DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The United Arab Emirates, already home to the world's tallest tower, is now reaching for the stars. The energy-rich country on the eastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula announced plans Wednesday to establish a space program to send the first Arab spaceship to Mars in 2021.
The ruler of the UAE's emirate of Dubai, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, said the mission will prove the Arab world is still capable of delivering scientific contributions to humanity, despite the many conflicts across the Middle East.
"Our region is a region of civilization. Our destiny is, once again, to explore, to create, to build and to civilize," said Al Maktoum, who is also UAE's vice president, in a statement.
For years, the UAE has been pushing Arab League nations to create a pan-Arab space agency similar to the European Space Agency.
A UAE Cabinet statement said the unmanned space probe is also aimed at diversifying the country's economy and building up its local talent in the technology and aerospace fields.
The government did not say how much the program is expected to cost, but said the space agency would report to the Cabinet and be financially and administratively independent otherwise.
The UAE, which is comprised of seven emirates, says that its investments in space technologies already exceed 20 billion dirham, or roughly $5.4 billion. That includes investments in satellite data, mobile satellite communications and earth mapping and observation.
The Cabinet statement said the space technologies industry is estimated to be worth around $300 billion globally, and is increasingly important to the security of nations.
For hundreds of years up until the mid-13th century, Islamic advancements in science and technology experienced a golden age, but later fell behind. The ruler of the emirate of Abu Dhabi and UAE President Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nayhan said the Mars probe "represents the Islamic world's entry into the era of space exploration."
Several Muslim-majority nations such as Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey Indonesia, Pakistan and Iran already have space agencies or programs.
Iran sent a monkey into space for the second time last year, returning it safely to earth, and says it aims to send an astronaut into space.
There have also been several Muslim astronauts from around the world. Saudi-born Prince Sultan bin Salman Al-Saud became the first Muslim and Arab to travel to space in 1985.
Meanwhile, Egypt became the first Arab country to launch its own communications satellite in 1998, dramatically transforming the broadcasting landscape in the region.
The Dubai ruler said his country chose the epic challenge of reaching Mars because it inspires and motivates.
"The moment we stop taking on such challenges is the moment we stop moving forward," he said.