Richard Branson Suspends Talks on Saudi Arabian Space Investments Over Missing Journalist and Government Critic

October 11, 2018, 11:19 PM UTC

In the wake of the disappearance of journalist and prominent critic of the current Saudi Arabian leadership Jamal Khashoggi, Richard Branson has suspended his discussions over the government investing in his Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit space-tourism projects, Branson told The Guardian.

Branson is the most prominent business leader yet to back away from the Saudi government after Khashoggi went missing following entering the Saudi Arabian embassy in Turkey on Oct. 2. Khashoggi’s fate is unknown, but Turkish authorities have told reporters they believe a team of Saudi security agents killed and dismembered him in the Saudi embassy.

Branson told The Guardian in a statement that the allegations about Saudi involvement in Khashoggi’s disappeared, “if proved true, would clearly change the ability of any of us in the West to do business with the Saudi government.”

President Donald Trump, when asked about America’s reaction to Khashoggi’s disappearance, stressed the extent of Saudi Arabia’s purchases of U.S. military equipment and investment in the U.S. “That would be hurting us,” the president said, when asked about suspending sales to the country.

However, Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who opted not to run for re-election this fall, said this afternoon to CNN that “there is no question the Saudis did this.” A bipartisan consensus has already emerged to trigger an investigation that could lead to sanctions.

Meanwhile, some media sponsors and individual journalists have withdrawn from an investment event in Saudi Arabia next week called the Future Investment Initiative, and dubbed “Davos in the Desert.” The event is slated for Riyadh in a hotel at which the de facto ruler of the country, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, held 30 prominent Saudis captive last year as part of an alleged crackdown by the prince on corruption.

The New York Times has withdrawn from the event, as has its financial columnist and DealBook founder Andrew Ross Sorkin. The editor-in-chief of the Economist, Zanny Minton Beddoes, has also pulled out. Huffington Post founder Ariana Huffington, who was on the event’s advisory board, has withdrawn, and so too has the new owner of the Los Angeles Times, medical inventor Patrick Soon-Shiong.

A number of other companies and individuals listed, such as Uber’s CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, haven’t responded to reporters about whether they will still attend. Uber has a $3.5 billion investment from Saudi Arabia made in 2016. The Financial Times, Viacom, Fox Business Network, CNBC, Bloomberg, and CNN remain on the agenda at this writing, as does the head of JPMorgan Chase, Jamie Dimon, and MasterCard’s CEO Ajay Banga. Some have said they are evaluating their role.