India-Gulf Space Cooperation

India’s space programme has been a long and successful one in the making ever since Dr. Vikram Sarabhai established the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) in 1969. Today, India is regarded as an emerging space power in the international arena due to its ability to achieve its goals in a cost-effective and time-efficient manner, with several developed and developing countries vying for ISRO’s assistance in developing their space programmes. As a result, ISRO has signed a plethora of MoUs with a vast range of countries such as Afghanistan, Australia, Latin American countries, Canada, China, South Asian states, Russia, East Asian nations, several African states, European and South East Asian states, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Scandinavian nations, the U.S.A. and finally, with a large number of Gulf states.

ISRO’s achievements have been many. Over the course of the 21st century, ISRO has perfected itself to be able to make India Asia’s first state to successfully launch a spacecraft to Mars named Mangalayan; launching of 104 satellites in a single mission in 2017 at exceptionally low costs; launching the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) in 2006; development of the Indian Remote Sensing System used in the civilian domain for National Resource Management; building the INSAT or Indian National Satellite System (also known as GSAT or Geosynchronous satellite) with multiple purposes including telecommunication, television broadcasting, disaster warning along with search and rescue, meteorology, digital interactive classrooms, developmental communication and telemedicine; GSLV MK III which is a launch vehicle that can carry about 4 tons of satellites into the Low Earth Orbit; Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle or PSLV which has launched around 39 consecutive missions till 2017, including 48 Indian satellites and 209 satellites for customers outside India etc. Thus, ISRO is apt with enough capabilities to help develop the space programmes of any state, particularly that of strategically significant Gulf states.

India and West Asia have shared historical lineages in trade, culture, tradition, political connection, and anthropological ties ever since ancient times. For various reasons, the Gulf States are also strategically and geopolitically significant for India. According to the M.E.A., it is the Gulf states which comprise the bulk of India’s oil and natural gas; they are also engaged in promoting trade and investment as well as cooperation in security and intelligence; these states also host huge Indian diasporas which have often been lauded by their governments including Saudi Arabia and Qatar for their ‘contribution to the development of their respective countries’ and are also responsible for boosting India’s GDP through remittances running into billions.

However, the Gulf States are relatively new to the extraordinary phenomenon of space exploration and have become conventionally wealthy through their booming oil trade; they have the potential to develop remarkable and extensive space programmes through their investments and cooperation with existing and new allies. Therefore, India is high on this list of potential allies for space cooperation due to its successful space capabilities and technological innovations, coupled with its geopolitical and strategic interest in the Persian Gulf. Taking the spirit of this space cooperation further, ISRO has been engaged in pursuing several bilateral relations with space agencies of an array of Gulf states, particularly with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Bahrain, to foster and strengthen existing relations, explore new scientific and technological challenges, and exploit and utilize outer Space for peaceful purposes.

India-Gulf bilateral Space partnerships

The Gulf States of West Asia, particularly the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Bahrain have only recently started advancing their foray into space technology.

In this regard, the U.A.E. has emerged as a pioneer in helming the reins of space cooperation in the region, particularly with the launch of the Arab Space Cooperation Group in 2019, the launching of the DubaiSat 1 and 2, and the much-hyped KhalifaSat in October 2018 (U.A.E.’s first home-grown advanced remote sensing observation satellite); the development of the Emirates Mars Mission and the Mars Hope Probe which successfully reached Mars orbit in February 2021; launching of the U.A.E. Astronaut Programme through which the first Emirati astronaut, Hazzaa AlMansoori reached the International Space Station on 25th September 2019; development of the Mars 2117 mission to build a human colony on Mars; and launching of NAYIF-1, the country’s first nano-satellite aimed at creating a sustainable space science knowledge transfer programme for developing space technology industry skills of the country’s engineering students.

India and the United Arab Emirates have enjoyed longstanding ties in culture, religion, trade, economy, and people-to-people contact since ancient times. However, it was not until the historic visit of Indian PM Narendra Modi to U.A.E. in August 2015 and the follow-up visit of H.H. Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi to India in February 2016 that India-UAE bilateral ties reached a new zenith, with focus now shifting towards formerly unexplored relationship of cooperation in outer space exploration and utilization for peaceful purposes, along with joint development and launch of satellites, ground-based infrastructure as well as space application. These commitments were followed up with a MoU signed between ISRO and UAESA (U.A.E. Space Agency) aimed at establishing a Joint Working Group between the two space agencies which will coordinate peaceful space exploration as well as study of Mars as U.A.E. has specifically sought India’s help for this inter-planetary expedition chiefly due to ISRO’s successful Mars Orbiter Mission.

In the 2020 Dubai Expo, ISRO’s scientific secretary R. Umamaheshwaran outlined the areas in which India’s premier space agency could further cooperate with its U.A.E. counterpart, such as collaboration in earth stations, exchanging of remote sensing data, future prospects of performing joint experiment for collecting aerosol data in the upper atmosphere as well as exchanging data regarding climate change and farming, calling for UAE-based Indian companies to invest in India’s space programme, allow technology transfer through the commercial arm of ISRO called New Space India Limited, promoting educational outreach programmes like UNNATI, exploring ISRO’s very popular low cost launch capabilities for launching small satellites from the U.A.E., and the launching of U.A.E.’s NAYIF-1 nano-satellite by ISRO as part of its simultaneous launch of 104 satellites into Space. Thus, India’s prospects for cooperation with U.A.E.’s Space Programme are boundless and infinite.

