Saudi Arabia announced Thursday that it will launch a training program with the aim of sending its own astronauts, including a woman, into space next year. The kingdom is actively promoting science and technology as part of its broad Vision 2030 plan, which seeks to reduce its dependence on oil and restructure its economy. The plan, championed by powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also seeks greater integration of women into the conservative Muslim country’s workforce. Saudi Arabia in 2018 lifted a long-standing ban on women driving.

“The Saudi Astronaut Program, which is an integral part of the Kingdom’s ambitious Vision 2030 plan, will send Saudi astronauts into space to help better serve humanity,” the Saudi Space Commission said in a statement. “One of the astronauts will be a Saudi woman, whose mission to space will represent a historic first for the Kingdom,” he added.

The first Arab or Muslim to travel to space was the Saudi prince Sultan bin Salman, the half-brother of the crown prince and an air force pilot who was part of the seven-member crew of NASA’s Discovery mission in 1985. he served as head of the Saudi Space Commission from 2018 until last year, when he was appointed adviser to King Salman.

The neighboring United Arab Emirates has the leading space program in the Arab world, having launched a probe into Mars orbit in February 2021. The Emirates plans to launch its first lunar rover in November. If the lunar mission is successful, the Emirates and Japan, which provides the lander, would join the ranks of the United States, Russia and China as nations that have put a spacecraft on the lunar surface.

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