Flashpoints | Diplomacy | South Asia

Taking India-Gulf Cooperation Into Space

India already has the frameworks for space cooperation with partners like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Oman.

By Alvite Ningthoujam for
Taking India-Gulf Cooperation Into Space
Credit: Unsplash

Over the last few years, there has been a discernible growth in India’s overall bilateral ties with most of the Arab Gulf countries. India-Gulf cooperation, presently, is no longer concentrated to the traditional commercial and energy (largely oil) trade, but is rapidly expanding to areas such as military and security issues, counterterrorism, cybersecurity, joint investment, infrastructure projects, and science and technology. The inclusion of these elements is gradually making bilateral ties more comprehensive as compared with the recent past. In other words, a strategic component to India-Gulf relations has been added. In a few cases, India and Arab gulf partners have upgraded their bilateral relations to a “strategic” or “comprehensive strategic partnership,” particularly with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, and Oman.

The paradigm shift in India’s foreign policy vis-à-vis the Gulf region was ushered in by the indefatigable efforts of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. By visiting most of the Gulf countries during his first term, Modi helped establish robust political ties, a missing link for a prolonged period. Further, his success in building strong personal rapport with some of the leaders in the extended western neighborhood has contributed to the expansion of engagements to newer fields. As a result, India and its Gulf partners have started to place importance on enhancing cooperation in technical sectors, including space cooperation.

Prospects for joint collaborations in this domain have coincided with visible growth with regard to science and technological advancement attained by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, in particular. For instance, the UAE successfully launched its Mars Mission “Hope” from Japan on July 19, after completing a laudable trip to the International Space Station (ISS) by UAE astronaut Hazzaa Al Mansoori on a Russian Soyuz-MS 15 spacecraft in September last year. Such breakthroughs offer favorable opportunities for India to elevate its technological and “economic partnership with the Arab world to the next level.”

Recent Developments in Space Cooperation

There have been concrete developments in the space domain following the visit of Modi to the UAE in August 2015. During their discussions, both countries emphasized the need for greater cooperation in space, which includes cooperation on the development as well as “launch of satellites, ground-based infrastructure and space application.” The Indian leader recognized and promoted the efforts being put in by the Emirati to establish its Space Research Centre at Al-Ain, which is the first in the region. In May of the following year, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and the UAE Space Agency (UAESA) on the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes was signed.

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Significantly, ISRO, by setting up a joint working group, reportedly played a critical role in the recent launching of the UAE’s Hope probe spacecraft. Demonstrating a humble beginning to space cooperation, the UAE’s Nayif-1 nanosatellite was among the 104 satellites launched by India in a single flight from Satish Dhawan Space Center in Sriharikota in February 2017. Now, in the presence of formal agreement, these two countries should not find difficulty in strengthening cooperation in various spatial spheres, including satellite navigation, sounding rockets, satellite-based rescue missions, as well as maritime security. What could create a greater synergy between ISRO and the UAESA are their quests for technical advancement in this strategic sector.

India is witnessing an upward trajectory while carving a niche in space technology, and the UAE is also equally making notable initiatives in this direction. Its ambition to emerge as a pioneer in the region became visible when it launched the Arab Space Cooperation Group, a conglomeration of 11 Arab countries, namely Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, Sudan, and Kuwait, in March 2019. With a stated objective to “empower the Arab world in the global space industry,” the members of this grouping are collaborating on the development of an advanced satellite called 813, which will be used to monitor earth, climate, and related environmental issues. The development of this spatial technology, with a life span of about five years, is likely to take three years. Indicating another step forward, the Emirati launched a new three-year space training program (including scholarships and financial incentives) called Arab Space Pioneers in mid-July this year, to foster the “next generation of Arab astronomers and scientists.” India could explore the possibility of providing relevant expertise, which could facilitate the strengthening of space cooperation. The Dubai-based Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center (which supervised the designing, development and launching of the Hope probe) is also a pivotal organization with which India could look for a possible tie-up.

