The quantum race, like the space race before it, is a technological marathon with major implications for international relations. This defining quality sets the stage upon which the race is run, presenting competitors with an opportunity to demonstrate their economic and technological prowess to the rest of the world. Perhaps even more so than in the case of the space race, the winner of the quantum race will establish the winner’s name as a world leader in the Digital Age by gaining an unparalleled, strategic security advantage. With such high stakes, countries across the globe are investing in building their quantum capacities, if not to win the race, then at least to not be left behind. While China and the U.S. are currently frontrunners, countries from Europe to Latin America are joining the race, rapidly investing in quantum technology research and development. And yet, a region that has for so long dominated discussions about international relations and security appears to be missing in the line-up. Where is the Middle East in the quantum race?
For most nations in the Middle East, quantum investment is simply not a major priority. There is a complex set of reasons, unique to each country, for why this is the case. Many countries in the region have been plagued by war and instability over the last decade—producing both a deficit of government funds and an inadequate environment for exploration and innovation to occur. As with the space race, the countries that have risen to the top of the quantum food chain have done so upon the backdrop of relative stability, growth and wealth. Several countries in the region, however, have begun to emerge as quantum competitors with increasing capacity and focus: Israel, the Gulf countries, led by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
These countries share some of the conditions required for the establishment of international technological partnerships, investment and a privileged focus on innovation. The ambitions and specialities of their growing quantum programs, however, differ notably in relation to their specific geopolitical situations. Israel, a country known for its heavily U.S.-funded defence and arms expertise, is investing in quantum technologies largely for security applications. The Gulf counties, well-known for their economic reliance on oil production, are distinctly invested in the areas of innovation and capacity-building, especially in the UAE where there is a growing focus on quantum applications in the energy industry. Iran’s quantum efforts, largely directed through well-established and internationally connected knowledge institutions, are also heavily influenced by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal).
While scant information is available about these countries’ nascent quantum efforts, their momentum is growing, slowly but surely. From a geopolitical perspective, the ability to compete on the global stage with quantum technology research and development would be a critical advantage for any nation in the Middle East.
The quantum race began in earnest in the early 2000’s, making Israel a late-comer to the game. Just last year, Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, announced the country’s entrance into the quantum race with an investment of NIS 100 million in a quantum technology research fund (approximately USD 28.2 million equivalent). According to The Jerusalem Post, the ongoing project is a collaboration between the Defense Ministry’s Administration for the Development of Weapons and Technological Infrastructure (MAFAT), the Higher Education Committee and the Israel Science Foundation. The project’s aim is to support Israel’s intelligence-gathering capacity, and as such will likely focus on the areas of quantum communications and computing. This month, Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) announced plans to pursue joint quantum research and development programs with the Israel Defense Force (IDF) and U.S. Defense Forces, along with other high-tech industry players both in Israel and abroad.
Significantly, Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign aid since World War II and the vast majority of this funding, quoted at $134.7 billion total, goes directly to Israel’s defense programs. As such, Israel’s ability to support scientific research and development (R&D) with military funding has come to resemble the American system, where the Department of Defense (DoD) is one of the biggest funders of national scientific research and development. This has manifested as vast amounts of military investment in Israel’s high-technology sector. According to the OECD, the country’s gross domestic spending on R&D since 2015 has been the highest in the world. As a result, the science and technology sector in Israel is one of the most well-developed and profitable in the world.
Historically, Israel has prioritised the development of home-grown technological expertise and innovation through industry and its higher education system. The immense amount of military and defense funding coupled with highly-skilled immigration booms and an extremely economically and socially invested network of Jewish populations living abroad have enabled Israel to build a thriving, national high-technology industry. Geographically surrounded by Muslim-majority countries in a radically contentious area, Israel has maintained its space in the Middle East essentially through establishing its presence as a highly militarized nation with vital support from powerful friends. Within this context and motivated by a lack of natural resources, Israel became the leader in high technology military exports that it is today.
Given this context and history, Israel’s recent pivot in focus toward quantum technologies is no surprise. The country’s keen focus on security and defense applications currently dominates the scope of their quantum R&D programs, but civilian applications are promised as the next phase of development.
THE GULF NATIONS
While Israel may eventually corner the market in quantum computing and communications for military applications, the Gulf nations of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE have entered the race with a different aim. This year the Gulf nations launched quantum computing research groups in their respective countries with the goal of creating an ecosystem for capacity-building and ultimately, knowledge production, in quantum technologies. Already an authority in technological research in the Middle East and a rising star in research output worldwide, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science is well-positioned to become a regional leader in the quantum computing space. Further, Saudi Arabia’s Aramco presents existing experience with supercomputer systems, a considerable advantage in the quantum race.
