Politics, Business and Alien Life


By Nick Pope


Late in January 2011, senior political figures and business leaders gathered in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to attend the Global Competitiveness Forum (GCF). This three-day meeting was an opportunity for discussion on a wide range of issues, but astonishingly, the event included a session entitled “Contact: Learning from Outer Space”. I spoke at this session and was present for the entire three days. In this article I’ll tell the full story of this event, explaining why alien life was on the agenda, what was discussed and what the longer term implications might be. 

I also want to use this article to set the record straight, because there has been a lot of misunderstanding in the UFO community about this event, including some conspiratorial murmurings about the Saudi Arabian government and the business elite being aware of an extraterrestrial presence, preparing for it and trying to position themselves so as to benefit from some imminent revelation.

SAGIA and the Global Competitiveness Forum

The GCF is now in its 5th year. The organiser is the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA), a body set up to promote Saudi business and help generate new investment. SAGIA’s formal mission statement reads as follows: “Attracting sufficient investment to achieve rapid and sustainable economic growth in Saudi Arabia, capitalizing on the Kingdom’s competitive strengths as the global capital of energy and as a major hub between East and West”.

More specifically, the GCF vision is defined as follows: “An annual program of activities attended by global business leaders, international political leaders and selected intellectuals who share a common interest in competitiveness”. Their mission is described thus: “To continue fostering awareness and enthusiasm around the issue of competitiveness, and to evaluate the applicability of competitiveness theory and practice as a tool for generating real solutions to contemporary global challenges”.

Perhaps the best analogy I can use is to say that the event is similar to the World Economic Forum in Davos. Indeed, GCF takes place immediately beforehand, so that attendees can go straight from Riyadh to Davos – as many did.

SAGIA enjoys the support of HM King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. GCF too takes place under the patronage of His Majesty, so the conference is effectively sponsored by the Saudi government itself. A number of Saudi Princes and Government Ministers were present and as an interesting aside, this is the only conference I have attended where the speakers’ information pack contained protocol guidance recommending that speakers preface their remarks with the phrase, “Your Royal Highnesses, Highnesses, Your Excellencies, Distinguished Guests”.

It was not immediately clear why the decision had been taken to include a session on the search for extraterrestrial life, but it cannot have escaped the notice of the Saudi organisers that the subject had been enjoying increasing mainstream media coverage, partly as a result of the ongoing programme to release the MoD’s UFO files and partly due to the two Royal Society discussion meetings held on the subject in 2010. It seems clear that the organisers believed this was a subject on which the business community had yet to engage, but where such engagement might be beneficial, both directly and indirectly.

My invitation arrived back in August 2010 from His Excellency Amr bin Abdullah al-Dabbagh, Governor of SAGIA. In Saudi culture, somebody at this level is regarded as having Ministerial rank, so to date, this has been the only conference invitation I have received where my response has had to begin with the salutation, “Your Excellency”. I had been invited in part because of my having worked on the MoD’s UFO project and having subsequently been involved in the ongoing programme to declassify this material and release it to the National Archives. However, for the most part, it was my work as a journalist and media commentator on space issues that had brought me to the attention of the organisers. What was particularly relevant was the fact that I had attended the Royal Society’s two discussion meetings on the discovery of extraterrestrial life, discussed them on CNN and written about them on msnbc.com’s prestigious technology & science site.

The Conference

The event was held in Riyadh, the Saudi Arabian capital. Tickets cost $5000 and so far as the business community was concerned, attendance was strictly limited to those at board or CEO level. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is not the easiest of countries to enter (aside from special arrangements that apply to pilgrims taking part in the Hajj) and attendees needed a Saudi sponsor, along with approval from the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with a visa then being issued by the Saudi embassy in their country of residence. The bottom line is that this was most certainly not an event for the public.

The conference was meticulously organised. I flew to Riyadh on business class and was met at the arrival gate by an individually-assigned greeter who then whisked me through customs via a fast-track process. From there, I was chauffeured to the Four Seasons Hotel, where I was staying and where the conference was held. Much was made of the fact that this was to be a paperless conference. All speakers and attendees were issued with i-Pads (which were ours to keep) on which was pre-loaded a special application enabling us to keep track of proceedings and network with other speakers and attendees. There were regular updates on Facebook and Twitter. This is the direction in which conference organisers in the business community are going and GCF 2011 is a blueprint for future events at this level.

The Speakers

As mentioned previously, attendance was strictly controlled and limited to those of high rank. Similarly, the speakers were drawn from a similar pool. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke at GCF 2010 and had private discussions with the Saudi King in the margins of the event. This year, the keynote speaker was Bill Clinton. Other speakers included Tony Blair again, this time taking part in a panel discussion on global risks. From the business community, speakers included board and CEO-level attendees from top companies including Google, Walt Disney, Reuters, Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Siemens, IBM, Ernst & Young and Rio Tinto.

