When most people think about the Middle East, they think of terrorism, religious fanaticism, and tyrants. The United Arab Emirates, a moderate oil-rich country, is seeking to change that image to a much older version of the Arab world when it was a center of science, mathematics, and culture. Back during the Middle Ages, when Europe was considered a backwater, Arab scholars were pioneering astronomy. The UAE is looking toward Space again with its homegrown mission to Mars. Tellingly, as Scientific America points out, the deputy project manager and science lead for the UAE’s Mars shot is a woman named Sarah Amiri. She also leads the Emirates’ science council that advises the government on science and technology policy.

For decades, the Gulf nations have lived off of the fact that an abundance of oil exists beneath the land they occupy. But the fracking boom and the growth of renewable energy sources have countries such as the UAE scrambling to adjust their economies The Emirates is choosing to become a knowledge-based economy. A space program, starting with the 2020 Mars mission, is part of that strategy.

Several years ago, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden came in for some ridicule for suggesting that the “most important” role that the space agency could play would be outreach to the Muslim world. He was, of course, speaking in hyperbole, since most people think exploring space is the most important thing NASA does. But the space agency has played a foreign policy role since its inception, from proving the inherent superiority of the American system during the Apollo race to the moon to partnering with allied countries in projects like the International Space Station.

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Recently, Bolden traveled through the Middle East and signed space cooperation agreements with Israel, Jordan, and the UAE. In that way, he was helping to develop a new model that Muslim young people can aspire to. Now the most popular thing a Muslim young person can be is a jihadi, to die killing the infidel. Space provides another option, to return the Dar el-Islam to its medieval role as a center of science and technology, thus inspiring education in the STEM subjects. Terrorism can be defeated by force of arms. But a permanent defeat will be in the realm of ideas. Exploring space is far more glorious than pursuing futile and bloody gestures in pursuit of jihad.