x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Richard Branson says Virgin considers UAE expansion

The founder of the Virgin Group hints at possible expansion in hotels and finance.

Richard Branson, right, with Vijay Eswaran, the executive chairman of the QI Group, at Yas Marina.
Richard Branson, right, with Vijay Eswaran, the executive chairman of the QI Group, at Yas Marina.

Sir Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin Group, says his company is considering further investments in the UAE, in areas such as hospitality and telecommunications.

His Virgin Galactic commercial space travel company already plans to build a spaceport in the capital and Virgin Blue airline recently signed a code-share agreement with Etihad Airways, but Sir Richard sees scope for expansion.

"Hotels may be a possibility, mobile phones may be a possibility, financial services may be a possibility," the UK billionaire said in Abu Dhabi. "I'm sure there will be other things we'll do."

Sir Richard, who was in the capital to support his Virgin Racing team in the Formula One race, already has strong business links to the region. Last year, Abu Dhabi's Aabar Investments bought a 32 per cent stake in his Virgin Galactic group for US$280 million (Dh1.03 billion). That deal has recently closed, and the two organisations are assessing potential sites for a spaceport in Abu Dhabi, Sir Richard said.

The UAE launch site would be Virgin Galactic's second spaceport after its site in New Mexico, which is due to open in about a year, he said. Sir Richard said he was hoping the spaceport in the capital would be operational within three years.

Virgin Mobile also launched its services in Qatar in May, marking his first venture in telecommunications in the region. Virgin Mobile Qatar is wholly owned by the local telecoms leader, Qatar Telecom, and is using the Virgin brand in exchange for an undisclosed sum.

Sir Richard said he hoped to duplicate Virgin's Qatar telecoms success in other parts of the region.

"We definitely would like to expand Virgin Mobile throughout the region. We've been very successful in Qatar, and we definitely want to expand it."

In the longer term, he is also interested in expanding Virgin's airline business regionally.

V Australia's agreement with Etihad, which is based in Abu Dhabi, was recently approved by the Australian government, despite protest from Qantas, and the airline will start flying next year. Asked whether he would extend the carrier's services to other parts of the Gulf, he said: "Not immediately."

But he has even bigger flights on the near horizon, as Virgin Galactic is aiming to send test flights into space next year.

In March, the group unveiled the first commercial spaceship, a winged minivan-sized vessel that will take space tourists into near-zero-gravity for about $200,000 a ride.

"I'm on the first flight, and so are my children," said Sir Richard.

About 100,000 people have shown interest, and 330 have put down deposits for space rides, which would take passengers high enough to achieve weightlessness.

Flights would not be launched until the company was sure they would be "100 per cent safe", he said.

At least 20 aspiring space tourists from the Gulf have paid deposits.