Vertical Frontiers

The many promises behind the launching of the first Arab Satellite

Tracing a narrative about the first Arab satellite launch that would repair the physical telecommunication infrastructure of the Arabic-speaking region, and heal the nations’ collective spirit.

Vertical Frontiers


The first geostationary communication satellite, Arabsat-1A, was launched with the Ariane 3 flight from Korou, France, on the 8th of February, 1985. The political agency of the satellite launching was clear - the objective was to build a terrestrial pan-Arab telecommunication network, covering the vast geographic region from the northern borders of Syria to the southern borders of Sudan. The promising notion of a “New World Information Order” would besiege the mindset of the leaders of the Arab region. As such, the desire for a collective geographical unity heightened Arabsat's institutional claims to deterritorialize earthly boundaries. The satellite would at once obliterate any social, educational, or political differences between communities and nations. The satellite was an object of hope and desire for collective unity. It was also an object that would repair the physical telecommunication infrastructure of the Arab region, and heal the nations’ collective spirit.

The following article recalls the launching of the 1A communication satellite, rethinking the political strategies considered for extracting, managing, and ordering vertical frontiers. An investigation of the 1A satellite reveals the constant negotiation and the formation of different kinds of borders. To that end, the article retells the story of the Arabsat launch through the seven-day journey. This journey narrative offers an alternative reading of space and verticality, negotiating the community’s affective longing for unity and intense return to a unified land. While the essay’s inquiry is setting out to add to the knowledge behind territorial practice, it also draws out the body’s longing to heal, remember and return by the virtue of a satellite launch.

The format of the project departs from Arabsat’s technical textbooks and standards. The format of the project is an exegesis of anti-institutional instructional texts and visuals, which will be available online as multi-hyperlinked media. Each is telling of the aesthetic and technics used for the short-lived promises. This collection of short texts and visuals reveals the institute’s means to control the minds of the community through the stretch of space between the land's surface and the outer geostationary orbit.

Launch Project


About Vertical Frontiers: The Many Promises behind the launching of the first Arab Satellite

In a documentary produced by the Aérospatiale Company, many of the socio-technical processes behind the Arab Satellite Communication Organization (Arabsat) first satellite launches are revealed. Inside a meeting room of the French state-owned aerospace manufacturing company, the first scenes depict a group of experts resolutely discussing the model designator for the first Arabsat generation satellite series: 1A and 1B. The camera zooms in to capture a partial view of the miniature model of the 'Arab' communication satellite, which was positioned at the center of the table. What follows after is a series of short, up-close and personal clips of engineers and scientists from the aerospace company fabricating the satellite: sheets of silicon solar panels rolled out, carefully cut with a utility knife and a ruler, then diligently fastened and wired in. The documentary’s cinematic gaze illustrates the tensions between the satellite’s aesthetics and instrumentality. The unanticipated breakdowns is foreshadowed: a satellite staged to be a carefully designed and engineered technology was doomed to suffer with severe geostationary malfunctions.

Titled as Arabsat - La Luna Artificielle, the documentary produced in 1985 reflects the ambitions of governments of Arab states, their collective political imaginaries and dreams of conquest of Space. Other scenes show the satellite shelled in the Ariane 3 compartmentalized space shuttle. On the exterior panels of the communication vehicle, flags of each of the participating nation-members portray a defamed claim of Arab unity against a map of the Arab-speaking region, devoid of internal borders and demarcations. Towards the end of the documentary, shots depict the successful launching of the Arabsat-1A satellite amongst brief scenes of the former King Fahad and the previous President of France Francois Mitterrand pointing at the high skies. Both, perhaps, gushing over the possibilities of the vertical dimension. The dreams for a successful communication satellite seemed attainable, but would instinctively remain a far-fetched dream/fantasy.

About Vertical Frontiers

The first geostationary communication satellite, Arabsat-1A, was launched with the Ariane 3 flight from Korou, France, on the 8th of February, 1985. The agency of the satellite was clear: the objective was to build a terrestrial pan-Arab telecommunication network, covering the vast geographic region from the northern borders of Syria to the southern borders of Sudan. As a result, the institute would gain full control over the circulation of broadcasting services, television services and news agencies. The satellite launching, and the accompanied services, would support an array of projects such as developing ground reception stations in the countries of all the participating members of Arabsat; launching training centers in communication programming and engineering; introducing collaborative broadcasting programs across all universities of the region; expanding the production of the different types of communication equipments and setting up the needed industries to support the deployment of the Arab Satellite. This desire for a collective geographical unity heightened Arabsat's institutional claims to deterritorialize earthly boundaries.

