George Whitesides, CEO of the Virgin Galactic space tourism company, will speak at the Space Conference here at the Dubai Airshow.

The Saudi Arabian government three weeks ago signed a partnership agreement with Virgin Group under which it will invest around $1 billion into the company’s space operations in return for an unspecified but “substantial” stake in Virgin Galactic, The Spaceship Company and Virgin Orbit, alongside Virgin Group and its backer Abu Dhabi’s Aabar Investments, now part of Mubadala.

The funding move, which includes an option for $480 million of future additional investment in Virgin’s space services, comes as Virgin Galactic readies for powered flights of its sub-orbital SpaceShipTwo (SS2) and as Virgin Orbit prepares for captive carry tests of the LauncherOne rocket.  Although long delayed by development issues and the 2014 crash of the first Scaled Composites-built SS2 during testing, powered flights are expected to resume later this year with the start of commercial operations by Virgin Galactic likely in 2018. Virgin Orbit is following a similar timeline with initial drop tests of LauncherOne expected next year.  

The Saudi stake will be held by the government-run Public Investment Fund (PIF) which includes a portfolio of domestic and international investments, diversified across sectors, geographies and varying assets. The PIF acts as Saudi Arabia’s main investment arm, and its involvement with Virgin follows approval by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al-Saud, the Deputy Prime Minister of the country as well as the chairman of the PIF. Strategic guidance for the partnership was provided by Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Economy and Planning which sees the partnership as a key element of the country’s Vision 2030 plan to develop a diversified economy in 2030.

Virgin Group founder Richard Branson says the company is “just months away from Virgin Galactic going into space with people on board and Virgin Orbit going into orbit and placing satellites around the Earth.” Referencing longer-term plans to develop a follow-on liquid-fueled rocket-powered SS2 derivative for long-haul, high-speed passenger flights around the world, he adds the investment “will enable us to develop the next generation of satellite launches and accelerate our program for point to point supersonic space travel.”