Saudi Arabia's Moon Ambitions
The Kingdom's space programme is large and ambitious and has serious lunar plans
On Thursday, 5 January 2023, an official notification from the Secretary General of the United Nations was released announcing that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is exercising its right to withdraw from the 1979 Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, also known as the Moon Treaty or the Moon Agreement. The Saudi withdrawal officially takes place on 5 January 2024.
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Background and Context
Saudi Arabia’s accession to the Moon Treaty is relatively short, having only signed the treaty on 18 July 2012, and is one of only 11 states* to have ever signed up to the troubled agreement. The Moon Treaty has never been able to garner consensus support within the international community and while there are several small and medium-sized space powers among the signatories (Australia, Kazakhstan, Mexico, The Netherlands, Romania, and Türkiye) only two major space powers have signed it - France and India. Among these states Australia, France, India, Türkiye, and Saudi Arabia have current or yet-to-be announced lunar programs.
Australia, for example, is developing a lunar rover with the U.S. space agency NASA. France is in talks with the United States to have French astronauts on future Artemis lunar missions to the moon’s surface as well as on board the Gateway lunar space station (of course, France is the leading member-state of the European Space Agency that is NASA’s largest international partners in the Artemis program). India has sent the Chandrayaan-1 lunar probe and attempted to send the Chandrayaan-2 lunar lander that unfortunately failed, and is expected to launch the Chandrayaan-3 lunar lander later in 2023. Mexico’s Colmena lunar mission, involving five small robots that will be catapulted on to the moon’s surface, will launch later this year on board Astrobotic’s Peregrine Lander. Türkiye is developing its own lunar lander that it hopes to send to the moon’s surface by 2030.
Additionally, and germane to the Moon Treaty’s future, Australia, France, Mexico, Romania and Saudi Arabia are also signatories to the Artemis Accords. This matters because it is commonly understood that the Artemis Accords are at odds with the Moon Treaty, especially on the issue of future commercial exploitation of resources on the moon (and other celestial bodies such as on other planets, their moons, asteroids, and comets).
The Moon Treaty Versus The Artemis Accords: It’s All About Business
The issue at stake between the Moon Treaty and the Artemis Accords are the clauses regarding the ability of private companies to carry out commercial resource extraction and exploitation on the moon and the rest of the Solar System.
In particular, Articles 4 and 11 of the Moon Treaty are problematic for those countries who subscribe to the Artemis Accords. Article 4, Paragraph 1, of the Moon Treaty states:
The exploration and use of the moon shall be the province of all mankind and shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development. Due regard shall be paid to the interests of present and future generations as well as to the need to promote higher standards of living and conditions of economic and social progress and development in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.
The language of Article 4, Paragraph 1, implies that any future profit made from the extraction and exploitation of lunar and celestial resources must be shared with other states who have not contributed to such extraction and exploitation.
Paragraphs 1, 2, and 3, Article 11 of the Moon Treaty state:
The moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind, which finds its expression in the provisions of this Agreement and in particular in paragraph 5 of this article. (Paragraph 1
The moon is not subject to national appropriation by any claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means. (Paragraph 2)
Neither the surface nor the subsurface of the moon, nor any part thereof or natural resources in place, shall become property of any State, international intergovernmental or non-governmental organization, national organization or non-governmental entity or of any natural person. The placement of personnel, space vehicles, equipment, facilities, stations and installations on or below the surface of the moon, including structures connected with its surface or subsurface, shall not create a right of ownership over the surface or the subsurface of the moon or any areas thereof… (Paragraph 3)
Again, the reference to “the common heritage of mankind” (implying unearned profit sharing), the ban on appropriation in paragraph 2 along with the prohibition of a “non-governmental entity” in paragraph 3 both imply that companies cannot claim commercial ownership of any resource they extract or exploit on the moon or elsewhere in space, and are all at odds with any intent to commercially mine in space.
Paragraphs 5 and 7 in Article 11 of the Moon Treaty state:
States Parties to this Agreement hereby undertake to establish an international régime, including appropriate procedures, to govern the exploitation of the natural resources of the moon as such exploitation is about to become feasible… (Paragraph 5)
The main purposes of the intemational régime to be established shall include:
(a) The orderly and safe development of the natural resources of the moon;
b) The rational management of those resources;
(c) The expansion of opportunities in the use of those resources;
(d) An equitable sharing by all States Parties in the benefits derived from those resources, whereby the interests and needs of the developing countries, as well as the efforts of those countries which have contributed either directly or indirectly to the exploration of the moon, shall be given special consideration… (Paragraph 7)
Here paragraph 5 implies that an international regime includes states that have no ‘skin in the game’ in lunar activities and might structure such a regime to appropriate resources extracted by those states who have assumed the risk on the moon. Paragraph 7 (d) is more explicit when it states that “an equitable sharing by all State Parties in the benefits derived from those resources” with countries who have had no part in their extraction “shall be given special consideration.” Again, these clauses in the Moon Treaty are hardly compatible with commercial activities on the moon.