The satellite –at once obliterating any social, economic, or political differences between the countries– was an object of hope and desire for collective unity. Here, as we recall the launching of the 1A communication satellite, we will also be rethinking the political strategies considered for extracting, managing, and ordering of what were considered by Arabsat unexplored frontiers. These ‘unmined resources’, albeit of another spatial dimension, offered a promising slate for the futurity of the telecommunication infrastructure of the vast Arab-speaking region.

The management of the invisible coordinate points in the orbit's inclination and eccentricity, which followed the imperial logics of administering territories, was rendered visible as a political challenge. The 1A communication satellite, a supposedly innocuous and also impartial, technology was arguably functioning as a political device to extrude spatial enclosure bound within the vertical frontier. As such, concerns —such as the application of automated transceivers and the administration of satellite bandwidth— seen as invisible forces centrally encoded within technical standards were rendered visible in juridical practices that impeded the free flow of information amongst the Arab nations. They also writ large in conflicts over ordering territories. But how so? To write a historical narrative about satellites in the Arab Region seems to position the modern geographical dimension of the region as defined by disputed territories and militarized borders, and to periodize moments such as the 1967 al Naska, the loss of lands, the unprecedented mass displacements, the depletion of resources, followed by the Arab League Summit of 1967 and a shift in the means of governmentality. Therefore, the intent here does not lie in providing a historiographical account of the Arabsat organization, nor does it lie in mapping the asymmetrical development of the mediascapes of the Arab region within the early formation of the satellite communication institute.

Instead, the story of the Arab satellite launching begins on earth. It starts with the journey of Sultan Bin Salman Al Saud, the first Arab to fly to Space. It expands to include narratives about the satellite, the different phases and associated technologies. The main one is about the seven-day space mission to deploy the Arab satellite. Other narratives are centered around the interconnected events, processes and operations across multitudes of territorial and celestial spaces, which are central to grasp as a basis for the essay. In each reading of the satellite’s deployment, planetary governance is exercised and executed. In the reading of the borderland, an understanding of the geo-technology of the satellite and the geopolitical converge, which are necessary for understanding what verticality is, and what this dimension entails. To the end, the inquiry is about verticality, which is setting out to add to the knowledge behind territorial practices, as well as behind the constant negotiation and the formation of different kinds of borders.

Such would be reflected when Sultan limned the astronauts' change of attentiveness to terrestrial scales within the seven-day voyage. On the first day, he recalled that all of the astronauts pointed to their countries. On the fourth day, they recognized their countries’ continents and their geographic boundaries. By the fifth day, they were vigilant of one, holistic earthbound globe. The attention to territories and their traditional convention complicates an understanding of territories as a volume, and the spatial reproduction of geographies associated from being within a vertical dimension. This instance is one out of many that broaden perspectives about verticality. For this essay, we will maneuver from the crust of the earth up to the geostationary orbit, in the hopes to unravel Arabsat’s exploration of the vertical frontier, the institute’s production of new spaces, new geopolitical competition and an ultimate intended conquest over celestial resources.

Preparing for the Satellite Launch: Between Earthly Problems and Outer-Space Possibilities

