An artist's impression of space-themed entertainment park in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabian sovereign fund to invest in space tourism

Image credit: Virgin Galactic

The Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia is to back Virgin Group's space tourism venture with a $1 billion investment in Virgin Galactic and other Virgin space projects.

Recent major investments made by the fund have supported technology companies including ride-sharing service Uber, innovative robotics manufacturer SoftBank and defence technologies giant Lockheed Martin.

Saudi Arabia’s rich oil supply has made the kingdom wealthy, although there are serious concerns that its oil-dependent economy will suffer as reserves run dry in coming decades. In response to this, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is widely viewed as a modernising influence in the country, has established Vision 2030, a plan to diversify the Saudi economy.

“The future of Saudi Arabia is one of innovation,” said bin Salman. “It’s through partnerships with organisations like Virgin Group that we will make active contributions to those sectors and technologies that are driving progress on a global scale.”

Virgin Galactic is the arm of Virgin Group aimed at developing spacecraft for research and tourism. It owns the Spaceship Group, which designed SpaceShipTwo, a spacecraft intended to carry paying customers.

In 2016, Virgin Galactic was granted a licence by the US Federal Aviation Administration to use SpaceShipTwo for commercial flights once safety tests are completed. This would make it the first space company to offer rides to tourists.

Also owned by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group is Virgin Orbit, which provides rocket launches for small satellites. Virgin Orbit is currently developing a new launch vehicle, LauncherOne, which is capable of lifting off from the wing of an aeroplane, and carrying satellites into orbit around Earth.

The $1bn investment will be shared between Virgin Galactic, The Spaceship Group and Virgin Orbit. There is also the option for a further $480m investment in the future, a statement published by Virgin said.

“This investment will enable us to develop the next generation of satellite launches and accelerate our programme for point-to-point supersonic space travel,” Branson commented.

“We are now just months away from Virgin Galactic going into space with people on board and Virgin Orbit going into orbit and placing satellites around the Earth."

The statement confirming the investment was published as the Future Investment Initiatives conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, drew to a close. An illustration accompanying Brandon’s statement depicted a space-themed entertainment park in Saudi Arabia, although there are no details of such a project.

According to Branson, Virgin will remain based in the US, and will not compromise on its values in spite of the generous investment from the ultra-conservative country’s sovereign fund.

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