The Emirates Mars Mission: Hope for the New Knowledge-Economy

“Space is the gateway to science and science is the driver to future economy[i]“.

These were the words of the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) Vice President and ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum just before the Hope orbital satellite launched in the morning of July 2020[ii] from Tanegashima Space Centre, Japan.[iii] Also known as the Emirates Mars Mission, the unmanned space probe is set to reach the planet by February 2021.[iv] This is a historical event. The Hope satellite is the first-ever Arab space mission to the red planet.[v] The United Arab Emirates will now join the US, Russia, Europe and India among a select few who have been able to launch a space vessel to Mars.[vi]

The mission aims to provide new insights into Mars’ atmosphere. It is fitted with specialist instruments designed to measure the composition of gases like hydrogen, oxygen and carbon monoxide. Also, most spacecraft orbiting the red planet only monitor it during certain times of the day. On the other hand, the Hope satellite can collect data at any point in time, rather than at fixed intervals. This can help provide a broader understanding of shifts in the planet’s atmosphere and prove to be integral in identifying weather events and patterns.[vii]

The Hope satellite was launched by the government-run UAE Space Agency.[viii] Established just recently, in 2014, the agency had four main objectives from its inception:

  1. “To organize and develop the UAE Space Sector
  2. To promote and support the efforts of scientific research and innovation
  3. To attract and prepare national cadre to become pioneers in the field of space sciences
  4. To focus on ensuring that all the Agency’s services are in accordance with worldwide quality, efficiency, and transparency standards”[ix]

As such, this launch and the UAE Space Agency are part of a wider government effort to shift the UAE’s economy and industry from dependence on oil to a more knowledge-based economy centred around the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields.[x]

The UAE government’s interest in STEM can be attributed to the fact that the UAE’s hydrocarbon-dependent economy is ultimately unsustainable. Fossil fuels are projected to be depleted in the coming decades.[xi] Since 1971, the main source of income for the UAE government has come from oil and gas.[xii] In fact, the two fossil fuels account directly for 30% of the country’s GDP.[xiii] The unreliability of these resources is further proven by the marked decrease of oil prices during the past decade, and most recently, the plummet in demand caused by the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting international business operations.[xiv] This means that diversification is unavoidable in order to guarantee economic prosperity in the long-term. The new model is very similar to many countries in the developed world and cannot succeed without investment in education.[xv] More specifically, STEM subjects – which space falls under – are central to fulfilling this goal of a knowledge-based economy.[xvi]

The STEM Fields in Primary and Secondary Education

One of the first serious steps in the shift to a knowledge-based economy was the announcement of Vision 2021 in 2010 by Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, leader of Dubai.[xvii] Two of the six priorities presented focused on a world-class “competitive, knowledge economy” and “first-rate education system”.[xviii] Therefore, it was correctly recognized that an achievement of a knowledge-based economy was not possible without major reform of the country’s education and workforce system.

Vision 2021 was bolstered in 2017, when the Ministry of Education implemented its National Strategy for Higher Education 2030.[xix] This focused on strengthening ties between higher education and the labour market as well as improving syllabuses, with the aim for a truly competitive, knowledge-based economy. The government aimed to allocate a significant portion of its budget, 10.2 billion UAE Dirhams ($2.8 billion), to invest in education between 2017 and 2021.[xx]

However, money cannot improve the education system alone. Student performance in STEM subjects has been too insufficient to allow them to compete with their peers in the rest of the developed world.[xxi] This has left a clear mismatch between the goal for a knowledge-based society and the reality of the education system. In addition to technical skills, primary and secondary education do not emphasise soft skills like critical and creative thinking, which are essential to an innovative, science-centred workplace. Major foreign corporations operating in the UAE have frequently voiced their concern regarding this.[xxii] The UAE depends primarily on highly-skilled expatriates in their burgeoning knowledge economy. The gap in skills means that more investment is required to build a self-sustaining, home-grown workforce in these fields.