A lifelong advocate of space travel, the futurist Arthur Clarke proposed that only three extra-terrestrial relays are required for world-wide radio coverage once a communication satellite is deployed.[1] Clarke’s revolutionary remarks mobilized technologically-driven studies about the metaphorical reproduction of territories as zones of wavelengths and frequencies. The science-fiction writer would speak highly of the Arabsat’s satellite mission, stating that while the deployment of the satellite would work in favor of flattening class hierarchies, it would also unite citizens of the targeted region in a "room-sized world." He marked the launch of the first Arab satellite as a dream come true.[2] Indeed, during the early years of the institute’s formation, the desire for the communication satellite was driven by promises and dreams for regional integration. The ARABIVISION project lay at the core of that promise, one that would "be placed above political conflicts, recognizing the right of all citizens to information."[3] These aspirations centered around the satellite were mentioned in a symposium titled "Between Earthly Problems and Outer-Space Possibilities" that took place in Jordan in 1985. A group of scientists, engineers, scholars, and political activists gathered to discuss the satellite network, and the many aspirations of the invisible infrastructure. Citing Clarke's insights extensively, the scholars discussed amongst themselves that the satellite would be able to dissolve any national and physical boundaries of the Arab region.[4] To achieve this goal, a group of intellects would recapitulate the required technologies such as directional antennas and satellites, and the microwave radio relays between terrestrial points. They would highlight the need to begin the production of software programs to transmit once the satellite was deployed.

The purpose of recounting the satellite in academic spaces has many folds. One is to recognize that the satellite's capacity to create new zones of communication beyond a nations' sovereign boundaries on earth was dependent on the symmetrical development of a telecommunication network and associated infrastructure. An asymmetrical infrastructural development and an even distribution of resources would also assist the institute’s vision of uniting citizens of the Arabic-speaking region. The ARABSAT objective was to organize populations and territories through the satellite's technological domain. One that was a technologically complex endeavor whose infrastructural, technical and mechanical needs had to be met. As such, microwave linkage needed to cover the entire Arab region was calculated, the radio relays were pre-planned, the signal traffic was foreshadowed, and documents with specific technical and infrastructural requirements for the ground reception stations circulated around the Arab governments.[5] At the same time, this united Arabic-speaking region was being formed and produced. As a result, the ARABSAT would overlook the calculations of the microwave-net needed to cover the pan-Arab space network. Ultimately, the project was technologically predetermined, a future-oriented project whereby the institute’s view of a united national region brought together under one pan-Arab telecommunication network was hindered by inadequate preparations.

Meanwhile, intensive training took place at the Lyndon Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas to prepare the crew of the STS-51-G space shuttle program. Designed to fit seven astronauts, the space shuttle was divided to accommodate a flight deck with four seats and a middle deck with three seats. The participants were put through numerous exhaustive tests to evaluate the body's endurance for a mission that would last seven days, one hour and 38 minutes. As such, the physiological status of their minds’ were pushed at times of extreme fatigue, because of the endurance tests that ranged to measure cardiovascular tests, maximum oxygen uptake, heart rate and arterial blood pressure responses. One may argue that Sultan's physiology would become part of a system that he would inhabit in the upcoming days. Reconciling with the ideologies of replicating earthly conditions with an exploration of new materials and energies would characterize the spatial paradigm of the space shuttle, and its trailblazing mission.

Preparing for the Satellite Launch

At an institutional scale, Arabsat would circulate documents across the governments of the Arab nations listing out the communication infrastructure once the satellite was deployed. One map would illustrate the geographies of the Arabic-speaking region blank of any national boundaries and borders, with utopian illustrations of satellite dishes and antennas evenly distributed in all nations. Arabsat was in coordination with a constellation of media organizations and institutes to ensure that all centers and stations would be at their paramount readiness to direct the satellite signals after the deployment. One may argue that the satellite's development was historically motivated by a national agenda to communicate across different spatial temporalities, and to ultimately transform the territories into a vast zone of signal traffic and microwaves surpassing the horizontal division of territories while constructing new borders.

Overall, Sultan's series of in-cabin experiments to endure surviving the seven-day mission inside a sealable steel shuttle was, on one hand, rooted in manifesting a closed spatial system that would define and determine the relations of a body to the environment. On the other hand, the success of these predetermined relations are inextricably linked to Arabsat's national celebration of territorial and infrastructural expansions. Sultan's training program was a testimony to the lengths that the satellite would mediate the relations between the body, the development of the communication infrastructure of the Arab region, and the nationalization of unified territories.

The First Days: Far from Above

The First Days

On the 18th of June, at 3000 feet above, Sultan meticulously described the impact of this new environment on his body. He describes the sky as pitch black; seats seemed to penetrate the astronauts' lungs and backs, as gravity was threefold at this geostationary orbit. As NASA began a tradition to play music as a wake up call, the track chosen for the second day was “I Feel the Earth Move” by the American singer Carole King.

