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Dubai creates ‘space court’ for out-of-this-world disputes

Arbitration tribunal to specialize in space activities of private companies, such as disagreements over satellite purchases or collisions between devices in orbit

An Emirati man watches the launch of the 'Amal' (Hope) space probe at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Monday, July 20, 2020 (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)
An Emirati man watches the launch of the 'Amal' (Hope) space probe at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Monday, July 20, 2020 (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Dubai announced Monday the creation of a “space court” to settle commercial disputes, as the UAE — which is sending a probe to Mars — builds its presence in the space sector.

The tribunal will be based at the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) Courts, an independent British-inspired arbitration center based on common law.

Space law is governed by international conventions and resolutions, including the UN Outer Space Treaty which entered into force in 1967. Several states have also signed bilateral or multilateral agreements to regulate their space activities.

However, while until recently the field was almost exclusively the domain of nations and institutions, space has become a commercial issue involving more and more private companies.

“An integrated space industry, supported by human resources, infrastructure, and scientific research, is under way,” Zaki Azmi, chief justice at DIFC Courts, said in a statement.

“The Courts of Space is a global initiative that will operate in parallel, helping to build a new judicial support network to serve the stringent commercial demands of international space exploration in the 21st century,” he added.

Established in 2004, the DIFC Courts already draw many foreign companies to arbitrate their commercial disputes, but did not yet have courts specialized in the space activities of private companies.

Azmi said that as space commerce becomes more global, the complex commercial agreements that govern them “will also require an equally innovative judicial system to keep pace”.

The UAE, which comprises seven emirates including Dubai, has invested heavily in the space sector in recent years.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket launches at Space Launch Complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Thursday, July 30, 2020, in Cape Canaveral, Florida. (Joel Kowsky/NASA via AP)

After sending its first astronaut into space in 2019, the country last year launched a probe named “Hope” toward Mars. It is due to reach its destination next week.

“That was for us an eye opener that we need to provide the UAE with the right infrastructure [in case of disputes],” Amna Al Owais, chief registrar at DIFC Courts, told AFP.

“We want to set the scene in terms of what courts can do. We believe that there will be a huge appetite for it,” she said, citing as examples disagreements over satellite purchases or collisions between devices in space.

Companies and institutions based both in the UAE and abroad will now have the option of agreeing to take grievances to the tribunal, with new contracts potentially specifying the new “space court” as the forum for resolving disputes.

The oil-rich nation, whose colossal skyscrapers and mega-projects put it on the world map, hopes otherworldly new industries could be a boost to its economic future.

It is also looking at other new frontiers — space tourism and mining — and has made plans to also help regulate those fledgling industries.

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