Low attainment means that students are not confident in applying to higher education and jobs related to STEM. In 2017, the Federal Competitiveness and Statistics Authority found that only 32% of students in public universities and 14% in private universities enrolled in engineering and IT-related subjects. More than half of university students study social sciences, which tend to have less technical requirements.[xxiii]

This lack of willingness by students to undertake STEM subjects is made even worse by the fact that many lack proficiency in the English language. As the primary language of instruction for most university degrees, proficiency in English is essential to entry into STEM-related programmes. The primary tests taken for programmes is the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). However, many students are only instructed in the Arabic language at school, which increases the likelihood of failing IELTS, limiting their access to the STEM fields especially. However, the Ministry of Education has attempted to bridge this using a foundation year which allows them to gain the necessary skills  – including language – to enter higher education.[xxiv]

Yet it would be much more efficient and effective to increase the teaching of the English language and soft skills as well as encourage the interest in STEM subjects from early on: the key primary and secondary years. The foundation year is only attractive to those with interest in STEM subjects in the first place and takes about one-third of the higher education budget.[xxv] The next section will aim to delve deeper into the implications of current higher education’s structure for the future of the economy.

Tertiary Education and the Knowledge Economy

The UAE has several higher education institutions which classify themselves as research universities, including the UAE University and Zayed University. However, the most prestigious of these is the University of Sharjah, located in the Sharjah Emirate, the cultural centre of the UAE. The student body is one of the largest with 16,000 pupils. The university offers a number of degrees in the STEM subjects, including a Bachelor’s in Applied Physics and Astronomy.[xxvi]

The Sharjah Centre for Astronomy and Space Sciences (SCASS), also located in Sharjah, was established in 2015 to bolster the study of astronomy and space sciences. The SCASS has 5 different research centres and a specialized laboratory. The leader of the Sharjah, Dr. Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi (who is also President of the University of Sharjah), aims for both institutions to become cornerstones in the UAE Space Agency’s future missions. For instance, the SCASS is working on technology which monitors the effects of solar winds on Earth’s atmosphere. This could pave the way for the launching of new satellites to monitor the weather and help with navigation.[xxvii]

All these institutions and their strategies are a step in the right direction. However, in order to successfully achieve a truly knowledge-based economy, these efforts need to go further. Three main obstacles to this can be identified in the UAE’s higher education system.[xxviii]

The first is a lack of national funding. Only the UAE University, University of Sharjah and Zayed University receive any funding from the government, but this is still relatively small. With little national funding, teaching schedules are packed so there is less money or time invested in research or the creation of world-class courses. This has meant that even these top institutions by UAE standards cannot compete on an international level in terms of both research and teaching quality.[xxix]

The second obstacle is strongly interlinked with the first. While there are a few national institutions, more than 90% of UAE universities are private. Therefore, university education is, in essence, a business whose main goal is profit. When students perform poorly, the institutions, which want to continue to attract as many fee-paying customers as possible, are very lenient with them and give them degrees. This leaves little incentive for high attainment. As such, the UAE’s private universities have had consistently high graduation rates and low academic performance.[xxx] This is a far cry from the dream of the UAE’s leaders for an internationally competitive, domestically-produced workforce.

The third problem is related to the job market, which largely does not provide much economic incentive to make STEM fields attractive for nationals.[xxxi] As mentioned before, the UAE depends mostly on expatriates for its labour needs. This is true for both low-skill and high-skill jobs in knowledge-based sectors.  Meanwhile, nationals have a traditionally high unemployment rate partially due to lack of skills.[xxxii] More importantly, the native birth rate has skyrocketed during the past 30 years. This means that there will be a significantly higher number of nationals expected to enter the workforce in the 2010s and 2020s compared to earlier generations. It is estimated that between 2015 to 2025, 200,000 young Emiratis will begin their careers. Unstable oil prices in the short-term and the aforementioned depletion of fossil fuels means that the only sustainable way to sufficiently employ the native workforce and address future economic realities is to centre the workforce around nationals, with expatriates playing a supporting role.[xxxiii] The UAE government has rightly taken steps to address this through what it calls Emiratization.[xxxiv] This has involved the recent increase in the proportion of nationals in the workforce.

