The multimillion buy-in by Abu Dhabi’s Aabar Investments will give British billionaire Sir Richard Branson’s most ambitious venture a big financial kickstart at a time when many funding sources have dried up because of the global recession. It also provides the oil-rich Persian Gulf sheikdom a chance to acquire space flight capability of its own.

The £169m cash injection may also help pave the way for flights from Scotland in four years time. In September last year, company president Will Whitehorn confirmed that Virgin Galactic had scouted out three locations in Scotland as potential UK spaceports, with Lossiemouth cited as the favourite after “positive talks” with Morayshire council and the RAF.

Mr Whitehorn also suggested Kinloss and Machrihanish, on the Mull of Kintyre, as suitable back-ups. He said there were already some 65,000 would-be space tourists on its waiting list, and that Virgin Galactic hoped to commence flights from Scotland “within five years”.

In a statement, Sir Richard said he was “delighted” with the deal, which was signed yesterday at an Experimental Aircraft Association air show in Wisconsin, USA where Virgin Galactic’s new WhiteKnightTwo launcher plane has flown in public for the first time with Sir Richard among the crew.

Virgin’s SpaceShipOne has already flown safely to space and back three times, and a new spacecraft, SpaceShipTwo, will commence a test flight programme before the end of this year. No start date for the first Virgin Galactic paying customers to go into space has yet been given.

Under the terms of the deal, Aabar will buy an approximately 32% in Virgin Galactic’s holding company. In exchange, the state-controlled investment fund will acquire “exclusive regional rights” to eventually launch Virgin Galactic tourism and scientific research space flights from the United Arab Emirates capital.

In addition, Aabar said it plans to pay an extra £60m plus transaction costs to fund a program to launch small satellites into orbit, and will build spaceport facilities in Abu Dhabi.

Regulators in the United States and elsewhere must still approve the deal.

“The significant partnership not only falls in line with Abu Dhabi’s larger plans to inculcate technology research and science at a grassroots level but also complements its aim to be the international tourism capital of the region,” Aabar Chairman Khadem al-Qubaisi said.

Aabar is the first outside investor in the spaceflight company, which has been owned fully by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group. The deal values Virgin Galactic at about $875m.

Virgin Group has pumped more than £60m into its space flight venture since forming it in 2004, but has yet to show that it can put paying customers in orbit - or make a profit doing so. However, even without a launch date, Virgin Galactic says it has taken 300 reservations at US$200,000 each and is holding £25m in deposits. According to Mr Whitehorn, customers include scientist Stephen Hawking and “Superman Returns” director Bryan Singer. It has also been reported that the late King of Pop, Michael Jackson, was keen to sign-up.

The first paid flights are expected to launch from the US state of New Mexico once testing is complete.

Aabar has emerged as one of Abu Dhabi’s most active investment funds. It bought 9.1% of Mercedes-Benz maker Daimler AG in March, and earlier this month bought 4% of San Carlos, California-based electric car producer Tesla Motors.

Abu Dhabi is the richest of the seven semiautonomous sheikdoms that make up the United Arab Emirates, and holds nearly all the country’s vast oil reserves. It has long competed for international attention with neighboring emirate Dubai, little more than an hour’s drive away.