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November 11, 2013

HPC Prospects in Qatar

Gary Johnson

All countries have some computing capability, but relatively fewer are serious players in HPC.  So far in the Middle East, the only country to place machines on the Top500 list is Saudi Arabia.  Qatar, which is right next door, is a very wealthy and focused country that could easily become a significant HPC power.  Why would Qatar want to play in HPC and how significant a player might it become? 

As evidenced by the 1980 to 2013 comparison photos of Doha, Qatar’s capital city, oil and gas revenues have enabled Qatar to transform itself from a poor British protectorate noted mainly for pearling, into the country with the world’s highest per capita income.

Estimates project that Qatar’s 2012 Gross Domestic Product (GDP) stand at $191 billion and its per capita GDP at $103,900.  About 36% of its households are in the highest 10% share of its income distribution. Qatar’s 2012 population was about 1.8 million and its labor force about 1.4 million.  Of the total population, only about 300,000 are Qatari citizens.  To enable its rapid economic development, Qatar has supplemented its domestic work force with a large compliment of expatriate workers from around the globe – and at all levels, from construction laborers to researchers, academics and administrators.

Talent Acquisition

Thomas Zacharia

Thomas Zacharia

Among the many expats now working in Qatar, two are particularly relevant to HPC – Thomas Zacharia and Mohammad (Moe) Khaleel.  About a year ago, after a 25 year career at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Thomas Zacharia left the Lab to become the Qatar Foundation’s (QF) Executive Vice President of Research and Development.  Formerly ORNL’s Deputy Director for Science and Technology, Dr. Zacharia was best known for bringing Leadership Computing to the Lab, establishing the National Center for Computational Sciences and placing ORNL’s Jaguar supercomputer at the top of the Top500 list.

About six months ago, after a 20+ year career at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Moe Khaleel left his Lab to become QF R&D’s Executive Director for the Qatar Energy and Environment Research Institute (QEERI) and acting Executive Director for Qatar’s National Center for Computing Research Infrastructure (NCRI).

While at PNNL, Dr. Khaleel led the Lab’s Computational Sciences and Mathematics Division and co-directed the Northwest Institute for Advanced Computing at the University of Washington.  Under his leadership, PNNL gained a strong national reputation in HPC, computational sciences and exascale computing research.

Mohammad (Moe) Khaleel

Mohammad (Moe) Khaleel

Given the extensive professional experience of Drs. Zacharia and Khaleel in pushing the HPC envelope and in computational science applications R&D, it seems reasonable to expect that the Qatar Foundation’s Research and Development program intends to focus some of its resources on these areas.  This expectation is reinforced by the recent announcement of a search for a permanent Executive Director for NCRI.

Qatar R&D Priorities

As stated in the Qatar National Vision 2030 document:

Qatar is at a crossroads. The country’s abundant wealth creates both previously undreamt of opportunities and formidable challenges. It is now imperative for Qatar to choose the best development path that is compatible with the views of its leadership and the aspirations of its people.

The vision statement for the Qatar National Research Strategy is:

Qatar will be a leading center for research and development excellence and innovation.

In implementing its national research strategy, Qatar has chosen a number of cross-cutting research priorities.  Among these, at least four are noteworthy from an HPC perspective:

  • Energy Security;
  • Water Security;
  • Cyber Security; and
  • Biomedical Research.

While Qatar has abundant oil and gas supplies, its focus is on transitioning its own energy economy to renewable sources, principally solar.  Qatar depends on desalinating seawater to provide fresh water to meet virtually all of its domestic needs.  Thus, new water purification technologies that provide higher throughput at lower energy costs are critically important.  Qatar is one of the most connected countries in the world. Culturally, economically, politically, socially, scientifically and financially the nation has risen to global prominence because of an infrastructure and communications network that is highly automated.  With this reliance on computing and networking technologies, Qatar has become one of the world’s most visible targets for cyber security attacks.  So, cyber security is also a high priority.  Biomedical research in Qatar is concentrated on genomic medicine, biomedical engineering, stem cell and gene-based therapies with primary focus in diabetes, cancer, and neurological diseases.  Additionally, the Qatar foundation’s healthcare initiative involves the Sidra Medical and Research Center – an ultramodern, all-digital academic medical center which intends to set new standards in patient care.

Since much of Qatar’s infrastructure is quite new and since Doha is growing rapidly, one can think of it as a venue for the development of a smart city.  That makes Doha an interesting place for Urban Studies – and provides an additional data-intensive computing research area to the mix.  Dr. Zacharia elaborated on this theme during a panel discussion at the International Supercomputing Conference’s Think Tank on Big Data this past Summer.

Based on our understanding of efforts elsewhere to deal with similar challenges, it seems safe to say that any serious attack on these problems will require very significant computing capabilities.