Yet most of these nationals work in government, military and police jobs rather than in STEM-related roles.[xxxv] These jobs are very attractive to nationals. They have high salaries, are very abundant and don’t even require degrees, which are often expensive. Also, the government can afford to subsidise these jobs in the short-term with the help of high revenues from hydrocarbons. But in the long-term, this model is doomed to fail as revenues plunge. How does one expect a shift in the workforce anytime soon? The clear mismatch between the higher education system and the aims of the labour market is further supported by a youth survey taken in 2017- only 22% of UAE students agree that their education prepares them well for their future career.[xxxvi]

Gender, Education and the Workforce

Another important mismatch in the UAE’s education and labour systems is regarding gender. In terms of education, there is a reverse gender gap where females achieve significantly higher results than males.[xxxvii] For instance, females accounted for 62% of university graduates in the academic year 2011-2012. For publicly funded institutions, which are higher performing, the gap tends to be even wider.[xxxviii] In contrast, the workforce is dominated by males who comprised 75% of the workforce in 2016. This means that males, who tend to be less qualified in STEM roles, dominate the workforce. Yet recent studies show that males are beginning to close the gap on females in academic achievement in STEM.[xxxix]

These imbalances can be primarily explained by social constructs. Males are given more independence by their families so are less expected to achieve academically. On the other hand, females are expected to achieve highly and to be more responsible since they have many home commitments. Yet in the workforce, males are more expected to be the breadwinners, so they value employment over education.[xl]

However, during the past 10 years, the UAE has shown rapid and positive shifts to address these inequalities. The Emirates’ leaders have wisely acknowledged that unlocking the potential of its national female population is essential to its aims of achieving a more diversified economy.[xli] 2015 saw the establishment of a UAE Gender Balance Council which aims to push female inclusion to the centre-stage of the policy agenda. There have also been a number of STEM-oriented competitions hosted in the UAE. One competition run by the UAE Space Agency saw a 15-year old Emirati girl win, and launch her project to the International Space Station (ISS) in August 2017.[xlii]

But perhaps the most consequential step the government took was the appointment of Shamma Al Marzui as the Minister of Youth in 2016. This move was historical. She became the first-ever female UAE minister and the youngest in the world at the time, at 22 years of age. The selection process was unusual since it was based primarily on academic excellence. Through this, the UAE government showed a genuine commitment to an inclusive, knowledge-based economy. The young minister proved her competence by introducing youth circles. These allowed UAE youths to have multidisciplinary discussions on international issues, increasing their interest in STEM subjects.[xliii]

These trends can even be seen in the Emirates Mars Mission (EMM). The leadership team is 30% female, and the EMM Deputy Project Manager and Science Lead is a female engineer. This is an improvement from the 25% of females who comprised the overall workforce in 2016.[xliv] Therefore, increasing female leadership in important positions can act as visible role models for the next generation of leaders. This can help to achieve even further equality in the workforce in future.

Conclusion

In sum, the UAE government has made positive efforts to transform its economy and many of its initiatives have shown visionary leadership. However, it is clear that more needs to be done. In order for this strategy to be successful, it requires the UAE to become more competitive internationally in the STEM fields.[xlv] In the World Bank’s Knowledge Economy Index (KEI) which assesses a number of variables to see how a country can compete internationally as a knowledge-based economy, the UAE was ranked 42nd place out of 145 countries surveyed in 2016.[xlvi]

As highlighted before, the structures of the education sector and workforce are one of the key reasons why students and graduates do not focus on STEM subjects. In order for Emiratization to truly occur, there need to be money incentives to make jobs in STEM fields attractive. This needs to be accompanied by mentoring from world-class talent both domestically and internationally to further reform primary, secondary and higher education systems so they can be internationally competitive, to help provide the necessary skills in the job market.[xlvii]