Contrast the language of the Moon Treaty with that of the Artemis Accords, signed by Saudi Arabia in 2022. Section 10 of the Artemis Accords states:
The Signatories emphasize that the extraction and utilization of space resources, including any recovery from the surface or subsurface of the Moon, Mars, comets, or asteroids, should be executed in a manner that complies with the Outer Space Treaty and in support of safe and sustainable space activities. The Signatories affirm that the extraction of space resources does not inherently constitute national appropriation under Article II of the Outer Space Treaty, and that contracts and other legal instruments relating to space resources should be consistent with that Treaty.
This clause provides conceptual and legal legitimacy for commercial activities on the moon and elsewhere in the Solar System. While the Artemis Accords, announced in 2020, do not as yet enjoy broad international support and consensus, as of the publication of this post, it does have 23 state signatories. This is more signatories than the Moon Treaty that has been in existence for nearly 44 years.
Screen shot from the Artemis Accords signing ceremony between the Saudi Space Commission and the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration in July 2022. Image courtesy of NASA.
This difference between the Moon Treaty and the Artemis Accords has led some to find a way to bridge the ‘gap’. For example, Dennis O’Brien of the Space Treaty Institute has proposed an Implementation Agreement for the Moon Treaty that would make it possible for private companies to commercially extract and exploit lunar and other space resources within an amended agreement. To date, however, there does not seem to be much appetite among states to adopt this Implementation Agreement.
Commercially extracting and exploiting lunar and other celestial resources for profit is antithetical to the current provisions and wider spirit of the Moon Treaty, whereas the Artemis Accords provides a provision for the legitimisation of space-based commercial resource extraction and exploitation. It is in this context that the Saudi withdrawal from the Moon Treaty is to be understood.
Saudi Arabia’s Lunar Ambitions
Saudi Arabia’s space strategy is still in development but is expected to be released soon. What is known, however, is that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, the de facto ruler of the Kingdom, is said to have a deep personal interest in space matters and has made it known that he expects to see a Saudi astronaut on the moon by 2030 and that the country should aspire to be a top global space power in the coming decades. Moreover, it is rumoured that the Saudi space budget will be at least $2-3 billion a year.
Apart from having a Saudi astronaut on the lunar surface by the end of this decade, it is understood that Saudi Arabia is also mulling a series of robotic missions to the moon such as probes, landers, and rovers, and eventually have Saudi scientists live and work on the lunar surface.
Perhaps more importantly, especially in relation to the Kingdom’s withdrawal of the Moon Treaty, Saudi Arabia is understood to be seriously considering developing the ability to exploit and extract resources - such as rare metals and minerals - on the moon and other celestial bodies. In other words, space mining. This ambition would most certainly be built upon Saudi expertise in resource extraction here on Earth (and, moreover, resource extraction in harsh and hostile environments). It is well known that Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest oil producer and has some of the largest reserves on the planet. The Saudi oil company, ARAMCO, is among the largest - if not the largest - companies in the globe. What is less known is that Saudi Arabia also has significant deposits of rare earths and minerals and is actively exploiting them. The Kingdom has both an interest and practical and specialist experience in resource extraction, and in the case of oil, exploitation. It is logical (but not necessarily feasible anytime soon) that Saudi should have an interest in taking this heritage to the moon and beyond.
China’s Chang’e-4 lunar lander on the moon’s surface. Saudi Arabia contributed an optical camera to the lander. Image courtesy of the China National Space Administration (CNSA).
As a related aside, Saudi Arabia’s accession in the Artemis Accords, its lunar ambitions, and intention to commercially extract and exploit resources on the moon and beyond should in no way be interpreted as fully-fledged and exclusive support for the U.S.-led Artemis program. Just like other countries in the Arabian Gulf the Kingdom is trying to balance its strategic interests between the United States (security) and China (economic) and this has, in part, been the cause for some significant strains in relations between Riyadh and Washington, DC, recently.
In light of this, Saudi Arabia is also cultivating space ties with China, especially in space science and exploration, to include the contribution of an optical camera to the Chinese Chang’e-4 lunar lander as well as discussions with China, along with other Gulf Cooperation Council member states, to create a regional center for lunar exploration research. The Kingdom is hardly the first, and nor will it be the last, country to be a signatory of the Artemis Accords and at the same time cooperate with China on lunar exploration. France will also contribute scientific payloads to the Chang’e-6 lunar lander and actively cooperates with China on other space projects. Meanwhile the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia’s immediate neighbour and fellow signatory to the Accords, will send its Rashid-2 lunar rover to the moon on board China’s Chang’e-7 lunar lander in 2026.
Moving forward it should be expected that Saudi Arabia, along with several other countries, will cooperate with both the United States and China in its quest to achieve its lunar ambitions. The deep challenges and tensions in U.S.-China relations has led to calls for technological decoupling between the two superpowers and their respective friends and allies. With regard to its nascent space program and wider economic interests, Saudi Arabia is one of many countries in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Africa that is doing its best not to take sides. The same will be true when it comes to the moon.
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