HPC Budget Estimate

So, Qatar has the national financial resources, core leadership and R&D priorities to justify becoming a significant player in global HPC.  How significant could Qatar become – and what would it cost?

If we assume that the Qatar Foundation’s R&D enterprise is about the same size as the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science, that would size it at about $5 billion per annum.  The Office of Science spends roughly $210 million per year, or 4% of its budget, to support its three large computing activities.  This collection consists of a production facility, NERSC, at about $65 million/year and two “leadership” facilities, the Argonne facility (ALCF) at about $60 million/year and the Oak Ridge facility (OLCF) at about $85 million/year.  The OLCF currently houses Titan, the number 2 machine on the Top500 list.

The numbers above represent recurring costs.  If we look at acquisition costs, then consider Tianhe-2 which is currently at the top of the Top500 list – and is roughly twice as fast as Titan.  Reportedly, the acquisition of Tihane-2 cost $390 million.

Another way to bound the budget for a high-end machine would be to look at its development cost.  At a US House of Representatives hearing earlier this year, Dr. Rick Stevens from DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory reported that the investment required for DOE to field an exascale system by 2020 would be about $400 million/year (you’ll find the relevant discussion about 62 minutes into this YouTube video of the hearing).

So, given all of this, we can make a few rough estimates.  If QF R&D were to field a Titan sized machine, perhaps it would cost about $80 million/year, or about 1.6% of an assumed $5 billion budget.  Suppose twice as fast (i.e. Tihane-2 sized) cost twice as much.  That would yield 3.2% or $160 million/year.

Developing an exascale system is a totally different matter.  But suppose there is some room for savings in the $400 million/year estimate.  Maybe $300 million/year would suffice.  These scenarios would cost 8% or 6% of an assumed $5 billion budget.  Also, since developing a next-generation machine would not satisfy current or immediate future requirements, one would need to include an additional 1.6% to 3.2% to cover those needs.

In summary, if Qatar were to require a nice production supercomputing facility, one could be operated for about $60 million/year.  Going beyond that could range as high as $400 – $500 million/year.


We’ve been discussing some pretty large budget numbers for any country – and Qatar is a small (but prosperous) one.  Given the computing needs of its research priorities, might Qatar commit to being a major HPC player?

In a recent article, Dr. Zacharia summarized his view of Qatar’s R&D goals as being “ambitious” but “achievable” and went on to say:

What’s taking place in Qatar is unprecedented in recent times. In many ways it harkens back to the time when the big national laboratories were established in the United States during the establishment of NASA. We have the opportunity and responsibility to build this knowledge-based economy.

The article also presents some summary expectations for the next five years, over which QF R&D intends to support:

  • A new 200,000 square meter R&D complex;
  • 2,000 new researchers at QF R&D;
  • 8,000 private sector researchers; and
  • 1,000 Ph.D. graduates.

Globally, R&D and supercomputing expenditures as a percent of GDP vary widely.  Based on statistics drawn from the World Bank, the CIA World Factbook and an IDC study done for the European Commission, we can make a few relevant comparisons:


R&D Expenditure

[% of GDP]

Supercomputing Expenditure

[% of GDP]

United States



European Union



















The 2.8% of GDP number cited for Qatar comes from a Knoxville News Sentinel article written in August of 2012.  If correct, it would place Qatar in the same R&D expenditure range as the US or Singapore, well above the EU or China, but lower than Japan or Korea.  If Qatar were to spend 0.01% of GDP on supercomputing (i.e. in the range of the US or Singapore), this would provide roughly $20 million/year.  That would be enough to be a very credible HPC player.  To move into the top ranks, Qatar would probably need to spend about 0.030% to 0.045% of GDP.

Could Qatar make a big commitment to HPC?  So far, they’ve turned a poor economy based on pearling and fishing into one yielding the world’s highest per capita income.  The Qatari satellite TV station Al-Jazeera has become one of the most important broadcasters, not only in the Arab world, but globally.  Qatar is quite active on the regional and world stage, having mediated in disputes in the Middle East and Africa.  Qatar also won the bid to host the 2022 World Cup – the world’s largest sporting event.  Qatar is rapidly developing Doha and expanding its infrastructure.  In fact, Qatar is expected to spend about $100 billion on infrastructure development in Doha over the next 10 years.  Large numbers of buildings are under construction, there is a huge expansion to its transportation network, including the addition of new highways, the construction of a new airport, and the construction of a metro system.  For a visual impression of what the Qataris are doing, take a look at these videos: Doha Bay Crossing and Lusail Expressway.

Most importantly, rather than focusing on tourism, as some other Middle Eastern countries have, Qatar has chosen to focus its resources on developing a knowledge economy.  HPC will need to be an integral part of any such economy.

Qatar has become known for “punching above its weight”.  Time will tell if it chooses to punch above its weight in HPC.

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