Nonetheless, the launch of the Hope satellite is a landmark moment for the UAE and for the rest of the Middle East. High-profile projects like this have historically encouraged nations to become more interested in science and technology. The Hope Satellite has already allowed Emirati space companies to become more experienced in manufacturing. The UAE clean room where Hope was tested is expected to be used for future university projects. The University of Sharjah has seen its physics and astronomy cohort double since the launch. Also, the mission has allowed for multidisciplinary collaborations between Emirati universities and renowned space institutions, such as NASA. This has allowed Emiratis to learn from those at the highest level and are expected to work on more projects in the future.[xlviii] The UAE is already planning to launch its first rover, Rashid, to the moon by 2024.[xlix]

If the UAE, along with the wider oil and gas-dependent parts of the Middle East, are to ensure their future prosperity, it is necessary that they continue to push for economic diversification centred around a knowledge-based economy. Fossil fuels run out eventually. Knowledge does not.


[i] HH Sheikh Mohammed, [website], https://twitter.com/HHShkMohd?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1284501541731401729%7Ctwgr%5Eshare_3&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.khaleejtimes.com%2Fhope-misson-to-mars%2Ftop-10-most-inspiring-quotes-from-sheikh-mohammed-ahead-of-the-big-lift-off, accessed 25th October 2020.

[ii] S. El-Showk, ‘UAE probe aims for Mars – and payoffs on Earth’, Science Mag, [website], 10th July 2020, Vol. 369, No. 6500, https://science.sciencemag.org/content/369/6500/127.summary?casa_token=QBvWP6l93qYAAAAA:WmykCywiCr2tZr4QvmgzUPaTEvCTqXj_bkwLL4V_d3qirpLp6Uez9wQQfp_AN7BPsG0kKFAa1611Fg, accessed 26th October 2020.

[iii] A. Tesorero, ‘UAE’s Hope Probe is almost half way near Mars’, Gulf News, [website], 7th October 2020, https://gulfnews.com/uae/science/uaes-hope-probe-is-almost-half-way-near-mars-1.74404049, accessed 29th October 2020.

[iv] S. El-Showk, ‘UAE probe aims for Mars – and payoffs on Earth’, Science Mag, [website], 10th July 2020, Vol. 369, No. 6500, https://science.sciencemag.org/content/369/6500/127.summary?casa_token=QBvWP6l93qYAAAAA:WmykCywiCr2tZr4QvmgzUPaTEvCTqXj_bkwLL4V_d3qirpLp6Uez9wQQfp_AN7BPsG0kKFAa1611Fg, accessed 26th October 2020.

[v] A. Tesorero, ‘UAE’s Hope Probe is almost half way near Mars’, Gulf News, [website], 7th October 2020, https://gulfnews.com/uae/science/uaes-hope-probe-is-almost-half-way-near-mars-1.74404049, accessed 29th October 2020.

[vi] S. El-Showk, ‘UAE probe aims for Mars – and payoffs on Earth’, Science Mag, [website], 10th July 2020, Vol. 369, No. 6500, https://science.sciencemag.org/content/369/6500/127.summary?casa_token=QBvWP6l93qYAAAAA:WmykCywiCr2tZr4QvmgzUPaTEvCTqXj_bkwLL4V_d3qirpLp6Uez9wQQfp_AN7BPsG0kKFAa1611Fg, accessed 26th October 2020.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] I.M. Fernini, ‘Sharjah Investment in the UAE Space Sector’, Journal of Physics: Conference Series, Vol. 1269, No. 1, 2019.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] I.M. Fernini, et al., ’The UAE Meteor Monitoring Network’, Journal of Instrumentation Vol. 15, No. 6, 2020.

[xi] I.M. Fernini, ‘Sharjah Investment in the UAE Space Sector’, Journal of Physics: Conference Series, Vol. 1269, No. 1, 2019.

[xii] S. Ashour, ‘Quality higher education is the foundation of a knowledge society: where does the UAE stand?’, Quality in Higher Education, 2020.

[xiii] Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, UAE facts and figures, [website]: https://www.opec.org/opec_web/en/about_us/170.htm, accessed 25th October 2020.

[xiv] Emirates Policy Center, Assessments of Future Oil Markets and Current Investments in the Oil and Gas Sectors, [website], 10th May 2020, https://epc.ae/topic/assessments-of-future-oil-markets-and-current-investments-in-the-oil-and-gas-sectors.

