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

Saudi space tourism project suspended over alleged murder of journalist

Image credit: Virgin Galactic

Virgin Group founder Richard Branson has suspended discussions relating to a $1bn+ space tourism project in Saudi Arabia over the alleged murder of a journalist critical of the Saudi regime.

Jamal Khashoggi – a progressive Saudi journalist who wrote for the Washington Post and edited Al Arab and Al Watan – had long been a critic of the Saudi monarchy’s regime, including its intervention in Yemen. On 2 October, Khashoggi visited the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, in order to obtain paperwork necessary for his planned marriage while his fiancée waited outside the building. After he failed to return by the time the consulate closed, she reported him missing.

According to the Washington Post, Turkish police sources have audio and video evidence to prove that Khashoggi was tortured and murdered inside the building by 15 agents sent from Saudi Arabia. They allege that his body was then dismembered and removed from the building. Saudi spokespeople have denied the assassination, and say that he safely left the building using a back entrance.

Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group had been in talks with the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia – the conservative kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund – to invest $1bn in Virgin’s space tourism branches, Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit. According to a statement published by Virgin in October 2017, there was also the option for a further $480m investment in the future.

The investment was intended as part of a wider Saudi effort led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al-Saud to diversify its economy, which remains dependent on its rich oil resources.

Following the allegations of Khashoggi’s murder, however, Branson has announced that the talks will be suspended.

“What reportedly happened in Turkey around the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, if proved true, would clearly change the ability of any of us in the West to do business with the Saudi government,” Brandon said in a statement.

“We have asked for more information from the authorities in Saudi and to clarify their position in relation to Mr Khashoggi.”

Khashoggi’s disappearance has led to a handful of other tech leaders boycotting the kingdom’s upcoming Future Investment Initiative, nicknamed ‘Davos in the desert’. Those who have said that they will not attend (or will consider not attending) include tech investor and former head of AOL Steve Case, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, and Viacom CEO Robert Bakish. The New York Times has pulled out of the event as a sponsor, while LA Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong and Economist editor in chief Zanny Minton Beddoes have decided not to attend.

Meanwhile, Ernest Moniz – who served as energy secretary during the Obama administration – has suspended his role on the advisory board of the $500bn ‘Neom’ project, which sought to build an autonomous, futuristic and “liberal” megacity in empty desert near the Red Sea.

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