Campaigners say tycoon’s plan to invest in luxury Red Sea project jars with previous criticism of Saudi Arabia’s questionable human rights record
Sir Richard Branson has been accused of hypocrisy after investing in a luxury tourism project in Saudi Arabia despite his track record of speaking out against human rights abuses in the country.
The Virgin Group founder has backed a project to develop 50 islands over a 34,000 sq km (13,127 sq miles) stretch of the Red Sea, creating an estimated 35,000 jobs.
But human rights campaigners are concerned that work on the project is likely to be carried out by migrant labour from Asia working under the kafala system, which has been likened to slavery. Under kafala, workers brought to the Middle East are bound to their employers and cannot leave a job without the permission of their bosses. In some cases, passports and wages are withheld by employers.
Branson, who has been vocal about ending modern-day slavery, has criticised Saudi Arabia over its human rights record. The British billionaire said last year: “In countries like Saudi Arabia, enforced disappearances and unlawful prosecution are just two of the most serious ways in which the right to speak out peacefully without discrimination is being violated.”
Nicholas McGeehan, an expert on migrant workers in the Gulf region and former researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said Branson was guilty of “gratuitous, self-serving hypocrisy”.
“He may take a little bump on his reputation for getting into bed with the Saudis, but clearly a billion dollars is a cost worth paying for it,” said McGeehan.
Human Rights Watch spokesman Adam Coogle said: “The question is whether investment with the Saudis is enabling the abuse and I think from migrants you could really see how that could be possible.
“If he doesn’t engage meaningfully on this issue he could open himself up to accusations of hypocrisy, namely that he doesn’t get assurances that the work he’s involved with is not free of migrant abuse.”
A Virgin spokesman said: “We have debated at length which is the best approach: to confront and boycott or to engage and seek dialogue. We see merit in both but we’ve found we’ve had greater success with the latter.”
Branson’s support follows confirmation from Saudi Arabia last month that it plans to invest $1bn (£762m) in the British tycoon’s Virgin space companies.
Branson has committed Virgin to meeting the requirements of the Modern Slavery Act. “It is time for us all to do more to tackle modern slavery by bringing together governments, businesses and civil society organisations to protect vulnerable people,” he wrote in a blog to mark Anti-Slavery Day last month.
Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is seeking to diversify the country’s economy to lessen its reliance on oil. Plans reportedly include construction of a £380bn city powered by clean energy.
Branson is the first international investor to commit to the construction projects, which are financed by Saudi Arabia’s public investment fund.
He said: “When I was asked to be involved helping Saudi develop three cities, in particular the Red Sea project, I was obviously delighted to say yes. I have quite a lot of experience in islands in the Caribbean, so we will lend that experience to it.”
Branson, however, a member of Amnesty International’s global council, has previously echoed criticism of the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, where 14 pro-democracy protesters are currently awaiting execution whom Amnesty believes have not had fair trials.
An Amnesty spokesman said: “Amnesty International expects all companies to carry out due diligence in every country they operate in to identify any risks that their operations will contribute to human rights abuses, and then take action to mitigate those risks.”
In 2014, Branson announced Virgin was boycotting Brunei-owned hotels over the country’s new anti-gay law, which allows the stoning to death of homosexuals. Legal stoning of homosexuals also happens in Saudi Arabia.
The Virgin spokesman added: “We believe our evolving relationship [with Saudi Arabia] will create welcome opportunities to start productive conversations about human rights and other challenges the country faces. It is through interactions like these that we believe we can make the greatest contribution to tangible progress.”