If the Emirates' Mars Mission had wanted to cap its success this week in getting the Amal space probe into orbit around Mars with a quote equal parts dramatic and honest, it would have echoed Neil Armstrong by proclaiming, “One small step for mankind, one giant leap for Emirati PR.”
Let’s give the United Arab Emirates credit where credit is due. Sending a probe to Mars and getting into orbit is a remarkable scientific and engineering achievement, that only a handful of countries have done, including coincidentally China too this week. Amal’s task of mapping Mars’ atmosphere is a legitimate scientific enterprise.
But the mission is less about a Mars orbit than it is about UAE spin.
Like much else that the Emirates does, especially its most glittering member, Dubai, it is about creating an image in the hope that appearance will eventually translate into reality. Build the planet’s biggest mall and tourist shoppers will come. Label a hotel a seven-star property and you will become the byword in over-the-top luxury. Establish branches of the Louvre and the Guggenheim and you will come to be recognized as a center of art and culture. Send a mission to Mars and you are on your way to becoming a scientific powerhouse.
Creating that image is more important than the science and engineering. Thus, plans are afoot to build a Mars Science City outside Dubai, which will be devoted to research and education, as well as entertainment. To enhance its space credentials, Hazza Al Mansouri became the UAE’s first astronaut, serving on the International Space Station in 2019.
The latest marketing drive includes the semi-official story of the mission fed to the media. It follows the usual Emirati storyline of a benevolent and far-sighted ruler (in this instance, Dubai’s ruler, Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum) ordering up a space mission and, presto, six years a plucky and determined team of young scientists and engineers, launches an interplanetary probe.
Of course, this was done with a little help from their friends, a team of seasoned NASA scientists and engineers, most from the University of Colorado. Who was responsible for how much of Amal is anybody’s guess, but considering that six years ago there was almost no one in the UAE qualified to engineer a probe and plan a mission, I suspect the balance is weighted toward the friends.
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Like the rest of the Arab world, the UAE suffers a severe science deficit, even though it is certainly wealthy enough to generously support the endeavor. It has lots of institutes of higher education, but their mission is to turn out graduates, not conduct research. Very few of those grads go on to doctorates and even fewer use their PhDs to pursue a research career. In the Nature Index of World Scientific Organizations, the UAE ranks 49 out of 50, edging out Vietnam. In physics, it’s even lower.
Unlike the rest of the Arab world (which a few exceptions, like Saudi Arabia), the UAE is at least it’s trying to do something about the problem. The Mars mission is about PR, but at least it’s PR in the service of a good cause. The Emiratis want to build a high-tech economy and that will be very hard to do without home-grown research and development backed by a critical mass of scientists.
As Omran Sharaf, the mission’s project manager, told Nature last July when Amal was lifted into space, the Mars mission is a self-consciously mega project aimed at causing “a big shift in the mindset.” The driver “is not space, it’s economic.”
There may have been cheaper, more practical ways to encourage a new generation of scientists, but that’s not the way the UAE does things. Dubai could have built an ordinary skyscraper, but it spent $217 million to build the world’s tallest, the Burj al-Khalifa. The Mars mission reportedly cost $200 million, but unlike other showcase projects, the PR value was in boasting how little was spent, lest critics don’t the Emiratis of buying their way into space. It may have cost more than $200 million, but from the UAE’s perspective, it’s money well spent.
That doesn’t mean that the UAE can buy its way into science by funding research institutes, doctoral programs and interplanetary exploration. The Saudis have been at this game for some time and the results aren’t very encouraging, even though they have a much larger pool of human capital to draw on. The kingdom still relies on foreign talent and smoke and mirrors to shore up its image as an emerging scientific power.
Modern science is about money, often lots of it, but it also requires a culture that values inquiry, a free exchange of ideas and a readiness to dispense with old ones that don’t stand up to scrutiny. Israel’s scientific prowess, for one, wasn’t the fruit of generous funding and thrives to this day without it.
Just like it is hoping a Mars mission will somehow spur a scientific renaissance, the UAE is hoping ties with Israel will do the same. But it will take a lot more than that marketing and normalization.