Islamic Nations Seek to Catch Up to West in Satellite Technology

An international Islamic organization is embarking on an ambitious “Mega” project aimed at allowing its member nations to catch up to the West in building and using satellites and communications technologies. The effort has the backing of cash flush Saudi Arabia, emerging power Turkey, the populous Asian states of Indonesia and Malaysia, and Kazakhstan, which has its own spaceport.

The Mega project was kicked off during a January meeting in Islamabad of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), a 57-nation inter-governmental organization with members on four continents. At the gathering, Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said cooperation would help the Islamic world reverse centuries of technological decline:

During the address the prime minister said: “We live in an age of scientific innovations and technological advancement. In the knowledge based societies of the 21st century only those nations could aspire to lead which excel in science and technology.”

He recalled the contributions of the Muslim scholars who were the pioneers in the field of science and medicine for 600 years, and regretted that the glorious period of creative scientific activity ceased as the Islamic Ummah lost the intellectual leadership.

He said despite enormous human and material resources, the Muslim world still counted amongst the backward due to lack of scientific and technological advancement.

“We must build our human capital and invest in science and technology to catch up with rest of the world,” he said.

In addition to satellites and communications technologies, the mega project also seeks to improve members’ capabilities in small aircraft and biological industries.

The January conference was followed up with a meeting at Saudi Arabia’s King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) from May 28 to June 1. The gathering, which focused on satellite production, was attended by representatives of OIC, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Islamic Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ICCI).

Kazakhstan’s delegation was led by the deputy head of the nation’s space agency, Kazcosmos. The space agency has been aggressively seeking international partners to build up its domestic aerospace capabilities and promote the commercial use of its Baikonur Cosmodrome.

Kazcosmos PAO further reports:

During the meeting the coordinators of Mega Project – KACST presented the results of a feasibility study mega project. Participants discussed the further implementation mechanism of the Mega Project. Following the meeting, each side voiced their opinions and made suggestions regarding the implementation of the mega project.

The parties signed a confidentiality agreement with KACST and got the original feasibility study, and agreed to organize a regular working meeting on the results of acquaintance with the feasibility study to develop a mechanism for further implementation of the mega project.

It will be interesting to see what becomes of this effort. The money and the pieces seem to be there, although they will face tough competition from existing providers in Asia, Europe and the United States.

The most intriguing aspect of this effort is the embrace of communications technologies by an organization that represents nations where essential freedoms are so heavily restricted presents a serious paradox. According to Wikipedia:

Most OIC member countries are non-democratic. There are no OIC countries which are rated as a “Full Democracy” under the Democracy Index guidelines, and only 3 of the 57 members are rated as high as a “Flawed Democracy.” The rest are rated either an “Authoritarian Regime” or a “Hybrid Regime.”

Only 3 OIC member states were rated as Free in the Freedom in the World report in 2010 based on Political Rights and Civil Liberties in the member countries.

Reporters Without Borders in its 2011 Press Freedom Index rated only Mali and Suriname among the OIC members as having a Satisfactory Situation. All other members had worse ratings ranging from Noticeable Problems to Very Serious Situation.

Freedom of religion is severely restricted in most OIC member states. In 2009, the US Department of State cited OIC members Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan as being Countries of Particular Concern, where religious freedom is severely violated.

Some nations, such as China, have been able to embrace communications technologies while limiting their citizens’ essential freedoms. It will be intriguing to watch whether OIC members can take a global leadership role in the telecommunications and communications industries while keeping a lid on the immense changes these technologies can bring about.