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Virgin Deal With Saudi Arabia Includes Possible Space Entertainment Center

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
October 29, 2017
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Richard Branson stands before an artist’s conception of a space entertainment complex that could be built in the Saudi capital of Riyadh. (Credit: ExpovistaTV Screenshot)

RIYADH, October 27, 2017 (CIC PR) – Sir Richard Branson has said that he would not only invest in Saudi Arabia but also partner with the Kingdom on his ambitious space projects, including a space-centric entertainment center that may be built in the capital city of Riyadh.

“It’s an exciting time to invest in Saudi Arabia,” the Virgin Group founder told the closing session of the October 24-26 Future Investment Initiative (FII) summit in Riyadh, hosted by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF), the country’s main sovereign wealth fund.

Saudi Arabia and Branson’s Virgin Group on Thursday announced a partnership that would involve space flights, satellite launches and ultra-fast transport systems, the official Saudi Press Agency said late on Thursday.

PIF and Virgin Group have announced their intention to form a $1 billion partnership through which the PIF will invest in Virgin Galactic, The Spaceship Company, and Virgin Orbit in addition to $480 million “as an additional choice in the future for investment in the sector of space services”, SPA said.

The global investor, best-known for founding Virgin Airlines, last month traveled across the Kingdom, visiting some of its most spectacular sites that are primed for development in line with the country’s Vision 2030 plan for the future.

The latest investment intention was approved by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Deputy Premier, Chairman of the Economic and Development Affairs Council and Chairman of PIF, and Branson. The Crown Prince had met with Branson and other international company executives on Wednesday on the sidelines of FII, to “discuss investment opportunities in accordance with the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 and the future areas of partnership in the Kingdom,” according to SPA.

The partnership between PIF and Virgin Group represents an effective platform to enhance modern technologies in the Kingdom’s plan towards developing a modern and diversified economy in line with the Vision 2030, said a statement carried by SPA.

“The partnership with Virgin Group reflects the Kingdom’s steps towards our vision to develop a diversified and knowledge-based economy,” the Crown Prince stated in the statement. “The Kingdom’s future is an innovation-based future which is jumped out at the Future Investment Initiative (FII) Forum. We will work with companies at the level of Virgin Group to make effective achievements in sectors and technologies that accelerate progress at the global level.”

Branson said in the statement: “We welcome the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to be a new partner for us at Virgin Galactic, Spaceship, and Virgin Orbit under the leadership of the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.”

“We are now just months away from Virgin Galactic sending people into space and Virgin Orbit placing satellites around the Earth. This investment will enable us to develop the next generation of human spaceflight, more economic satellite launches and accelerate our programme for trans-continental point-to-point space travel,” he said.

Under the non-binding memorandum of understanding  signed by PIF Managing Director Yasir Al-Rumayyan and Managing Director of Virgin Group Patrick McCall, the investment entails that PIF owns a stake in Virgin Galactic, The Spaceship Company, and Virgin Orbit in addition to other shareholders, including Virgin Group and Aabar Investments PJSC.

The companies and PIF will cooperate to implement a roadmap, to be agreed upon, to develop the space sector in the Kingdom in accordance with existing legislation.

In his FII presentation on Virgin’s space projects, Branson said a space-themed center may be built at the new Entertainment City in the Saudi capital. He gave no details but said there could be future launches from the Kingdom.

“The surprise for Saudi Arabia is that we are now going to be partners with Saudi Arabia in this whole program you have been seeing tonight,” Branson told the FII panel, titled “The World in 2030: Creating value for the next generation”.

“In one of your cities .. that I look forward to be working with you on, there will be this: a space center built,” he said. “This will be in the new Entertainment City.”

He did not give a specific date, but said he would like to see it established as soon as possible.

SpaceShipTwo glides to a landing at Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

“We’ve been working very hard with PIF and the Crown Prince’s team to bring this relationship together. I think maybe three years ago we would not be standing here today and we are really proud to be able to partner with Saudi Arabia and do a lot of wonderful things,” he said.

“First of all, not just to enable people from around the rest of the world to go to space but obviously to hopefully bring spaceships and motherships to Saudi Arabia to operate them from the runway here, to educate people and do a lot of space work here; to entertain people, there is an entertainment aspect to it.

“I would like to see it as soon as possible, but the first thing in the next three months is to finish our space program and finish the satellite program,” Branson said, when asked about the timeline for the new center.

Taking about his companies’ space program, he said that in three months’ time, a “spaceship will be in space”. The Virgin Orbit spacecraft, a Boeing 747 with converted wings, will be putting satellites in space in about 4 months. The satellites will travel around the Earth at 18,500 miles an hour, he said.

“That will be the start of this whole revolution of small satellites connecting people,” he said.

Credit: CIC Saudi Arabia

A supersonic plane under construction will be able to travel at 4 or 5 times the speed of sound.

“Most people in the world would like to go to space,” he said, citing market research. The key is to make the journey affordable.

“We are building a number of spaceships and the more spaceships we build the more we can bring the price of space travel down,” said Branson, whose aim is to send hundreds, and eventually thousands, of people into space.

‘Absolute Gem on Your Doorstep’

Key stopovers on Branson’s tour of the Kingdom last month included the pristine coastal islands of the recently-announced Red Sea Project, as well as the tombs at Madain Saleh, an UNESCO World Heritage site that is the southern outpost of the ancient Nabateans, who carved from stone the ancient city of Petra, near the spectacular Wadi Rum in Jordan.

“You have your very own Petra and Wadi Rum here. So it’s a very exciting time ahead,” Branson told the panel, referring to Madain Saleh.

During Thursday’s FII panel, Branson lauded the Crown Prince’s plans to open up the Kingdom’s tourism sector, saying that some spots in the country such as the Red Sea coast are just as good, if not better, than top global destinations such as the Maldives.

“I went to the Red Sea and I stood on those beautiful islands … I saw dugongs, I saw eagle rays, manta rays and turtles pulling themselves out and laying eggs. It’s an absolute gem of Saudi Arabia on your doorstep,” he commented.

“The opening up of Saudi Arabia is brave; it’s bold; young people in Saudi Arabia want it, women want it and I think most sensible men want it,” Branson told Thursday’s panel.

“It’s an exciting time to be here and it’s an exciting time to invest in Saudi Arabia,” he said.

“I will invest. I have been asked to be on the board of one or two of your city projects and your Red Sea project, and I am delighted to accept and we’ll try to see if we can make it special.”

The Red Sea Project is a coastal lagoon covering some 50 untouched islands stretched along more than 150 kilometers of unpopulated coastline and is set to become a destination for local and international tourists. The project will comprise exquisite luxury resorts, underwater nature reserves and dormant volcanos within an area of 34,000 square kilometers.

PIF will inject initial investments into the project and start partnerships with international companies to spur development of resorts, hotels and other amenities, in line with Vision 2030’s mandate for the formation of Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) aimed at diversifying the economy away from oil.