Space law has long been something of an international free-for-all but that could be about to change, as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is hosting the first ever Abu Dhabi Space Debate on 5-6 December 2022.


The two-day event will gather space experts, policy makers and industry representatives from around the world and bring them together to discuss the biggest challenges to ensure space is used fairly and for the good of all humanity.

We spoke to H. E. Sarah Al-Amiri is the Chairwoman of the UAE Space Agency, and the nation’s Minister for State for Advanced Technology ahead of the event to find out what was in store.

Want to find out more about the UAE's space plans? Listen to our podcast with the UAE's first female astronaut Nora Al Matrooshi, or read about the UAE Mars probe, Hope.

What is the Abu Dhabi Space Debate?

There's been a large expansion over the course of the last decade and a half with regards to the number of players in the space sector. The private sector has a different role than it's ever had before. It used to always be a contractor of a space agency or the military. Now we’ve seen a wide expansion of new entrants tapping into the space industry, expanding into commercial space and creating demand. And now we see private space playing a part in exploration too.

NASA astronauts Robert Behnken, left, and Douglas Hurley, inside the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft onboard the SpaceX GO Navigator recovery ship shortly after their splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico, 2 August 2020. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.
Private spaceflight companies such as SpaceX and Boeing are playing an increasingly important role in exploring the cosmos. NASA astronauts Robert Behnken, left, and Douglas Hurley, inside the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

With all these different elements, we now have a completely different landscape of the space sector than we ever did before. Space is getting more congested. International law was set when there were very few players in the sector. At the same time, we need to ensure that emerging space nations continue to have access to space because our lives are getting more and more dependent on some form of space data.

Everyone – heads of states, international organisations, commercial companies, existing space nations, emerging space nations – all have a say in how the space sector evolves. But we don't have a single forum around the world where all these different influencers of the space sector have a mechanism to communicate, address questions, identify what the gaps are and start coming up with viable solutions to move forward with them. A place to be pragmatic and proactive about it and not speaking in silos.

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That's where the idea of the Abu Dhabi Space Debate came from. Even prior to the debate itself, we all agreed that we need this sort of setup, so there’s general excitement with regards to outcomes. We’re all going to be in the same place discussing the same topics, rather than either having space as a session of many sessions in normal geopolitical or economic forums, or having space folks only discussing space matters amongst ourselves.

Space junk is the name given to spent satellites and other debris in orbit around Earth. Credit: janiecbros / Getty Images
Space junk is the name given to spent satellites and other debris in orbit around Earth. Credit: janiecbros / Getty Images

What topics are being discussed at the Abu Dhabi Space Debate?

There are four key areas that needs to be addressed.

Sustainability of space, both in how to use space for the sustainability of Earth and how do you sustain access to space.

We’ll also look at current policies – including the governance of space globally.

Then there’s the role of emerging space nations, ensuring that is a continuous and positive role.

Finally, there’s the role of the private space sector.

We already know what areas need to be addressed. Each one of these questions in interlinked – they’re not stand alone questions. If we don’t address all of them together we’re going to have a problem 10 years from now.

Greta Thunberg takes to the stage, Rome, Italy, 19 Apr 2019. Credit: insidefoto srl/Alamy Live News
Greta Thunberg takes to the stage, Rome, Italy, 19 Apr 2019. Space data is critical to helping tackle the Climate Crisis. Credit: insidefoto srl/Alamy Live News

What are the key points you hope attendees take away with them from the Abu Dhabi Space Debate?

A call for action that warrants a proactive action to actually be taken, to continue discussion throughout the year between each session of the space debate and a mechanism to ensure that dialogue is fulfilled.

Step one is knowing what questions to ask, and that's what the debate will be able to pose. Understanding the different perspectives that exists as responses to those questions and then moving towards actually putting together something that's pragmatic and has the necessary guiding principles that allow us to move forward with this.

It’s not for the sake of just having a discussion, but rather for the sake of better informing all the stakeholders that are present at the event and being able to then drive international governance programmes forward based on that.

Why important to the UAE to be involved?

International relations continues to be the mechanism and the means by which the UAE fosters relationships, ensures that there's economic growth and provides access to markets.

And something that we strongly believe, especially in this day and age, is to move away from polarisation to have an understanding that there's differences around the world and to ensure that dialogue continues to be a means of understanding how to move forward, rather than allowing for point of contentions to foster silently until it explodes. We don't want that to happen for the space sector.


The 2022 Abu Dhabi Space Debate will take place from 5 to 6 December 2022.


Elizabeth Pearson
Ezzy PearsonScience journalist

Ezzy Pearson is the Features Editor of BBC Sky at Night Magazine. Her first book about the history of robotic planetary landers is out now from The History Press.