It intends to diversify its economy and create a scientific, legislative and technical environment in view of the growing business opportunities offered by space. The Saudi Space Agency is already a reality. Its formal launch took place last week with the constitution and first meeting of its Board of Directors under the chairmanship of Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who in 1985 and at the age of 28 became the first Arab, the first Muslim and the first member of a royal family to travel into space.
In his inaugural session on 24 February, Prince Sultan - who is so far the only astronaut in the Kingdom - wanted to make it clear that the officially named Saudi Space Commission or SSC will be "the main umbrella organiser of everything related to the space sector".
Before his most direct collaborators, the second son of HM King Salman bin Addulaziz Al Saud - the reigning monarch - Prince Sultan wanted to emphasise the need to have a strong national agency "to regulate the sector in the Kingdom and improve its opportunities for growth", while stressing the importance of space "in the economic, scientific and strategic fields" to offer "a promising future for Saudi citizens, to encourage the participation of the private sector and to favour the integration of state institutions".
By giving the green light to the SSC and like many other countries, the Riyadh authorities aim to direct and coordinate their national efforts beyond satellite communications, while expressing their desire to become a globally important player in the framework of outer space.
They are interested, for example, in developing low-cost satellite launch and manufacturing systems, which are conducive to the creation of a high-tech industrial and research sector that will contribute to the development of their Vision 2030 Plan. This Plan is of primary importance for the country's future as it is the road map for reducing Saudi Arabia's dependence on oil, diversifying its economy and developing public service sectors such as health, education, infrastructure, tourism and entertainment.
Aware of its enormous current economic potential but also of its shortcomings, Prince Sultan encourages the formation of a varied network of partnerships at the international level, both with space agencies, private companies, universities and research centres in other countries. At the same time, they aim to attract investment from large corporations and Saudi SMEs to enter the global space market either alone or in joint cooperation.
Another of Prince Sultan's major concerns is to attract and train young Saudis in the field of science and technology studies, with the ultimate aim of training new astronauts to succeed him in reaching the Earth's orbit and beyond.
To achieve this, the so-called Space Generations Programme, or Ajyal, has been initiated, which aims to inspire new generations and turn them "into space engineers and scientists, a way of making their dreams come true," stresses the programme's director-general, Ilham Al-Harbi.
A Royal Order from King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud dated 27 December 2018 stipulates the establishment of the Saudi Arabian Space Agency and appoints His Royal Highness Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud - formerly head of the Tourism and National Heritage Commission - as chairman of the board of directors with the rank of minister. The move is part of a major reorganization of the various portfolios of the Saudi government.
But it took 14 months to define the organizational structure of the SSC, change its name from Agency to Saudi Space Commission and appoint the remaining 11 members of the Board of Directors, including a woman, Rania Mahmoud Nashar, the top executive of Samba Financial Group, a large national bank.
At its first meeting a week ago, the SSC Board of Directors approved the National Space Strategy, a document whose content is not known, but which has been advised by international experts and is awaiting approval by the Council of Ministers.
Its wording, "ambitious but realistic", Prince Sultan bin Salman says, has been agreed with representatives of the Ministry of Defence, other government agencies and KACST, the King Abdulaziz City of Science and Technology, the government scientific institution whose aim is to promote applied scientific research and which has so far been the main driving force behind the nation's space activities.
Since his appointment to head the Kingdom's space affairs, Prince Sultan has focused his efforts, meetings and negotiations both on the training of young Saudis and on strengthening international cooperation with the space institutions and agencies of other countries.
Prince Sultan was not only the first astronaut from an Arab country and the first Muslim man to travel into space. He was also the youngest human being to orbit the Earth. At only 28 years of age, he took off on June 17, 1985 on board NASA's space shuttle Discovery as a payload specialist, along with six other astronauts, five Americans - one of them a woman - and one Frenchman.
The seven astronauts were to carry out NASA's STS-51-G mission, whose main goal was to put three communications satellites into orbit: Mexico's Morelos, the AT&T corporation's Telstar 3D and the Arabsat-1B, the latter owned by the Arab Satellite Communications Organization (Arabsat), in which Saudi Arabia is the main shareholder. The shuttle Discovery returned to earth on 24 June with all its crew members safe and sound. Prince Sultan is not only a former astronaut but also a retired colonel from the Royal Saudi Arabian Air Force, with more than 5,000 flight hours to his credit.
Saudi Arabia is not a newcomer to the field of space and has repeatedly demonstrated its interest in entering space in its various aspects. It is a member of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and has signed the five UN treaties and principles on outer space to promote the use of space technologies in different fields in the country.
It has signed or is about to sign a significant number of international joint cooperation agreements related to space exploration and research, the manufacture of communication and observation satellites, ground infrastructure and launch vehicles with Brazil, China, France, Germany, Greece, Russia, Ukraine and the United States. For example, it participates in the Chinese lunar space mission Chang'e-4, which was launched in May 2018 and carries advanced photographic systems developed in Saudi Arabia. Throughout 2019, Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz and his team have held numerous meetings with senior officials of the major space powers to further strengthen their international ties.
In Moscow and Riyadh, they met with the heads of the major Russian space companies and their authorities - for example, the Minister of Industry and Trade and the Director General of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), Dmitry Rogozin - in an effort to define the details of a programme of joint cooperation between the two nations in the fields of exploration, industry and space sciences.
Over the past three months, talks have been held with senior South Korean authorities to look at the possibility of establishing joint cooperation agreements in the field of manufacturing high-resolution observation satellites and their applications. Also with the political authorities of Greece, to expand and strengthen cooperation between the two countries in the field of satellites and their applications.
The space cooperation between Riyadh and Athens goes back several years and takes the form of the Saudi Arabian communication satellite Geostationary Satellite 1/Hellas Sat 4, an original bilateral project between KACST and Hellas Sat, the Greek-Cypriot satellite communication operator subsidiary of ArabSat. With no less than 6,495 kilos of launch weight, the Greek-Saudi satellite was placed in space on 5 February 2019 by a European Ariane 5 launcher with the aim of providing television, Internet, telephone and secure communications services in the Ka and Ku bands to the Arab countries of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, South Africa and Europe.
In December 2018, a Chinese 2D Long-Range rocket took off from the Jiuquan space base and launched the 425-kilogram SaudiSat 5A and SaudiSat 5B observation satellites into space. Its high-resolution images are processed and analyzed at the National Center for Remote Sensing Technology, a KACST agency, and are used for security, defense and civilian applications.
The Saudi Arabian kingdom has put more than twenty communications, observation and technological devices into orbit, either its own satellites or through communications platform operators of which it is the main shareholder.