Recently, the UAE has turned its focus toward forming vital partnerships with global tech giants and has been rewarded by agreements with some of the biggest names in quantum computing, D-Wave and Microsoft. Last year, the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) announced its participation in the Microsoft Quantum Computing Programme to develop quantum-based solutions for energy-optimization. Notably, DEWA is the first organisation outside of the U.S. to participate in the program. This suggests the UAE is taking a forward-looking approach to shift its economy and applying quantum innovation in the sustainable energy sector—a strategic pivot for a country where 30% of the GDP is directly based on oil and gas output. Last year as well, the UAE Minister for artificial intelligence enacted a partnership with Canadian quantum computing company, D-Wave, to bring the region its first quantum computer, which will be housed at the Museum of the Future in Dubai.
Broadly, these advancements are couched by the motive to ensure the ongoing production of innovation through knowledge development, a trend that is currently sweeping the Arab states. The pressing need to begin diversifying the economies of these oil-producing nations has also contributed to investment in new quantum programs. However, the Gulf countries lack the population sizes and national research budgets to compete with the rest of the world in the quantum race. For this reason, the Gulf countries are looking toward public-private partnerships as a way to develop their quantum computing sectors further, bringing vital knowledge and facilities to the region.
These recent developments appear to be at least in part a response to a widely-referenced 2019 World Government Summit report authored in partnership with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) by Simone Vernacchia. The report seems to have stoked a fire, urging the Gulf countries to begin investing in quantum technologies:
If they do not, they risk missing out on the many advantages that will be on offer across every sector, and they will face an increasing threat if they fail to plan for the next generation of cyber-security…. Building up knowledge and specific skills in the field, along with preparing defensive post-quantum computing cyber-strategies, can be considered urgent priorities.
The report makes clear the risks of missing the moment to join the quantum race but also points to a number of regional opportunities for quantum innovation within the existing oil production industry, national security apparatus and diversification into new industries. It is clear from the establishment of these early partnerships between the UAE, D-Wave and Microsoft, that the report’s warnings are not being taken lightly. Rather, the advice is being heeded as essential to ensuring the supremacy of the region’s economy and continued security.
A regional competitor to the UAE, Iran is also vying for a place in the quantum race and hoping to take the lead in quantum technological facilities and know-how in the Middle East. The country has had sights set on quantum research as a game-changing industry since around 2015 with the signing of the JCPOA. The JCPOA deal stipulates that in exchange for Iran limiting its uranium-enrichment activities, sanctions against the country imposed by six of the world’s biggest powers will be lifted. The agreement also opened a door for Iran to collaborate with Euratom, the European atomic energy community working in high technology development for nuclear power. Given the tumultuous U.S. withdrawal from JCPOA, Iran’s recent quantum efforts have focused on collaboration with European countries and the continued development of its own national capacities.
Although several sources from 2017 state that Iran has entered talks with European nations to collaborate on quantum technology it is unclear whether or not any agreements have been actualised. The Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI) appears to be the main authority involved in negotiations to build the country’s quantum industry. While European collaboration is a nebulous topic, it appears that the AEOI has been busy at work, proclaiming the two recent victories of creating Iran’s first laboratory equipped with quantum technology research facilities and running its first photon entanglement experiment.
Iran also boasts some of the most well-developed quantum information science programs in the region. As such, the quantum literacy of Iran’s scientists and engineers is higher than in many countries that lack such long-standing research specialisations. The Islamic Republic’s two leading quantum research groups, the Sharif University quantum information group and the Quantronics Lab at the Iran University of Science & Technology are internationally renowned and well-equipped. These advantages were achieved either despite international sanctions, or in the more likely case, after they were lifted through the JCPOA. Last year, the first National Conference on Quantum Technology was held in Tehran and the International Iran Conference on Quantum Information, led by the Sharif group, is now in its sixth year. These conferences serve to bring international knowledge of the latest quantum developments to the region, helping to put Iran on the map as a contender in the quantum race.
It is still early days for the Middle East in the quantum race. The growing quantum programs in the Gulf nations, Israel, and Iran have only been formally created within the past three years and as such their outputs and impacts remain minimal. Nevertheless, these countries, which have been lucky enough to prosper in relatively stable economic and political circumstances, have seized the valuable opportunity to participate in and even to help build what is promised as the next technological revolution. While only time can tell exactly how the quantum race will pan out, this regional competition will undoubtedly open up possibilities to shift existing power dynamics not just between these quantum-empowered Middle Eastern countries, but also on an international scale.