|By K Raveendran| Virgin boss Richard Branson recently went on a voyage to Arabia’s past, which he claims helped him discover an incredibly exciting time in Saudi Arabia’s history.
The visit also turned out to be an inspiration for him to announce a major investment in a luxury tourism project aiming to transform a stretch of Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast into a hub for high-end holidaymakers. Covering more than 50 islands between the cities of Umluj and Al Wajh, the project will also create as many as 35,000 jobs in an area remote from major cities.
In his blog Branson talked about his fascinating tour of the Saudi Arabia that few people have got chance to see before. He said he and his team were taken to the Red Sea, where the huge project to turn a giant lagoon into a beautiful tourism destination is underway.
Branson himself did not announce the investment in his blog, but the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information said in a statement that the Virgin boss is the first non-Saudi investor to commit to the Red Sea Project and nearby Al Ola/Madain Saleh site for the development of tourism.
Branson said it was quite an experience to be there on the day that women were given the right to drive for the first time. In a country where women’s rights still lag behind the West, this was a huge announcement and a much-welcomed sign of progress and one welcomed by every woman, he said.
He cited the decision as one of many incremental reforms driven by Saudi-Arabia’s young and charismatic Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, who, with his father, is committed to moving his country into the modern world, and bringing its citizens with him.
“From the vantage point of a foreign observer, much of this may appear too little, too slow. But I understand what Prince Muhammad is trying to do, and I think it is an enormously difficult job to promote change while reconciling the various forces that seek to pull this vast country in very different directions. More than half of Saudi-Arabia’s wonderful, charming and so incredibly hospitable people are under the age of 25, yet for most of its statehood, the country was held in the grip of an aging religious establishment whose hardline approach controlled much of private and public life.”
He also recounted his experience from a maiden visit to the Unesco World Heritage site, Mada’in Saleh. “I’ve been fortunate to visit Petra in Jordan, which is a ruin from the same ancient civilisation, but this was even more stunning. “As a kid if I was asked who my hero was, I would say Lawrence of Arabia. So it was a real treat to visit the railway that was once a target for Lawrence of Arabia in the revolt against Ottoman domination. The train I am standing next to was one that he blew up in the conflict, which has been restored back to the track.
Richard Branson is already partnering Abu Dhabi for his Virgin Galactic venture to carry its fare-paying passenger to the edge of space. Abu Dhabi government’s Aabar Investments wealth fund has a 37.8 percent stake in the venture.