Abu Dhabi is building a research and startup hub to compete on the world stage—and even has its own qubit-powered computer in the works. For the emirate’s R&D chief, it’s no mere box-ticking exercise.
ABU DHABI’S RESEARCH chief is anything but coy about the emirate’s ambitions in technologies like cryptography and autonomous robotics. Faisal Al-Bannai, secretary general of the Advanced Technology Research Council (ATRC), heads an organization that—while only formed in 2020—is already wise beyond its years, thanks to a massive, ongoing recruitment drive for researchers. It’s all part of the UAE capital’s bullish aim to position itself as a global research hub.
Or, maybe, superposition itself. One of the seven research centers under the Technology Innovation Institute (TII), which is part of ATRC, has started work on building its own quantum computer powered by “qubits” which, through the esoteric phenomena of superposition and entanglement, promise to help solve complex—yet extremely specific—problems.
The UAE’s first quantum computer will be built by TII’s Quantum Research Centre. It aims to construct the first simple chips by late summer, before building a fully-fledged computer cooled by big, beautiful “chandeliers”—just like those trialled by Google and IBM.
“The fundamental change [quantum computing will make] will be, in my view, the same as when the internet changed our lives,” Al-Bannai tells WIRED. “It’s one of these very exciting technologies once it reaches practical use.”
Al-Bannai says the computers will help in various fields—from AI to medicine and designing better batteries. The UAE plans to develop “the whole stack” of quantum technology: the computers themselves, the algorithms on which they run, and the “middleware” software that lies in between.
The world’s most established computing giants have battled in the race for “quantum supremacy”—the point at which a quantum device can solve problems that no classical computer could do in a feasible amount of time. Google won acclaim in 2019 after its prototype quantum computer took just minutes to complete a calculation that researchers estimated would have taken a supercomputer 10,000 years. A few months later, China’s leading quantum group made a similar claim. Somewhat predictably, quantum’s getting political among world superpowers.
For Al-Bannai, coming relatively late to the party is an advantage. “There are bigger players in the game today, but we don’t think size always matters,” he says. “There is a saying ‘you are too early’—the enabling technologies are not there. By coming a bit behind the others, and selecting a few interesting individuals to join your team… you can [decide] which path [to bet on.]”
Quantum is not the only path Abu Dhabi is pursuing as it emerges as a regional—and, as is its aim—global tech hub. The emirate is home to the tech accelerator startAD, which nurtures seed-stage startups and helps connect them with corporate partners, and the twofour54 media zone, which is transforming Abu Dhabi into a global gaming center.
Elsewhere, the UAE capital’s giant, gleaming Abu Dhabi Global Market is home to Hub71, a tech ecosystem that has attracted some 102 startups, many in the realm of fintech, health tech, and AI. They have raised a total of more than $50 million since Hub71 launched in March 2019, thanks partly to the eight VC funds at the startup cluster.
One of its success stories is the Lebanon-born music streaming service Anghami, which in January said it was moving its global headquarters to Hub71, having received financial incentives to do so from the Abu Dhabi Investment Office’s Innovation Program. Less than two months later, it emerged that Anghami will become the first Arab tech company to list on New York’s Nasdaq stock exchange as part of a merger deal, valuing it at up to $230 million.
To further boost support for startups, Hub71 in March announced a “value creation” program, designed to expose tech businesses to large-pocketed Abu Dhabi government agencies and state-owned entities. “We are giving them the access that they might not necessarily be able to have on their own,” says Hanan Harhara Al-Yafei, chief executive of Hub71.
Another way Hub71 helps tech businesses is by easing problems they may face when relocating to the UAE. Opening a bank account had long been a headache for startups in the UAE—often taking two months or more. But the government-funded Hub71 brought together regulators and banks to fix that problem—and now some startups can open a business account in as little as five days, says Al-Yafei.
“This is just the beginning. We started with the opening of a bank account, but we want to progress that into a bit more complex banking solutions, whether it’s debt or potentially even exits and IPOs,” she says. “One of the things we’re trying to do is unlock problems that startups have and when they’re setting up their businesses and want to scale out of Abu Dhabi.”
But why? For Al-Yafei, one of the main economic benefits has been employment, with around 250 jobs created in 2020, excluding the “ripple effect.” But, as with many of Abu Dhabi’s initiatives in research and technology, it’s a long-term game. “I think the real impact will be measured in at least five years or so,” says Al-Yafei.
ATRC’s Faisal Al-Bannai also has a long-term view in building up Abu Dhabi’s research capacities.
“The UAE is known for many things—it’s a big trading hub, there’s a lot of business happening here, it’s a tourist destination, but it’s not necessarily known as a R&D hub—at least not yet,” he says. “You need really clear, dedicated, long-term funds to get the momentum.”
He likens his approach to that of those funding cancer research, where there is no promise of a cure anytime soon—but where breakthroughs will, nonetheless, come.
“That needs a very different level of commitment, and funding—it is not delivered as a transaction: ‘I’m giving you the money, I need to see a product tomorrow’,” he says. Two of the ATRC initiatives with the biggest potential to solve real-world problems include efforts to provide better encryption of cloud data, and ways to avoid the problem of GPS jamming of autonomous vehicles, Al-Bannai says.
The UAE ranks 29th globally in terms of R&D spending, with expenditure standing at 1.3 percent of its total economy in 2018, according to the World Bank. This number will grow in the future, says Al-Bannai, partly thanks to increasing spending on its research centers—growing both the Emirati and international talent base.
“We want to become a magnet for global talent from around the world—to come here and see the UAE as a home,” says Al-Bannai. “We are not doing this just to tick a box.”