Dubai's ruler on Wednesday launched the United Arab Emirates' first space programme aimed at sending four Emirati astronauts to the International Space Station within five years.

"On this day, a new chapter in our history begins with the launch of the first UAE Astronaut Programme," within the next five years, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashed Al-Maktoum, the UAE's vice-president and prime minister, said in a statement.

"The people of the UAE will break barriers," he said.

The oil-rich Gulf nation has already announced ambitious plans to become the first Arab country to send an unmanned probe to orbit Mars by 2021, naming it "Hope".


The astronaut programme would make it one of only a handful of states in the Middle East to have sent a person into space as it looks to make good on a pledge "to become global leader in space exploration over the next 50 years".


The first Arab in outer space was Saudi Arabia's Sultan bin Salman Al-Saud, who flew on a US shuttle mission in 1985. Two years later, Syrian air force pilot Muhammed Faris spent a week aboard the ex-Soviet Union's Mir space station.

Aspiring Emirati astronauts who apply for the programme will go through a rigorous vetting procedure, with finalists given months of specialised training before the last four are selected.


In the long-term, the UAE says it is planning to build a "Science City" to replicate life on Mars and aims to create the first human settlement on the red planet by 2117.

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