Virgin Hyperloop One CEO Jay Walder is “delighted” to attend this year’s Future Investment Initiative conference in Saudi Arabia this week, just one year after the government had Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi brutally murdered, according to an official statement released Monday. The startup is one of 49 “global partners” Saudi Arabia announced for the conference, which is otherwise known as Davos in the Desert. The event starts later this week in the capital city of Riyadh.
Walder is a former head of New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and the former CEO of bike-share startup Motivate. He joined Virgin Hyperloop One last November as part of a shake-up in the startup’s leadership, which came after then-chairman Richard Branson criticized the Saudi Arabian government for Khashoggi’s disappearance. Virgin Hyperloop One did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Just a few days after Khashoggi vanished in October 2018, Branson suspended a $1 billion investment into his space company from Saudi Arabia’s public investment fund. He said in a blog post that he “had high hopes for the current government in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman,” but that a state-sponsored murder of a journalist “would clearly change the ability of any of us in the West to do business with the Saudi Government.”
Virgin Hyperloop One soon backed out of the 2018 Davos in the Desert, alongside dozens of other companies and scheduled speakers. Following that, the Saudi Arabian government officially dropped the $1 billion deal with Virgin Galactic.
Branson ultimately stepped down as chairman of Virgin Hyperloop One, and at the same time that Walder came on board, the billionaire mogul’s spot was filled by Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, the CEO of Dubai port operator DP World, which had invested $25 million in the startup. Virgin Hyperloop One raised another $172 million from DP World in May of this year.
“We are delighted to be returning to participate at FII this year, along with our investment partners DP World, and we have an amazing display to show guests how our technology will change the way they think about distance and speed,” Walder said in the statement. “We will also be showcasing the results of a recent study conducted in the Kingdom showing the significant economic and job creation opportunities that comes with the deployment of a hyperloop system.”