LONDON, UK - Richard Branson, the founder and principal shareholder of the Virgin Group conglomerate, which comprises more than 400 companies, is suspending all business relationships with Saudi Arabia.
Virgin had been negotiating with Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund which was to see the kingdom take a stake in Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit, the conglomerate's new Space programmes. That, at least for now, will not happen.
The measures being taken by Branson personally, and by the Virgin Group, were announced late Thursday by Branson himself.
The reason the magnate gave was due to the circumstance behind the disappearance of prominent Saudi-born, Washington DC resident, and The Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
There has been considerable speculation this week that the reporter's disappearance, and possible murder, could lead to a breaking of ties by international investors. Branson's group it appears is the first cab off the rank.
"I had high hopes for the current government in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and it is why I was delighted to accept two directorships in the tourism projects around the Red Sea," Branson said in a statement released late on Thursday.
"I felt that I could give practical development advice and also help protect the precious environment around the coastline and islands."
"What has 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," Branson said.
"We have asked for more information from the authorities in Saudi and to clarify their position in relation to Mr Khashoggi."
"While those investigations are ongoing and Mr Khashoggi’s whereabouts are not known, I will suspend my directorships of the two tourism projects," Branson said.
"Virgin will also suspend its discussions with the Public Investment Fund over the proposed investment in our space companies Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit."
Saudi Arabia was also rocked Thursday by several withdrawals from a major investment conference, Future Investment Initiative, being host by Crown Prince Salman in Riyadh later this month (October23-25 2018).
Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, Viacom CEO Bob Bakish, and Ariana Huffington, the founder of the Huffington Post, announced on Thursday they would now not be attending the conference, which is known as 'the Davos in the Desert.'
The New York Times withdrew as well as a media partner, saying it was "no longer comfortable being associated with the event." The newspaper was soon joined by The Financial Times and CNN.
Uber's Khosrowshahi said in a statement released late on Thursday, "I'm very troubled by the reports to date about Jamal Khashoggi. "We are following the situation closely, and unless a substantially different set of facts emerges, I won't be attending the FII conference in Riyadh."
Khosrowshahi was scheduled to be among the scores of speaks at the event.
Other speakers who had not signalled they were withdrawing include:
- David Bonderman, Chairman & Founding Partner, TPG Capital
- Jamie Dimon, CEO, JPMorgan Chase
- Larry Fink, Chairman & CEO, BlackRock, Inc.
- John M. Flint, Executive Director & Group Chief Executive of HSBC Holdings PLC
- Christine Lagarde, President, IMF
- Kai-Fu Lee, Chairman & CEO, Sinovation Ventures
- Tong Li, CEO, Bank of China International
- Rob Lloyd, CEO, Hyperloop One
- Jean Lemierre, Chairman, BNP Paribas
- Kanetsugu Mike, President & CEO, MUFG Bank LTD
- Zanny Minton-Beddoes, Editor-in-Chief, The Economist
- Rajeev Misra, CEO Softbank Vision Fund, SB Investment Advisers
- Secretary Steven Mnuchin, United States Secretary of the Treasury
- Lubna S. Olayan, CEO & Deputy Chairperson, Olayan Financing Company
- General David Petraeus, Chairman, KKR
- Jeremy Weir, Executive Chairman & CEO, Trafigura Group Pte Ltd
- Stephen Schwarzman, CEO, Blackstone
U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Friday confirmed he was still attending the conference.
"I am planning on going at this point," he told CNBC. "If mlore information comes out and changes, we could look at that, but I am planning on going."