To give a better idea of the sorts of issues discussed at GCF 2011, examples of lecture and panel discussion titles included “Global Risks 2011”, “The Power of Social Media”, “Natural Capitalism”, “Corporate Social responsibility and the Media”, “Cities of the Future”, “The Next Big Idea”, “Conscious Capitalism” and “Global Energy Outlook 2011”. If all this sounds somewhat elitist, there were also sessions addressing ‘green’ issues and problems such as climate change and the increased demand for food. On this latter issue, a fascinating and scary statistic presented is that if the world population increases as currently forecast, we are going to have to produce as much food in the next 40 years as we have in the last 8000.

Religion and Alien Life

The attitude of the Catholic Church to the concept of alien life has attracted considerable attention over the last few years, both in the media, in the UFO community and with the wider public. The Head of the Vatican’s observatory, Jesuit priest Father José Gabriel Funes, has given several interviews in which he has said that church doctrine in no way rules out the possibility that extraterrestrial life (and indeed extraterrestrial intelligence) exists. This is on the basis, as Father Funes said, that “we cannot put limits on the creative freedom of God”. Such high-profile and provocative statements would almost certainly have been approved in advance by the Pope. All of this has added to the suspicion, in certain quarters, that the Catholic Church ‘knows something’ about extraterrestrial life. These suspicions were fuelled by the fact that the major interview Father Funes gave about this was published in exactly the same week as the first batch of MoD UFO files was made available at the National Archives, back in May 2008. My own view is that this is simply the Catholic Church being prudent. Conflict between science and religion is not new and they are probably trying to ensure that they are not caught unprepared if, for example, NASA announces the discovery of microbial life on Mars, or if SETI announces the detection of a signal from an alien civilisation.

Some people in the UFO community wondered whether the inclusion at GCF 2011 of a session about alien life was the Islamic world’s response to all this, either in parallel with the actions of the Catholic Church or, perhaps, in competition with it. The attitude of Islam on the issue is less clear. The Koran contains numerous references to supernatural entities known as the jinn, while other verses in the Koran refer to Allah as “Lord of the Worlds” and creator of “seven heavens”. While it for Islamic scholars and not for me to interpret such words, many have argued that such descriptions seem to allow for a plurality of worlds and – perhaps – the existence of life beyond Earth. That said, I do not believe the inclusion of a session on extraterrestrial life at GCF 2011 should be viewed in the context of Islam being aware of (or preparing for the possibility of) alien life, any more than I believe that the Catholic Church’s recent statements imply such a state of affairs. So with the religious issue addressed, let’s take a look at the panel discussion itself and see what it was really about.

Contact: Learning From Outer Space

The panel discussion took place on Sunday 23rd January and lasted an hour and a quarter. Aside from me, the other speakers were as follows: theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, author Jacques Vallee, nuclear physicist/researcher Stanton Friedman and Zaghloul El Naggar, Professor of Earth Science and Geology, Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs. The panel was moderated by John Quelch, Dean of the China Europe International Business School.

Michio Kaku spoke about the types of alien civilisations that might exist in the Universe, using the Kardashev Scale as his starting point. Zaghloul El Naggar spoke about the links between science and Islam, citing various passages in the Koran and tying them in to various cosmological phenomena and structures. Jacques Vallee and Stanton Friedman spoke about UFOs, which was probably the first time that many in the audience had been exposed to informed comments on the subject. While I mentioned UFOs in passing, I spoke more generally about space, astrobiology and the SETI programme. I described the search for extraterrestrial life as being a new space race where innovative thinking and competitiveness - the key themes of the conference - were being demonstrated. I also mentioned some financial opportunities that might arise from the discovery of extraterrestrial life and suggested that the business community might want to give some thought to this.

I prepared a position statement in advance of the conference and I shall reproduce it here in full, to give a clearer idea of exactly what I presented:

“Many people believe there is life (possibly intelligent life) elsewhere in the Universe. Some people think that we’re being visited by extraterrestrials. As UFO believers say, they only need to be right once and the world will change forever.

Many people are actively searching for extraterrestrial life. They are searching in different places and with different methodologies. UFO researchers are looking for evidence of alien visitation. Agencies such as NASA would like to launch missions to find life (probably microbial life) on Mars or Europa. A new generation of space missions will conduct spectral analysis of the atmospheres of exoplanets, looking for a biosignature. Some radio astronomers are searching for a signal from other civilisations.

All of this can be regarded as a new space race. As with all races, somebody will win it. The GCF 2011 themes of competitiveness and innovation are likely to be important in determining who wins this race. To give a recent example, Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s recent work on microbes in Mono Lake, California, may fundamentally redefine how we define life.

The business community is well aware that space offers tremendous financial opportunities. Current opportunities include manufacturing and launching satellites. In the near future, space tourism will generate new revenue, while beyond that, the possibility of mining asteroids offers huge potential rewards.

