Arabsat-1A, the first Saudi Arabian satellite

Arabsat-1A, the first Saudi Arabian satellite, was a Saudi Arabian communications satellite operated by Arabsat. Founded in 1976 by the twenty-one member-states of the Arab League, Arabsat has been serving the growing needs of the Arab world for over forty years, operating from its headquarter in Riyadh-KSA and two Satellite control stations in Riyadh and Tunis. Arabsat-1A, the first Saudi Arabian satellite, used to provide communication services to the Arab States, was launched by Ariane on February 8, 1985.

Now one of the world’s top satellite operators and by far the leading satellite services provider in the Arab world, it carries over five hundred TV channels, two hundred radio stations, pay-tv networks and wide variety of HD channels reaching tens of millions of homes in more than eighty countries across the Middle East, Africa and Europe, including an audience of over one hundred and seventy million viewers in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region alone.

The Arab Satellite Communications Organization

The Arab Satellite Communications Organization (often abbreviated as Arabsat) is a communications satellite operator in the Arab World, headquartered in the city of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Arabsat was created to deliver satellite-based, public and private telecommunications services to the Arab States. With twenty-one Member States, the organisation plays a vital role in enhancing communications in the Arab World. The Arabsat satellites are a series of geostationary communications satellites launched from 1985 through 2019. Some of the later satellites in the series remain operational in orbit, while others have been retired and are derelict.

The foundation of Arab Satellite Communications Organization (Arabsat) dates from the late 1960s. In 1967, information ministers of Arab states developed a series of principles in relation to a satellite network, to create an integration of social and cultural activities among the Arab League countries. On the other hand, the Arab States Broadcasting Union (ASBU) was established in 1969. Saudi Arabia did not join this Egypt-led and Cairo-based union until 1974, most probably due to the tense relationship between Saudi Arabia and Egypt at the time.

On April 14, 1976, Arabsat was formed under Arab League jurisdiction with the goal of serving the information, cultural and educational needs of its member states. Saudi Arabia was the main financier of the new organisation due to its expanded financial resources as a result of its flourishing oil-exporting industry. Riyadh housed Arabsat’s headquarters. The first launch Arabsat-1A was performed by a French Ariane rocket. The American Space Shuttle Discovery launched Arabsat’s second satellite, Arabsat-1B, in 1985. Arabsat-1A and -1B were switched off in 1992 and 1993, respectively.

Arabsat-1A, the first Saudi Arabian satellite

Arabsat-1 was the model designator for a series of first-generation satellites built by an international team led by Aérospatiale of France. It is a satellite with three-axis stabilised Spacebus 100 spacecraft with two deployable solar array wings, making it almost twenty-one metres long and over five and a half metres wide when deployed in orbit. It weighs about one thousand and three hundred kilograms in its initial orbit, but some six hundred and seventy-five kilograms of this is propellant. It has an onboard low-thrust motor that utilises hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide, and transfers from an initial elliptical to geosynchronous orbit by firing this motor. The remaining propellant is then used for station-keeping or moving over the life of the satellite.

Arabsat-1A, the first Saudi Arabian satellite and the first Arabsat satellite, was launched by Ariane on February 8, 1985. Shortly after launch, it suffered a solar panel extension malfunction. Coupled with other failures, the satellite, which had an expected operational lifespan of seven years, was soon relegated to backup status until it was abandoned completely in late 1991.

Arabsat-1A was launched by Arianespace, a multinational company founded in 1980 as the world’s first commercial launch service provider, using an Ariane 3 rocket, a European expendable carrier rocket (designed by the Centre national d’études spatiales and produced by Aérospatiale in France), member of the Ariane family of rockets, derived from the Ariane 2, although it flew before this, which was used for eleven launches between 1984 and 1989, flying from ELA-1 at Kourou. ELA-1, short for Ensemble de Lancement Ariane 1 (French for Ariane Launch Area 1), now named Ensemble de Lancement Vega (short ELV), is a launch pad at the Centre Spatial Guyanais in French Guiana. It has been used to support launches of the Europa rocket, Ariane 1, Ariane 3, and is currently used to launch Vega rockets.

Arabsat-1A, the first Saudi Arabian satellite, was the first Spacebus satellite to be launched. Spacebus is a satellite bus produced at the Cannes Mandelieu Space Center in France by Thales Alenia Space. Spacebuses are typically used for geostationary communications satellites, and seventy-four have been launched since development started in the 1980s. Spacebus was originally produced by Aérospatiale and later passed to Alcatel Alenia Space. In 2006, it was sold to Thales Group as Thales Alenia Space. The first Spacebus satellite, Arabsat-1A, was launched in 1985. Since then, seventy-four have been launched, with one more completed, and six outstanding orders.

