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The UAE’s ambitious plan to build a new city — on Mars

Over the past few decades, oil and gas revenue has helped the United Arab Emirates develop at a breakneck pace. Its glistening megacity Dubai is now home to the world's tallest building and countless other accolades, while just last year there were new plans announced to build a completely new “city of happiness.”

The UAE’s latest venture may set new heights in terms of ambition, however. On Tuesday, at the sidelines of the World Government Summit in Dubai, the UAE announced that it was planning to build the first city on Mars by 2117. According to CNBC, UAE engineers presented a concept city at the event about the size of Chicago for guests to explore.

In a statement, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai and vice president of the UAE, sounded confident about the project. “Human ambitions have no limits, and whoever looks into the scientific breakthroughs in the current century believes that human abilities can realize the most important human dream,” Maktoum said.

And despite the grandiose nature of the idea, the 100-year-plan does emphasize some practical steps. “The Mars 2117 Project is a long-term project,” Maktoum explained in the statement, adding that the first order of business would be making space travel appeal to young Emiratis, with special programs in space sciences being set up at universities in the UAE.

The project will also create an Emirati scientific team, but that would expand to include international scientists. In particular, these teams would be seeking to develop faster transportation to and from the planet, as well as researching what the settlement would look like and how it will be sustainable in terms of food, energy and transportation.

This won't be the Gulf state's first foray into space travel. The UAE launched its own space agency in 2014, which launched partnerships with French and British space agencies the next year. It is planning to send an unmanned probe to Mars by 2021, a project that was described as “on track” just last month.

Of course, whether the plan for a city on Mars will actually come to fruition a century from now is hard to predict. However, in a strange way, this might be a good thing. Other recently announced space exploration plans, particularly those focused on Mars, have been criticized for setting too ambitious a time frame given the huge costs of such a mission. By setting such a distant goal, the UAE's ambitious city becomes a little more realistic.

For the UAE, these attempts to break into space technology may also reveal an anxious attempt to break away from the country's reliance on oil and gas and related industries, having been hit hard by falling prices recently. Thankfully for them, there's still plenty of money in sovereign wealth funds to invest in Mars.

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