The business community has probably given less thought to extraterrestrial life, with the possible exception of recognising that there’s big money in Hollywood science fiction films and TV shows. However, while discovering alien life would clearly have political, religious, scientific and societal consequences, it would also have implications for the business community.

The person or organisation that finds new life (or an exoplanet on which life is judged to exist) will be able to name it. Might this be the ultimate sponsorship opportunity? Alien microbes would have massive implications for biotechnology. And if there’s advanced scientific and technical information in a radio signal from another civilisation, how much might that be worth? These are a few examples. There may be others.

Skepticism about extraterrestrial life – particularly intelligent life – is healthy. However, using a phrase with which the business community is familiar, the discovery of such life could turn out to be the ultimate low probability/high impact event.”

Behind the Scenes

It is important to recognise that with a conference like GCF 2011, much important business goes on behind the scenes. Not everything will be discussed in the formal sessions, or will be written into the official account of proceedings. What tends to happen is that by virtue of being gathered together in the same secure, remote location, speakers and attendees will seek out those other speakers and attendees with whom they wish to do business, and hold private discussions. This certainly happened in Riyadh and as was the case with the two Royal Society meetings I attended in 2010, I had numerous fascinating discussions away from the formal sessions. I hope to be able to report on some of this at a future date but for now, such matters must remain private.

The Reaction of the UFO Community

The fact that GCF 2011 was to include a discussion session on alien life first came to the attention of the UFO community two or three weeks before the event took place. Ufologists were at first astonished, intrigued and delighted. Later reactions were not so positive and there was something of a backlash against the fact that such an event had been held, to all intents and purposes, behind closed doors.

In the run-up to the event and in the aftermath, the event was discussed extensively on various UFO and conspiracy-related websites, blogs, forums and email lists. A theory that one heard a lot was that this event was part of what has been dubbed ‘Disclosure’. In other words, people thought that GCF 2011 was an opportunity for senior political and business figures to discuss this issue (in public and in private) and edge closer towards some sort of formal announcement that extraterrestrial life exists and - as many ufologists believe - that we’re being visited and that governments know this and have been covering it up.

Researchers such as Steve Bassett have speculated extensively about what form Disclosure might take and who might be involved. Bassett has discussed the possibility that Barrack Obama may be the “Disclosure President”, but has also theorised that once the initial announcement has been made (probably at a live, televised press conference), the President might turn the briefing over to a trusted figure from the world of science or business, such as Michio Kaku or Richard Branson. The former’s presence at GCF 2011 and participation in the panel discussion did not escape the notice of those who give credence to Steve Bassett’s views on the issue.

Steve Bassett (and other leading researchers in the fields of Disclosure and Exopolitics) believes that there is a degree of co-operation between nations on this issue, with the US in the lead. However, he and others have speculated that if the US delays too long, another country may unilaterally decide to disclose. Some ufologists saw GCF 2011 in this context and speculated that the Saudi Arabian government was sending a message to the US and its allies on this issue, effectively firing a warning shot across their bows. I do not agree with such interpretations of events, but such speculation is a fascinating part of the story nonetheless.

Though this might reinforce some of the conspiracy theories, it would be remiss of me not to report some comments made by Bill Clinton in his keynote speech. He mentioned recent scientific discoveries relating to the human genome, sub-atomic particles and astrophysics. On the latter, in relation to discovering planets like Earth, he concluded by saying "and I don't have to tell you what the implications of that would be, if it turned out to be true".


By any standard, GCF 2011 was a fascinating event, both in terms of the speakers, the attendees and the issues discussed. But for the event to include a discussion on the search for alien life was truly extraordinary. A couple of years ago, such discussions would have occurred exclusively at UFO conferences, sci-fi conventions and in events organised by niche areas of science such as astrobiology and the SETI community. The two Royal Society discussion meetings held in 2010 saw the issue break out of these specialist areas and fall under the spotlight of the mainstream scientific community. What GCF 2011 did was move things further forward, getting the issue into the minds of leaders in the global business community and - to a significant though lesser extent - raising it with influential political and governmental figures.

Clearly this is an evolutionary process. Progress is being made, but one step at a time. Some believe this is part of a plan (culminating in Disclosure), while others - including myself - think this is because on such a big issue as alien life, people feel more comfortable making small moves. Previously, the Establishment, be it in terms of church, state or science, took an anthropocentric view, where humankind was at the centre of the Universe. Now, this is changing and the idea that we may not be alone in the Universe is gaining popularity. Not just on the fringe but, through events such as the Royal Society discussion meetings and GCF 2011, with key decision-makers in the Establishment.

Given the evolutionary nature of the way in which this issue is gradually gaining a more secure foothold in the mainstream, the key question is where we go from here? What are the strategies that might take things even further forward? I don’t have an answer to these questions (and before talking about Disclosure it’s worth asking what – if anything – there is to disclose), but I suspect there are interesting ties ahead. And if I can continue to play a small part in all of this, I will gladly do so.