Home » NASA and China are competing for space allies in the Middle East
China Global News Middle East News

NASA and China are competing for space allies in the Middle East

Recently, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson visited the United Arab Emirates to discuss the possibility of including Emirati astronauts on future Artemis expeditions to the moon. In the meantime, China has signed with Egypt in a series of space cooperation agreements, including participation in Beijing’s proposed International Lunar Research Station. 

The two events illustrate how the NASA-Chinese race to the moon has taken on a diplomatic dimension.

The UAE is one of the original signatories of the Artemis Accords, an agreement setting out rules for nations operating on celestial bodies such as the moon and Mars. It is also turning increasingly to technology, including space exploration, as the basis of its economy as oil and gas become less important.

The UAE has developed a robust space program, especially for a country of its size. Its Mars Hope mission launched in August 2020 and entered Mars orbit in February 2021. The Rashid lunar rover rode to the lunar surface on the Japanese Hakuto-R lander, which was lost attempting to land on the lunar surface in April. The UAE is currently working on an asteroid mission to be launched in 2028.

The UAE has its own astronaut corps, one member of which, Sultan Alneyadi, recently concluded a six-month tour on the International Space Station. NASA is thus very keen to cement ties with the Arab Gulf state further by including Emirati astronauts in the Artemis project.

The United Arab Emirates has also forged ties with China’s lunar effort. According to Space News, the Deep Space Exploration Laboratory, the University of Sharjah and the UAE signed a memorandum of understanding “on cooperation on the International Lunar Research Station” on Nov. 14. 

Is the UAE hedging its bets? Playing both sides against the middle? In any case, the country is in the position of being wooed by both sides of the modern space race.

In the meantime, Egypt, the largest country in terms of population in the Middle East, has signed on with China’s International Lunar Research Station project. The agreement is the latest in China’s engagement with Egypt on space, which includes the establishment of a Satellite Assembly, Integration and Test Center in Cairo and the recent launch of the Misrsat-2 remote sensing satellite.

Egypt and China also signed a memorandum of understanding concerning space cooperation and the peaceful use of space. Egypt joins an increasing number of developing world countries, including Venezuela, South Africa, Pakistan and Azerbaijan, in China’s lunar base axis.

Who benefits from these two latest forays into space diplomacy?

The United States and the UAE certainly benefit from deepening ties in the Artemis program. The UAE gains the support of NASA in its quest to create a technology infrastructure. It also gains the prestige and experience of seeing its nationals walking on the lunar surface, something that was inconceivable just a few years ago.

In return, NASA gets the expertise of Emirati scientists and engineers as well as investment from the Arab Gulf nation. The United States deepens ties with an important ally in the Middle East.

The fact that Artemis serves important foreign policy objectives is certainly a good selling point in Congress when it’s time to vote for more funding for the back-to-the-moon program.

The Chinese deal with Egypt provides certain benefits for both sides as well. Egypt gets a lot of Chinese investment for its nascent space program. China gains political and diplomatic influence in an important Arab nation.

The United States is still ahead of China in the use of space diplomacy to expand its influence, especially in the Middle East. Besides the UAE, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are signatories of the Artemis Accords. An Israeli antiradiation vest flew on the Artemis I mission. NASA and Israel are working together on the Beresheet 2 moon landing mission. Both Israeli and Saudi astronauts have flown on NASA space missions, and it would not be surprising if they were to also fly on future Artemis missions to the moon.

Still, the United States should not be complacent. Both Egypt and Jordan, moderate Arab states, should be enticed into the Artemis Accords. The Artemis Program alone will not bring peace to the Middle East, but it will demonstrate the benefits of the peaceful exploration of space in a part of the world too often characterized by war and death.  

Source : The Hill