At 13:57 GMT, 27 hours after the launch, Arabsat 1B was deployed using a specialized rod at the designated coordinates. It was positioned at a longitude of 26 degrees east. As the flight was equipped with an IMAX camera mounted on the overhead window, Sultan was also tasked with space imaging of the Saudi region. He would photograph segments of the Saudi territory in every cycle around the orbit, 60th, 75th, and lastly, on the 90th cycle. He then patched the different images and composed what would be one of the first aerial images of the Saudi Kingdom. He would obtain geological, hydrogeological, and geomorphological information, as well as conduct some ionizing gas experiments.

After the deployment of the satellite, the institute was now attentive on the microwave net needed to cover the region. A vivid imagination of geographies of the Arabic-speaking region produced as a territory devoid of physical borders and demarcations seemed to have cemented. One that became the driving force of two projects associated with the satellite's deployment, the GULFVISION and MAGHREBVISION. The former was the microwave net between the Gulf countries, whereas the latter was the microwave net envisioned between Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria.[6] Rejoiced with the success of the mission, Arabsat overlooked what were the necessary communication technologies for such national aspirations. These two projects were built on an understanding of the Arabic-speaking regions as plots of land governed by states that can build the desirable communication technologies, which ultimately came apart with the complexities of pan-Arab idealism in practice.

Everything in between:

Hopes were subdued with anxiety as the Israel Space Agency launched its first communication satellite Ofek-1 and was positioned 4 degrees apart from the Arab communication satellite in September 1988. In application, the agency’s intention was different. The satellite was launched westwards to ensure the device did not interfere with the application of weapons and rockets.

Everything in between

The former president of Arabsat Hamdi Qandil and the Arabsat representatives were anxious about the distance between the two satellites. They believed that Ofek-1 was intentionally positioned at this degree to cause radio interference and obstruct the encrypted up-link and downlink signal to the ground reception stations.[7] Unlike the Arabsat satellite, the Ofek series, alongside the Omos satellite communication series that were used for military application, were manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industry - a testament to the extent of the settler-colonial state’s extensive aerospace and aviation development. Determined to overcome these anxieties, the members of the Arabsat repeated, over and over, their agenda in the documents addressing the telecommunication infrastructure. Actions would be “to take appropriate measurements against the Israel state from carrying out its Zionist satellite project.”[8] Then, the region's political climate cast doubts on Arabsat’s future and its ability to create effective change towards a collective unity. Let alone mobilize transregional solidarity against the Israeli settler-colonial expansion.

The project of Arabsat as a communication satellite to reduce internal conflict and tension while uniting citizens, media centers, and governments amidst the expansion of the Israeli settler-colonial project was unrealized. As such, the communication satellite was perceived as a threat. The acquisition of the communication satellite was approved by the US Congress upon four conditions: three of these conditions strongly rejected the recognition of the Palestinian Liberation Organization Party and denounced the participation of the up-linking and down-linking of signals to any of the territories in Palestine. As a result, the media’s attention would be cast on thePLO’s involvement in Arabsat, even with its inconsiderably small share in the project.

The Last days: Back on the Ground

On the fifth day, a call was made by the former King of Saudi Arabia and was secured by NASA and transmitted via the Global Television Network. As such, the call was the king's gesture of appreciation, during which he had congratulated the father for sending his son and had applauded Sultan for carrying out this unprecedented mission "in the name of Islam, for our Muslim brotherhood, and for our Arab nations."[9]

The agency behind such a phone call, referred to as "the Historical Phone Call" in Al Faysal magazine, remains unclear if it is to be understood beyond the scope of a medium aesthetically documenting the satellite launch. As such, the former director of Arabsat Hamad Qanadil would later criticize the historicization of such a brief phone call.[10] In a conference about the significance of emerging media forms organized by UNESCO, Qanadil criticized the project as it was announced with "too much fanfare."[11] He elaborates that the success of the communication satellite was bound to earth, using an analogy that power can’t be “restored to a dead telephone.”[12] Qanadil’s metaphor of the telephone’s death was a reasoning for the impracticability of a telecommunication network covering the Arabic speaking region. As such, the reference to Qanadil's remarks and of the multifaceted metaphor of a phone call point to the many anticipated failures of the satellite project. First, the promise behind the satellite launching meant a claim on territorial and material equality in a region that was significantly unevenly developed. The communication infrastructure was not substantially and unevenly built: there was an unequal distribution of resources, equipments and materials, and of trained labor who would be capable of designing, as well as supervising a viable telecommunication network.[16] Second, the profound documentation of the Saudi region would, on the one hand, facilitate the increase in the number of scientific studies and scholarship, but equally, raise the social, cultural and economic differences between the participating countries of the Arabsat.

