Mars, the new space destination for the UAE. Photo: NASA
Washington: The government of the United Arab Emirates announced this week the creation of its own space agency and its plan to send an unmanned mission to Mars by 2021.
The probe's journey to Mars would coincide with the 50th anniversary of the UAE's independence from Britain in 1971.
"We chose the epic challenge of reaching Mars because epic challenges inspire us and motivate us," said Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and the country's vice-president.
On Twitter, Sheikh al-Maktoum said the country's investment in space technologies already eclipsed $US5 billion ($5.3 billion). He heralded the occasion in a series of tweets in both English and Arabic:
"Our region is a cradle of great civilisations. Given the right tools Arabs, once again, can deliver new scientific contributions to humanity
The more than 60M km journey to Mars will mark UAE out as one of few countries with space programmes to explore the Red Planet."
The oil-rich Gulf state is never short on hubris. It is home to the next iterations of global museums such as the Louvre and the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi and the world's tallest building and busiest airport for international travellers in Dubai. The royal family in Abu Dhabi has even ploughed national wealth into owning and improving the reigning English Premier League soccer champion, Manchester City.
The UAE has long wanted to launch a type of pan-Arab space agency, not unlike its real equivalent in Europe, and this week's news lays a marker down for the rest of the region. As Sheikh al-Maktoum's tweets indicate, the UAE's rulers see their foray into space as almost a return to the glories of the distant past, when the scientific discoveries of the Islamic world far surpassed those of a Christendom locked in the Dark Ages.
But it enters a crowded field when it comes to Mars exploration.
The United States, of course, already has its own Curiosity Rover foraging across the Red Planet. China plans to send a vehicle to the surface of Mars by 2020. (An unmanned Chinese probe destined for Mars got lost soon after launching in 2011.) India, with a far smaller GDP per capita than the UAE, has a probe en route to Mars, expected to reach orbit by the middle of September. And the US and Japan are both working towards manned missions to Mars in the next few decades.
Set against that, the UAE's plans appear a bit more humble, but it is a shot across the bow - or at least the Persian Gulf - at regional rival Iran. The most noteworthy accomplishment of Tehran's space program has been the launching of monkeys into space.
The development of space rivalry would run parallel to more immediate concerns. The UAE is vehemently opposed to Iran having the capability of building nuclear weapons. Its own nuclear-energy program is credited with being one of the "best resourced" ventures of its kind in the world.