It often feels as though the Middle East exists in a parallel universe. While science and technology are emphasized in education in the West and in Asia we seem to be doomed to deal with a medieval mindset that wishes to turn the clock back a millennium or so.
Many young Arabs can’t wait for their failed governments to start paying attention to their basic needs, let alone their dreams and aspirations and are risking their lives on a daily basis to emigrate to Europe, escaping the reality of the Middle East in search for a better life.
But a project to launch a Mars probe is the Middle East’s chance to make a giant leap to the present, both symbolically and scientifically. The fact that it is staffed by young Middle Easterners and based in the region makes the project twice as important.
“This project usually takes 10 years but we need to get it kicked off within six,” said Ibrahim Hamza Al Qasimi — the head of the Strategic Research Section at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Agency.
Breaking with stereotypes, an all Emirati team of 70 engineers and researchers have spent 10 years learning these technologies through what Al Qasimi calls a “three-phased know-how transfer program.”
By phase three, the team was tasked with the monumental assignment of launching the Mars probe, in what will be a first for an Arab and Muslim country making the UAE one of the few nations to attempt such a feat.
And yet this is unlike any other government “department” I have seen in the region. There was an air of optimism about, smiles and a great deal of guarded confidence.
The rationale behind the project was articulated in an interview with Sarah Amiri, deputy project manager and science lead, in The National: “This is an investment in the future of the UAE, in diversifying our economy, in being creators and generators of technology rather than just users, and that’s the only way that we can move closer towards our knowledge-based economy and generate the necessary knowledge to sustain that economy.”
Al Qasimi stresses to me: “We are an exclusively civilian program, and are committed to the peaceful use of outer space. This makes it easier to approach researchers and institutions who otherwise would hesitate to work with non-civilian programs.”
It is in many ways a race against time.
“The date 2020 is important for us because we want to show the world what the UAE has achieved in only 50 years of its existence,” said Al Qasimi.
“It’s like a sign that it was meant to be, we couldn’t do this the year after or the year before. 2020 is our window, it’s like destiny,” Amiri remarked to me.
In a recent unscripted speech at the naming of the probe, the UAE’s Prime Minister, whom the space center is named after, announced that “the opinion of a group of people is better than the opinion of an individual” in reference to the social media quest to name the probe in which tens of thousands of Arabic speakers took part. They finally chose the name Al Amal (Hope). And yet, Al Amal is only one of several projects this ambitious team is working on and funded by a relatively small budget.
They have already put DubaiSat-1 and DubaiSat-2 satellites in orbit which have been sending high-resolution imagery of the Earth since 2009 and 2013 respectively.
In addition to commercial, logistical and agricultural use, these images have played a vital role in humanitarian relief efforts such as during the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami in Japan and the floods that struck Pakistan in July 2010.
The Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre is now building its third and most advanced Earth observation satellite KhalifaSat.
During my visit to the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre that lasted well over two hours I was granted rare access to the cleanroom, the working lab where dust particles have to be strictly contained.
I adorned a blue coat over my dishdasha, similar to a doctor’s uniform, covered my feet in disposable plastic shoe covers and stood in an air shower room for 30 seconds prior to being allowed into one of the most advanced scientific labs in the Middle East.
We visited the assembly rooms where various parts of Al Amal will be built — the main hall nearby where the final probe will come together is almost complete.
“We have designed the entire probe from scratch,” a point reiterated by Omran Sharaf, Project Manager of the Hope Probe. “We are building on the experience we gained from our three earth observation satellites.”
The technology behind Al Amal is derived from both the U.S .and South Korea, the latter Al Qasimi says is “on the cusp of the latest breakthroughs in space technology.”
I kept my hands in my coat pockets for much of the tour, fearful I would accidentally move any of the objects. “We do all the cleaning here ourselves.” Non-scientists are strictly prohibited from handling the equipment, remarked my guide.
The day I visited, Saeed Al Gergawi, a strategic research officer at the Space Centre penned an opinion piece in a local paper arguing: “When we stop thinking, dreaming or even talking about the future, we get distracted by our present woes.”
I recall thinking how fitting that sentence is to the present day Middle East.
Al Amal’s entire set up, with its enthusiastic and ambitious young dreamers, would probably be more at ease in Palo Alto than in the Middle East, and yet it is precisely because this grand project is taking place in this region that makes it all the more meaningful.
I left with a great sense of optimism for the region, which led a friend to remark: “This is the Middle East’s greatest start up.”
This article was originally published in CNN on May 28, 2015.