Richard Branson pulls back from Saudi projects

Richard Branson said Thursday he’s pulling back from two tourism projects in Saudi Arabia and has suspended discussions with the Saudi government about a $1 billion investment in Virgin’s space companies.

The British billionaire and founder of the Virgin business empire said in a statement that he was stepping away amid mounting questions about the kingdom’s role in the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — who was last seen entering the Saudi consulate general in Istanbul on Oct. 2.

“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 in the statement.

Branson said he has asked Saudi authorities “to clarify their position in relation to Mr Khashoggi.”

“While those investigations are ongoing and Mr Khashoggi’s presence is not known, I will suspend my directorships of the two tourism projects. Virgin will also suspend its discussions with the Public Investment Fund over the proposed investment in our space companies Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit,” he said.

Branson’s move comes as international pressure mounts on Saudi Arabia over the disappearance of Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist, contributor to the Washington Post and critic of the Saudi regime.

Turkish officials privately believe he was killed at the consulate, an allegation denied by Saudi Arabia.

The United States has intercepts of Saudi officials discussing a plan to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia and detain him, according to a US official familiar with the intelligence.

Khashoggi’s disappearance has prompted media companies to reconsider their association with a high-profile business conference in Saudi Arabia scheduled for later this month. The conference, hosted by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is part of his Vision 2030 plan to break the country’s dependence on oil.

The New York Times has pulled its partnership, telling CNN Business in a statement that the newspaper is “no longer a media sponsor.”

Zanny Minton Beddoes, the editor-in-chief of The Economist, will also no longer speak at the event, a spokesperson told CNN Business. Los Angeles Times owner Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, who had been scheduled to speak at the conference, will not be attending the event either, according to a spokesman for the newspaper.

Journalists from CNN, Fox Business Network, CNBC and the New York Times are listed as moderators for the event.

A CNN spokesperson said the network was “evaluating our participation in the conference.” Fox Business Network, Bloomberg and CNBC are monitoring the situation, according to spokespeople for the networks.

Ernest Moniz, a former US energy secretary, said Wednesday he was suspending his participation on the advisory board of a Saudi government project to build a new futuristic mega city. Moniz said his future involvement would “depend on learning all the facts about Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance over the coming days and weeks.”