While the institute claimed to reterritorialize horizontal spaces and to recast the planar division of territories were philanthropic, these opportunistic chances were subject to conditions on the ground. As expressed by Qanadil, the vertical domain was imagined to be an abstract, homogeneous space unregulated by centralized bandwidth admission, and unbound by the technical standards and the regulations for each nation's communication zones. Arabsat sought to secure what Parks would refer to as "vertical hegemony" that involves multiple efforts to control, as well as maneuver through, the stretch of space between the land's surface and the outer geostationary orbit.[13] The struggle for power is underlined by an assumption that a constellation of states, operating together under a communication institute, can change perception of territories and communication across by the virtue of a satellite launch. However, the misalignment between the deployment of the hardware technology and the organization of the needed software would only heighten the unbalanced flow of information, and showcase the asymmetrical development of the communication infrastructure, networks and systems.

The Last Days

To that end, recalling the space journey narrative is to offer an alternative reading of space and verticality. The geopolitical discourse has flattened our perception of geographies, and our understanding of the paradigm of territories and cartographies as primarily two-dimensional, flat and bound to conditions on the ground. One may argue that Stuart Elden’s notions of volumetric integrity and security resonate with Arabsat’s concerns: from the primacy of the body, the shuttle's enclosed system, right down to the institute’s calculation of areas and volumes, and its ideologies for regions' geographies as a volumetric territory shaped an imagination of geography as a volumetric space that can be regulated and controlled by the communication institute. However, the Arabsat was only able to exert control over calculated areas of the region, only of the countries who had already established a viable telecommunication network and the needed infrastructure, and within limits defined by global geo-politics.

The narrative about the space journey reveals the different phases of the satellite technology –the finance, construction, deployments, maintenance, and breakdowns– registers different historical interruptions about the promises for Arabsat's first satellite. But a narrative of re-telling the seven-day journey through the politics of verticality opens up paradigms about geopolitical discourse in which the actions of an institute are accounted for across layers of space. Here, Arabsat's promises were held accountable across different scales and dimensions. Eventually the satellite suffered from a geostationary malfunction and drifted uncontrollably out of the orbit. The device failed completely in 1992. Yet the narrative about the institute’s early operations is significant: it is notably recognized as the first Arabsat satellite that fueled the political imagination of a united Arab nation, orbited around the earth, and resided in the depths of the celestial orbits despite being eventually brought down to the ground.


The images in this article are produced by its author, who drew from a variety of historical sources to create their visual representations.


  • [1] Arthur Clarke, “Extra-Terrestrial Relays: Can Rocket Stations Give World-wide Radio Coverage?” Wireless World (October, 1945): 306.
  • [2] Ibid
  • [3] Elham Khalil, “The Arab Satellite and the Flow of Infor­mation in the Arab World,” (PhD Thesis, University of Amsterdam, 1983): 317.
  • [4] As found in the archive of Ministry of Culture and Sports, Qatar
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Elham Khalil, “The Arab Satellite and the Flow of Infor­mation in the Arab World” (PhD Thesis, University of Amsterdam, 1983), 225.
  • [7] Hamad Qanadil, Arabsat: al-shabakah al-fadaaiyah al-Arabi­yah wa-qadyaal-ittisl fial-watan al-Arabi,(Cairo: al-Hay’ah al-Misri­yah al’Ammah lil Kitab, 1989): 59.  
  • [8] Elham Khalil, p. 357
  • [9] Al Faysal Magazine, issue 102 (September, 1985).
  • [10] Hamdi Qanadil, “ARABSAT: Some Basic Questions,” UNE­SCO (1981).
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] Lisa Parks, Rethinking Media Coverage: Vertical Mediation and the War on Terror (New York: Routledge, 2018), 2.