Saudi Arabia has been investing heavily in its space sector, and the Kingdom is planning to invest around $2.1 billion into its space programme as part of its Vision 2030 reform agenda. The country also recently launched its first domestic communication satellite, namely SGS-1, and has also undertaken several other programmes, such as the Ajyal Space Programme, catered towards creating a knowledge-based economy, particularly in the science and technology sector, and the Orbital Sites Reservation Project through which the Saudi Space Commission aims to eliminate the country’s dependence on foreign orbital slots and minimizing expenditure foreign satellite operators.  

With countless other upcoming projects lined up, India’s bilateral agreement (MoU) signed between ISRO and KACST (King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) in 2010 regarding cooperation in the field of Space for peaceful purposes has become especially attractive. Through this agreement, India and Saudi Arabia have agreed to cooperate in several fields, such as Remote sensing, Space meteorology, Disaster Management, Satellite communication and navigation, exploration of Space, building capabilities in space technology, implementation of joint programmes and undertaking projects that serve mutual benefits, training and exchange of personnel and scientists, joint research programmes, conferences, symposia, exhibitions etc. As of 2021, India and Saudi Arabia have re-initiated their discussion on space cooperation and a Space Pact after years of lackluster relations between the two on the space front, with cooperation only limited to remote sensing and satellite navigation systems.  

Oman is one of India’s oldest strategic and trade partners in the Gulf region. It is also keenly interested in building its space programme, as can be witnessed by the establishment of the Department of Astronomical Affairs in the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs aimed at monitoring the Crescents of the moon, cosmic phenomena, running observatories, telescopes, preparing reports for astronomical migratory months etc., and establishment of the Oman Astronomical Society in 2004 as well as spearheading activities to attract the young population to take up astronomy and space science. Another impressive feat undertaken by the Omani government is the establishment of the Space Communication Technologies L.L.C. to build the nation’s satellite communication infrastructure and serve both the public and the private sector by coping with their immediate telecommunication needs.

Oman’s interest in collaborating with India’s space agency to develop its space programme is not new. The first time that Oman expressed keen interest in India’s space programme was in March 2011 when a four-member delegation from Oman’s Department of Communication visited ISRO and expressed their desire to collaborate with them. Oman conveyed its interest to collaborate with ISRO once again in May 2016 which was followed by both states signing a MoU during PM Modi’s historic visit to the Sultanate in 2018 to include cooperation in peaceful exploration of Space as one of their agendas and also help further develop Oman’s space programme. The MoU provides for cooperation in the use of the Indian satellite navigation system (NAVIC- a part of the IRNSS) by Oman, remote sensing of the earth, use of spacecraft, space exploration, sharing of expertise between scientists and space specialists of both the states, routine exchange of scientific data, organization of joint conferences, meetings, symposia as well as exploration and utilization of outer Space by governments, private sector and academic institutions. It is also projected that India-Oman joint space exploration can play a critical role in maritime domain awareness, monitoring pipelines, ports and refineries, as well as generating employment by building human capacity in the country’s space sector, thereby boosting Oman’s economy.

Bahrain established its National Space Science Agency (NSSA) in 2014 by a royal decree as part of the Bahrain 2030 Vision to induce technological and scientific development in the Kingdom. It aims at harnessing space technologies for national development, promoting space science applications, developing advanced space research programmes, capacity building and creating a new space sector. Some of its future projects include- establishing a lab for high-resolution, multi-spectral images and processing satellite data for research, observation and monitoring land, environment and agriculture; launching Bahrain’s first space mission; launching low-cost, educational nano-satellite projects with the aim of capacity building; launching L.E.O. satellites and establishing a ground station for tracking and operating satellites. However, unlike the rest of the Gulf states, Bahrain’s space programme is still at the cradle stage which has prompted the Kingdom to seek regional and international cooperation with various space agencies to turn their vision into reality. As part of this agenda, with the high-level visit of Indian PM Narendra Modi to Bahrain in 2019, the two states agreed to cooperate in areas of space technology, solar energy, and research, as well as sending Bahraini engineers to India for training in satellite technologies and manufacturing. Helping Bahrain build its space programme could be another feather in ISRO’s long line of achievements in the Gulf region.


Constraints and the way forward

One of the major constraints in the field of Space cooperation between India and the Gulf states involves the emergence of China as a significant economic and techno-player in West Asia, particularly in the context of the Space sectors of the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Based on its ‘Arab Policy Paper’ 2016 and the ‘Vision and Actions on jointly building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road’ of 2015, China has provided significant help to the West Asian powers in the form of satellite cooperation, allowing the two states to acquire three lunar images from China’s Chang’e-4 lunar probe, launching the KACST-manufactured aerial survey satellites SAT 5A and 5B from China’s Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre- all of which culminated in Saudi Arabia preferring China as its primary ‘technological development partner.’

Therefore, to keep its geopolitical interests alive in the Persian Gulf, India needs to take specific steps, such as more active participation with the Space agencies of the Gulf states, more focus on developing the space programme of the states which are still at the cradle stage like Bahrain, not allowing relations to go sluggish, more projects for technology transfers etc. At the end of the day, India will always need to be on its toes, considering the alternative is the risk of its Gulf allies falling into the orbit of other competitors.

Noiranjana Kashyap holds a Masters degree in Geopolitics and International Relations from Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Karnataka, India. Her research areas include foreign policy, asymmetric warfare, conflicts and techno-politics in the West Asia and North Africa region.

[Header image: India’s Mars Orbiter Mission spacecraft over Mars. Credit: Kevin Gill, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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