JEDDAH: Virgin airlines founder Richard Branson will invest in a Red Sea project that aims to turn 50 Saudi Arabian islands into luxury tourism destinations, the Saudi government announced on Sunday.
Branson is the first international investor to commit to the project, Saudi Arabia’s information ministry said, in what officials called “a clear sign that Saudi Arabia is opening its doors to international tourism”.
Branson also visited the tombs at Madain Saleh — an UNESCO World Heritage site located near a string of new hotels — in a trip to the Gulf kingdom that appears to be aimed at attracting further international attention, both investment and tourism.
“This is an incredibly exciting time in the country’s history and I’ve always felt that there’s nothing like getting a firsthand impression,” Branson said in a statement released by the information ministry.
Saudi Arabia is one of the most conservative countries in the world, only last week passing a decree allowing women to drive.
But since the shock appointment of powerful Prince Mohammed bin Salman as successor to his father’s throne in June, the oil-rich state has launched a media offensive aimed at promoting the country’s image.
Prince Mohammed, who sidelined his cousin Mohammed bin Nayef to be appointed the royal heir, is also the champion of Saudi Arabia’s ambitious Vision 2030 economic plan.
The scheme aims to pull the region’s biggest economy out of its dependence on oil and diversify the country’s economic revenue model.
On August 1, Saudi Arabia announced plans to turn 34,000 square kilometres (13,127 square miles) of its Red Sea coastline into luxury resorts.
The project is aimed at attracting international tourists to a country where alcohol is prohibited and the mobility and dress of women restricted.
Saudi authorities however have long turned a blind eye to compounds in which foreigners live, such as the Aramco headquarters in Dahran.
The Saudi Public Investment Fund, which is headed by Prince Mohammed, will provide the initial investment into the Red Sea project, with construction slated to start in 2019.
The Red Sea project is expected to generate 35,000 jobs, according to the Saudi government.
— Richard Branson (@richardbranson) September 29, 2017