Can Quantum Computing Unlock the Middle East’s Next Growth Spurt?

Quantum computers can quickly solve classical problems beyond the reach of today’s supercomputers, but what do they offer Middle Eastern businesses?

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  • [Image source: Anvita Gupta/MITSMR Middle East]

    Within a few years, experts can forecast supply chain variables and patterns more accurately across different business sectors. We could make real progress on climate change by designing new batteries to store solar energy better, exporting green hydrogen more efficiently, or modeling thousands of theoretical combinations to invent materials and processes that slash industrial carbon emissions.

    The secret? Quantum computing

    This rapidly emerging technology could make all the above potential use cases – and countless others – a reality by solving complex problems that require factoring in many different variables. 

    In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Qatar are all working to create quantum startup ecosystems. 

    “In the Middle East, the possibilities initiated by quantum computing could be particularly far-reaching,” says Christian Stechel, Principal with Strategy&, part of the PwC network. 

    “Local governments are trying to position themselves as a technology hub for the region, fostering startup activity to encourage local innovation in industry verticals like life sciences, electronics, software, telecommunications, manufacturing, and financial services,” he adds.

    Impact of Quantum Computing on Industries

    Over the next decade, four industries will benefit the most from quantum computing. According to McKinsey, the automotive, chemicals, financial services, and life sciences sectors could add $1.3 trillion by 2035.  

    Investment in the sector remains high, with global funding for quantum hardware and software at $1 billion in 2023, according to investor website PitchBook.

    “Given the economic matrix of the region, the greatest impact could be seen in the energy and chemical industries, followed by the finance and logistics sectors,” says Prof Dr. Leandro Aolita, Executive Director, Quantum Algorithms at Abu Dhabi’s Technology Innovation Institute (TII). 

    “Quantum computers may also open AI and machine learning opportunities, although that will take longer.”

    TII is building the GCC’s first quantum machine to capitalize on future opportunities. It also established the Quantum Research Centre and has been running quantum algorithms with Maryland-based IonQ.

    Meanwhile, the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority has previously announced plans to work with Microsoft to develop quantum-based products to optimize energy. 

    Elsewhere, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology has teamed with US-based Harvard spinout Zapata Computing to research computational fluid dynamics to improve aerodynamic design. State-owned Saudi Aramco has partnered with Paris-based Pasqal to develop quantum computing applications for the energy industry.

    In Qatar, industrial defense company Barzan Holdings has invested $10 million towards funding cryptography and quantum artificial intelligence research by creating the Qatar Centre for Quantum Computing.

    How Quantum Computers are put to Work

    We could start seeing quantum computing technologies at play over the short term. While advanced quantum computers may only become mainstream in seven to ten years, intermediate prototypes could be available in three to five years, Prof Aolita says. 

    And with cloud computing already a business mainstay in the region, there’s unlikely to be an adoption gap. Quantum computing technologies can be accessed over the cloud and be available to Middle Eastern businesses simultaneously as in the rest of the world.

    “You might say the time has been right for the last eight years. IBM has made quantum computers available over the cloud since putting the first 5-qubit device online in 2016. Since then, more than 500,000 registered users have run experiments on our systems,” says Dr Juan Bernabe-Moreno, Director at IBM Research Europe, Ireland and UK. 

    IBM recently demonstrated the game-changing idea of “quantum utility” with the University of California at Berkeley researchers. They showed that quantum computers can accurately solve problems beyond the reach of classical computers. The benchmark for these machines is 100 qubits.

    Dr Bernabe-Moreno says the computer manufacturer has updated its entire fleet of quantum systems with these utility-scale processors.

    “We are already witnessing a rapidly accelerating pace of experimentation with today’s utility-scale quantum systems. At IBM, we believe that the next big breakthrough will come from a combination of us – as technology providers — and pioneers across industries, including healthcare, high-energy physics, materials, sustainability, and more, who are mapping their most challenging problems to quantum computers,” he says.

    In December, IBM debuted its new Quantum Heron 133-qubit processor. A significant leap forward, it boasts improved error rates and is available via the cloud. IBM Quantum System Two, its latest quantum computing system architecture, was launched at the same time.

    Challenges that Must be Addressed

    But while quantum utility – and the next stage, what IBM calls “quantum advantage” – offer tremendous potential, several challenges must be addressed. 

    Besides questions around availability, costs, and logistical issues are associated with hosting quantum computers. Questions around data and territorial control will also need to be resolved. “As with any cutting-edge advancements, national sovereignty will be key. Advanced quantum computers hold huge disruptive potential to benefit those who crack it first,” Prof Aolita says.

    The biggest hurdle is the global shortage of skilled talent. “This is one of the major bottlenecks limiting the growth of the quantum computing sector. Around the world, there is a growing demand for qualified specialists in quantum technologies, especially in the MENA region,” Prof Aolita says. 

    “Not only is the local production of physicists, computer scientists, and mathematicians low, but most universities don’t even have a post-graduate program on quantum technologies or general quantum physics. Today, the only way to get a master’s or a PhD in quantum technologies is to go abroad. This must change.”

    Governments are addressing these challenges by encouraging students to shift to scientific study paths, running hackathons, helping engineers to reskill, and setting up funding programs for both the university and private sectors, Strategy&’s Stechel says. 

    Policy measures can also support the creation of a quantum startup ecosystem, he adds: “Governments should invest into a national quantum computing infrastructure that could offer quantum computing-as-a-service (QCaaS) to the private sector, and that would mitigate many of the current challenges and risks.” 

    Therefore, businesses eyeing the benefits of quantum computing need to take a long-term view. “There are no quick wins,” says Dr. Bernabe-Moreno. “Quantum computing is still in early development. But by achieving ‘quantum utility,’ we are closer to mapping industry challenges to what quantum computers could solve that would be out of reach for classical computers.” 

    Keen to know how emerging technologies will impact your industry? MIT SMR Middle East will be hosting the second edition of NextTech Summit.


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