by Yasin YILDIRIM (Cankiri Karatekin University / Social Sciences University of Ankara)1
In autumn 2021, two significant powers of the Middle East, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), put an end to the intense political tension between them, which had been going on since 2010, There has been an intense tension between two powerful and prominent actors of the region, emerging from different and sharp stances on many issues. However, Turkish and Emirati governments decided to get their relations back on track with the president-level visits in Ankara on 24 November, 2021, and in Abu Dhabi on 14 February, this year.
This shift towards collaborative relations has given rise to many memorandums of understanding (MoU) signed between November 2021 and July 2022. Via these MoUs both parties endeavoured to nurture their existing relations and give them a momentum through a legal base.
Among all these legal documents, a specific one comes to the fore.
On 13 July 2022, an Emirati delegation led by three ministers came to Istanbul for a Turkish-Emirati investment workshop. During this workshop, a very critical and interesting MoU regarding cooperation in the fields of peaceful use of space, space science, space technologies and applications, was signed between the TUA (Turkish Space Agency) and the UAESA (United Arab Emirates Space Agency). With this MoU, two countries agreed to develop human resources, share knowledge and experience in the field of space research, technologies and applications. Moreover, carrying out joint R&D studies in the fields of suborbital flights, launch, rocket, imaging satellite systems was also decided. Space studies in the socio-economic fields, disaster management, and natural resource scanning were added to the MoU as other fields of cooperation. In the signing ceremony that was witnessed by the Turkish Minister of Industry and Technology, the Emirati Minister of Advanced Technology, the Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Trade, and the Emirati Minister of State for Public Education and Future Technology (who is also chairperson of the UAESA), both sides also put forward their intentions and future plans on collective space exploration and research activities.
The two things that make this MoU interesting are the recognition of outer space’s potential to directly affect bilateral diplomatic affairs on Earth, and the signatory countries’ technical, economic, and cultural proficiency to change the course of the NewSpace race and classical diplomatic affairs.
Turkey joined the space research race by establishing TUA in 2018 and is currently preparing for its first crewed mission. The UAE completed its very first Mars mission in 2020 and is preparing for new discoveries. Additionally, as these two countries are already shaping relations in the region with their strategic alliance, they also have a chance to directly affect the space race, and relations between other countries that are in the race such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, China and India. Both countries are likely to increase their prestige in the international arena, to become more active in the fields of science and research, and to assume a “practitioner” role rather than an “observer” in space exploration.
Furthermore, while it is possible to achieve both scientific and economic gains in the long and medium run, it is highly probable that the political effects of this cooperation will also be seen in the short term. Particularly, when the scientific, political economic and prestige-related outcomes of space race between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War era, are remembered, it is clearly understood that space-related relations are highly correlated to international relations. For instance, for almost five decades, almost every political step taken by the United Stated and the Soviet Union was reflected in the space race, and vice versa. During this process, the Western Bloc, and the Eastern Bloc countries cooperated on economic and technical levels, and transferred all necessary raw and produced materials, knowledge, funds and other required resources to accomplish their missions and to overcome the rival bloc. Such cooperation also led the countries of the bloc to become closer. The initiation of Interkosmos, a Soviet-led space program that aimed to help other Eastern Bloc countries such as Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Vietnam, to participate in the space race was one of the most concrete examples of the correlation between relations in space and politics on Earth. Finally, Russia’s decision to leave the International Space Station and the ban on the import of Russian-made technical devices as a result of the sanctions taken by the Western world in the process that started with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as of February 2022, also revealed that relations in outer space are not independent from those on Earth.
By considering all these facts, it is being understood that space relations and politics which can be called as astropolitics, a highly interesting branch of the geopolitics, are clearly and directly reflecting nations’ strategies and steps on Earth, vice versa. As astropolitics is not just related to scientific or academic processes, but also very well related to realpolitik; all acts, steps, strategies and collaborations of countries should be measured as a whole.
Consequently, the intense work that the Ankara and Abu Dhabi governments have spent in the last 10 months to develop Turkish and Emirati relations has started to show results. Thanks to this process of cooperation, in a very short time, both countries have achieved significant gains, established new connections, and managed to reduce tensions between them.
As a matter of fact, this space-related MoU, or other legal documents regarding various fields of business are not final solutions to problems between Turkey and the UAE nor they will not create an eternal prosperity for two nations. However, they carry a remarkable potential to help both governments to overcome difficulties of current worldwide financial recession, to minimise continuing social, political, and economic outcomes of the global pandemic and most importantly to set a powerful alliance against geopolitical and geoeconomic fluctuations and imbalances of Middle East. The reality is both Turkey and the UAE act with a realistic and rational point of view rather than ideological motives, and both the space-related MoU and others present a convenient base for Ankara and Abu Dhabi to apprehend this rationality.
Additionally, some experts stress that Turkey is experiencing a political shift from Europe to the Middle East. Nevertheless, this current space-related collaboration process should not be seen as a reflection of this shift but have to be assessed as a realistic and strategic move. Because, TUA is already a member of many space-related international organizations, such as Paris-based COSPAR (Committee on Space Research), United Nations-controlled the COPUOS (Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space), and EURISY, a non-profit association of European space agencies, and governmental offices. Besides TUA entered into strategic cooperation with many countries and their national space agencies such as Ukrainian DKAU, Hungarian MŰI, and Kazakh KazCosmos
Furthermore, the UAESA has been in international cooperation and collaboration processes since its foundation, as well. Besides TUA; German DLR, United Kingdom Space Agency, Japanese JAXA, and Italian ASI are amongst other international partners of the UAE. The Abu Dhabi government is conducting almost same political and scientific strategies by cooperating these countries, just like in the Turkish example.
To make this long story short, space, which humanity has been trying to explore for thousands of years, emerges as a suitable field for international political cooperation. Astropolitics, in this sense, will continue to make its weight felt today and, in the future, as it did in yesterday. For Turkey and the UAE which both have made extraordinary successes in science, aviation and technology over the last few decades, working together in space and create a new alliance over astropolitics will provide them with extraordinary opportunities in political, economic and scientific terms, and unlock new ways to work together.
1 Yasin YILDIRIM is a lecturer at the Cankiri Karatekin University (CAKU) in the Kursunlu Vocational School of Justice and a doctoral candidate at the Social Sciences University of Ankara (ASBU) in the Middle East Studies programme.