Satellite Legal Issues

The satellite industry is as diverse as it is complicated. In the MENA region, the satellite communications industry is a booming industry that owes its development not only to globalisation but to cultural, technical, financial and geographical factors. As more satellites are launched and more services are available to a wider audience, regional satellite regulation may very well undergo further adaptation to reflect the crowded brave new world of satellite TV, radio and Internet as well as the possible necessity of introducing competition laws as the industry continues to develop at its current quickened pace.

A satellite is an object that has been placed into orbit through human effort using a launch vehicle from a country authorised to launch spacecraft. A communications satellite comprises dozens of transponders, which are wireless devices that pick up and automatically respond to an incoming signal and typically has a “lifespan” of up to fifteen years. Upon its expiration, it could be replaced with a new satellite and the original satellite is relocated to a graveyard orbit. Satellites serve a variety of purposes including military/espionage, Earth observation, and all manner of communications, navigation, weather and research. Satellites are even used to monitor global warming.

Original pre-Space Age legislation concerned the use of the radio-frequency spectrum and the emphasis vis-à-vis frequency management on an international basis was on national sovereignty. In the Space Age, the United Nations aimed to establish a global principle ensuring that the benefits of space exploration and use should be extended to all mankind without reference to wealth or might, a concept that is encapsulated in Article I of the Outer Space Treaty adopted by the General Assembly in its resolution 1962 (XVIII) of December 13, 1963. Article I informs the current regulation of satellite communications with regard to the use of radio spectrum and orbital positions. The regulation of the satellite industry, which is increasingly commercial, is a delicate balance between public and private interests and is inherently political.

Satellite regulation is a complex enterprise with international, regional and national layers. The regulation of the technical aspects of radio-frequency use falls under the ambit of the ITU. Government representatives must go through the ITU with respect to negotiation, agreement and monitoring of technical matters such as satellite positions and frequencies. Other layers of regulation are based in the constitution of international organisations, such as the International Mobile Satellite Organization (IMSO), EutelSat IGO and the International Telecommunications Satellite Organisation (ITSO), providing satellite telecommunications.

In the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region, there are a few organisations that provide guidance and regulate the satellite telecommunications industry. In the past, the Arab Telecommunications Union (ATU), which became defunct in 1980 in conjunction with Egypt’s ejection from the Arab League for political reasons (although Egypt was readmitted in 1989), aspired to unify Arab telecommunications policy. As regards the ITU, MENA countries fall into Regions D (Africa) and E (Asia and Australasia) in terms of regulation of radio communications, a split that was accepted in 1997 by a meeting of Arab ministers in Damascus, presumably for tactical reasons.

Other bodies that participate in the regulation of satellites/telecommunications in the MENA region are the ITU’s Arab Regional Office (ARO) in Egypt, established in 1991; Arabsat and the Arab States Broadcasting Union (ASBU) which give certain rights and responsibilities that are tantamount to regulation.

ASBU, a not-for-profit professional organisation, promotes a range of initiatives, including the development of “the spirit of Arab brotherhood”, representing member-organisations, coordinating and defending the positions and interests of Arab states in the international arena. ASBU’s activities focus on engineering, radio, sports and television broadcasting, as well as inter-Arab and international cooperation. With regard to inter-Arab cooperation, ASBU both cooperates with the Arab League’s specialised agencies and monitors the progress of joint projects and implements resolutions and recommendations issued by the Arab Information Ministers Council and the Arab Information standing Committee issue.

The Arab League, founded in Cairo in 1945, is a voluntary organisation, comprised of independent primarily Arabic-speaking countries, whose self-proclaimed objective is to “build ties among the member states, coordinate their policies and promote their common interests”. The Arab League is involved in programs of a political, economic, cultural and social nature of interest to its members. Recently, this interest extended to satellite TV broadcasting, an area which had, until recently, escaped regulation. In February 2008, the Arab League met in Cairo and produced the Arab League Satellite Broadcasting Charter to provide guidelines for the ever-increasing number of free-to-air and encrypted satellite channels broadcasting in MENA. All Arab League states signed the Charter except for Qatar and Lebanon (decisions of the Arab League are only mandatory for those members who sign them).

The Charter’s aim is to provide “the frameworks and principles required for organising broadcasting and audio visual satellite reception in the Arab world”. The Charter sparked controversy because, although it advocates broad principles such as the right to “express opinions, preserve Arab culture and promote cultural dialogue through satellite broadcasting” (Article 1) and requires compliance with “religious and ethical values of Arab society and maintain its family ties and social integrity” (Article 6), it does have teeth as a non-compliant broadcasting entity risks losing its licence in its home country.