[xv] S. Ashour, ‘Quality higher education is the foundation of a knowledge society: where does the UAE stand?’, Quality in Higher Education, 2020.

[xvi] I.M. Fernini, et al., ’The UAE Meteor Monitoring Network’, Journal of Instrumentation Vol. 15, No. 6, 2020.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Vision 2021: United Arab Emirates, United Vision, [website]:https://www.vision2021.ae/en/uae-vision, accessed 29th October 2020.

[xix] S. Ashour, ‘Quality higher education is the foundation of a knowledge society: where does the UAE stand?’, Quality in Higher Education, 2020, pp.1-15.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] I.M. Fernini, ‘Sharjah Investment in the UAE Space Sector’, Journal of Physics: Conference Series, Vol. 1269, No. 1, 2019.

[xxvii] Ibid.

[xxviii] S. Ashour, ‘Quality higher education is the foundation of a knowledge society: where does the UAE stand?’, Quality in Higher Education, 2020, pp.1-15.

[xxix] Ibid.

[xxx] Ibid.

[xxxi] Ibid.

[xxxii] S.M. Hazem, ‘Economic diversification by boosting non-oil exports (case of UAE),’ J. Eco. Bus. Manage (JOEBM), Vol. 3.7, 2015, pp.735-738.

[xxxiii] S. Ashour, ‘Quality higher education is the foundation of a knowledge society: where does the UAE stand?’, Quality in Higher Education, 2020, pp.1-15.

[xxxiv] S.M. Hazem, ‘Economic diversification by boosting non-oil exports (case of UAE),’ J. Eco. Bus. Manage (JOEBM), Vol. 3.7, 2015, pp.735-738.

[xxxv] S. Ashour, ‘Quality higher education is the foundation of a knowledge society: where does the UAE stand?’, Quality in Higher Education, 2020, pp.1-15.

[xxxvi] I.M. Fernini, et al., ’The UAE Meteor Monitoring Network’, Journal of Instrumentation Vol. 15, No. 6, 2020.

[xxxvii] S. Ashour, ‘Quality higher education is the foundation of a knowledge society: where does the UAE stand?’, Quality in Higher Education, 2020, pp.1-15.

[xxxviii] I.M. Fernini, et al., ’The UAE Meteor Monitoring Network’, Journal of Instrumentation Vol. 15, No. 6, 2020.

[xxxix] S. Ashour, ‘Quality higher education is the foundation of a knowledge society: where does the UAE stand?’, Quality in Higher Education, 2020, pp.1-15.

[xl] Ibid.

[xli] I.M. Fernini, et al., ’The UAE Meteor Monitoring Network’, Journal of Instrumentation Vol. 15, No. 6, 2020.

[xlii] Ibid.

[xliii] Ibid.

[xliv] Ibid.

[xlv] Ibid.

[xlvi] Knoema, Knowledge-Economy Index, 8th April, 2016 [website], https://knoema.com/aomssce/knowledge-economy-index?location=United%20Arab%20Emirates&indicator=Knowledge%20Economy%20Index, accessed 27th October 2020.

[xlvii] S. Ashour, ‘Quality higher education is the foundation of a knowledge society: where does the UAE stand?’, Quality in Higher Education, 2020, pp.1-15.

[xlviii] S. El-Showk, ‘UAE probe aims for Mars – and payoffs on Earth’, Science Mag, [website], 10th July 2020, Vol. 369, No. 6500, https://science.sciencemag.org/content/369/6500/127.summary?casa_token=QBvWP6l93qYAAAAA:WmykCywiCr2tZr4QvmgzUPaTEvCTqXj_bkwLL4V_d3qirpLp6Uez9wQQfp_AN7BPsG0kKFAa1611Fg, accessed 26th October 2020.

[xlix] United Arab Emirates, Space Science and Technology, 11th October, 2020 [website],https://u.ae/en/about-the-uae/science-and-technology/key-sectors-in-science-and-technology/space-science-and-technology, accessed 28th October 2020.

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