Likewise, Saudi Arabia, a close strategic partner, has taken up important steps to develop its own space expertise, the latest being the establishment of the Saudi Space Agency (SPA) in December 2018, within the framework of its Vision 2030 Plan. While King Abdulaziz City of Science and Technology (KACST) mainly undertakes activities regarding satellite manufacturing and research and development, as well as implementation and management of space science and exploration research and missions, SPA will likely conduct programs pertaining to Saudi’s international space cooperation. The newly created agency is also tasked to coordinate and develop Saudi space policy and strategy through a cooperation mechanism between its civil, commercial, and military sectors and related government ministries and agencies.

The emerging scenario in Saudi Arabia opens a widow of opportunity for uplifting cooperation with India. The Kingdom’s increasing focus on developing its own space technology will likely necessitate Riyadh to seek assistance from foreign countries that have already achieved a considerable degree of experience in space science. India’s participation in that regard could be significant, and put a thrust to the space-related cooperation that, otherwise, remains lackluster despite a MoU being signed between ISRO and KACST in February 2010. Inactivity in this sphere runs contrary to the growing ties between the two countries in recent years. For now, potential areas of cooperation include remote sensing, satellite communication, and satellite-based navigation.

Oman was one of the first countries in the Gulf region that exhibited interest in forging space cooperation with India nearly a decade ago. To this end, the Sultanate even dispatched a delegation from its Department of Communication to ISRO’s technical facilities in March 2011, which continued exploring the feasibility to go into a formal arrangement. This resulted in the signing of a MoU on cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space during Modi’s February 2018 visit to Muscat. The agreement, which was finally approved by India’s Union Cabinet in June 2018, would enable both sides to cooperate in “space science, technology and applications including remote sensing of the earth; satellite based navigation; space science and planetary exploration; use of spacecraft and space systems and ground system; and application of space technology.” Considering the heightening bilateral partnerships, India’s assistance in building Oman’s capabilities, including training and human resource development, is expected to be promising.

The China Factor

In this otherwise potentially rich domain for cooperation between India and its Gulf partners, what could emerge as a competing factor are the technological inroads being made by China in the wider Middle East. Based on China’s “Arab Policy Paper” (released in January 2016), Beijing is striving to upgrade its “pragmatic cooperation” with almost all the Arab countries, with “space satellite” cooperation as one of the priorities. This is within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative strategy rolled out by the Chinese government in 2013.

In a joint initiative, for instance, Saudi Arabia and China unveiled three lunar images acquired through their cooperation on the relay satellite mission for China’s Chang’e-4 lunar probe in July 2018. This was followed by the launching of KACST-manufactured aerial survey satellites, Saudi SAT 5A and 5B, from China’s Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in December 2018. The importance of science and technology as one of the drivers of bilateral cooperation was flagged during the commemoration of 30 years of Saudi-Sino diplomatic relations on July 21 this year.

Similarly, the UAE signed an agreement in December 2015 with China for collaboration in “space exploration and the study and development of space science.” The salience of joint technological innovation, including in the space and satellite realms, was adequately discussed during the visit of Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan to China in July 2019. Given the developing nature of their present-day bilateral ties, further progress in this direction can be anticipated in the near future.

Notwithstanding the aforementioned third-party dimension, the timing is still ripe for India to scale up its space cooperation with the Gulf states. The strengthening of such engagements should not be an arduous task, as there are already legal and technical frameworks available. More importantly, political goodwill exists between the governments of India and the Gulf states at the moment. In both New Delhi and the Gulf capitals, there is a rush toward forging partnerships in the technological realm. In the Arab states, this is due to their increasing attention toward reducing reliance on oil and the energy-driven economy. The similarity in the quest for technological advancement on both sides could act as a catalyst and, in the long run, space cooperation could emerge as new momentum that could continue propelling the already-flourishing Indo-Gulf ties.

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Dr. Alvite Ningthoujam is currently a non-resident fellow at the New Delhi-based Middle East Institute. He also previously served in the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS), Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), New Delhi. The views expressed here are personal.