Ambassador of the UAE to the United Kingdom and Mr Omran Sharaf, Project Manager of the Emirates Mars Mission

Report By Genevieve Redgrave, Policy and Publications Editor, PPP

This session of the World Economic Series was also part of a wider celebration, with the event taking place on the national day of the country in focus – the United Arab Emirates. On the nation’s 49th anniversary, the session offered a chance to hear from H.E Mr Mansoor Abulhoul, Ambassador of the UAE and Mr Omran Sharaf, Project Manager of the Emirates Mars Mission.

“This is about how we reposition the UAE in the post-COVID-19 context,” said Ambassador Abulhoul, adding that the country is at the start of a period of recovery after many months of hard work. This ranged from a reorganisation of government to facilitate swift decision-making, an AED70billion support package for business and also creating one of the highest per capita testing regimes in the world. Additionally, with an estimated 90 per cent of the UAE population made up of expatriates, the country faced a unique challenge where travel had become increasingly difficult. The Ambassador outlined the priority of “securing the position of our highly valued foreign residents by extending their visas and waiving various fees at places of leisure, education and business.” He said that the UAE is now ready to “welcome back the world,” and supported the UK government’s recent decision to create a UK-UAE travel corridor with no quarantine required.

These measures are part the UAE government’s ambitious aim to make it a model and global hub for “free-trade, transport, travel and global interchange.” This will be presented at the 173-day Dubai Expo rescheduled to open in late 2021 to celebrate culture, collaboration and innovation, which the Ambassador predicts will be more successful than it would have been if held in 2020. He was clear that ambitions are high within the UAE, a country that is not prepared to rest on its laurels but is instead taking every opportunity presented to move the nation forward.

It is hard to imagine a more future-first project than a rapidly created space exploration mission launched amidst a globe fighting a deadly pandemic. Yet launched in July, the aptly named Hope Probe has done exactly this. Predicted to reach Mars by February 2021, the orbiter will study the atmosphere and climate of the planet in detail, giving the global community a realistic view of the Martian atmosphere at different times and seasons for the very first time.

“The reason for this mission is beyond space,” says Mr Omran Sharaf, the Project Manager of this mission. He explained that Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Prime Minister of UAE, first came to the team in late 2013 with the target of reaching Mars by 2nd December 2021 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the nation. But this was not simply for space exploration; the project was intended to benefit those closer to home, aiming to inspire a new generation and region of science. Those in leadership realised that in order to solve the emerging challenges of water and food security as well as renewable energy, there needs to be a strong scientific base and community, which just did not exist in the UAE.

Mr Sharaf explained that while engineering had long been invested in and supported as a career opportunity, science had unfortunately been left behind. With the onset of this project however, the government wanted to see a drastic shift across all sectors to create an ecosystem of education, industry and economics to support scientific research and development. None of this would be easy, especially within a timeframe half that of usual projects and a budget of $200billion, which pales in comparison to other space missions. The solution was simple – collaboration.

Instead of starting from scratch, the Emirates Mission to Mars decided to start where others had ended, learning from the past experience and knowledge of others to create a unique and modern mission. This included a team in the University of Colorado to help create the technology and also unexpectedly working with many bodies across the region and Japan to help overcome the logistical challenges that the pandemic posed. Mr Sharaf was keen to emphasise that this project would not have been possible without their knowledge transfer partners, explaining that international collaboration was at the heart of the mission. “We didn’t view this as a space race, we looked at it as a space community,” he said. “It’s not about competing, it’s about collaborating.”

Shared knowledge was central to the team and vision of the project and therefore all data from the Mission will be available for all to benefit from. He hopes that this will inspire others to do the same, encouraging collaboration to become the new model; something he named as scientific diplomacy. Cooperating and collaborating across projects could help foster more positive communication, and hopefully help create a more stable region, vital to a successful future.

The stability of the region was a common theme throughout the discussion amongst the community of diplomats and thought leaders that attended, with many citing the potential opportunity that this brings both politically and economically. The Abraham Accords signed earlier this year by the UAE, Bahrain and Israel at the White House, began the normalisation of relations between Arab nations and Israel. It is hoped that this positive step will bring a greater level of stability and peace throughout the region, with the UAE’s message reiterated within the Accords that “the best way to address challenges is through cooperation and dialogue.” This was deemed by those in the discussion as a sign of positive change, explaining that greater collaboration will only serve to secure the success of this diplomacy with scientific research an excellent opportunity to build these relationships.

The knowledge gained in these explorations also has a significant opportunity to filter through to other ongoing research that is currently focusing on a more sustainable future. For a nation and region so heavily dependent on the oil industry, many questioned what exactly UAE will look like in a more sustainable world post-oil. It was made clear that the UAE is already in the process of working that out for themselves with large-scale and long-term funds and strategies in operation within the country that aims to diversify the economy and utilise emerging new technologies.

In a year plagued with unprecedented challenges and struggle, it was hard to leave the session without feeling as optimistic about the future as the UAE is. Many attendees noted how positive the session had been and praised the route of greater collaboration for stability and scientific solutions to global problems. It only served to highlight the power of science to drive international dialogue, showcasing our common interests between communities with mutual respect of our differences.


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