‘Our citizenship is expensive!’

Kristin Surak

  • The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian
    Columbia Global Reports, 166 pp, £10.00, November 2015, ISBN 978 0 9909763 6 3

In 1987, the free-market economist Gary Becker proposed selling the right to live and work in the United States. For $50,000 potential residents, especially the rich and successful, could leap over the bureaucratic hurdles that confound most would-be Americans. But Becker didn’t think the poor should be excluded: he proposed that the government or employers should loan them the money to pay for entry. It has been a while since the US relied on indentured labour, but why shouldn’t it work now as in the past?

What seemed shocking in 1987 has become commonplace. For a £2 million investment in UK government bonds or shares in a UK company, the well-heeled can purchase a Tier 1 Investor Visa, and secure the right to reside in Britain. Another £3 million will lower the waiting time for permanent residence and citizenship. That’s a lot of money, but permanent residence or the possession of a UK passport gives investors the right to cash in the investment, and most of them do (if they cash UK bonds after five years the direct benefit to the UK is less than £10,000).

Under the US’s EB-5 programme, an investment of $500,000 into a business venture in a region of high unemployment (Beverly Hills qualifies) will secure a visa which allows its holder to live in the US and apply for permanent citizenship after two years. If you don’t want to wait that long, €2.5 million will buy Cypriot citizenship – and thereby EU citizenship – for the whole family within 90 days. Five Caribbean island nations with visa-free entry to Europe offer the same for around $250,000. Few statuses are as arbitrary as citizenship, or as consequential for determining life chances. To have been born in Copenhagen rather than Bujumbura is to have won the birthright lottery. Some don’t even get a ticket: the UN estimates that around ten million are stateless. ‘In this context,’ Atossa Araxia Abrahamian observes in The Cosmopolites, ‘the sale of citizenship is interesting not because it is scandalous or even morally reprehensible, but because it speaks to the very arbitrariness of the concept of belonging to a nation to begin with.’

Abrahamian is the child of Armenian-Russian parents with Iranian citizenship. Born in Canada and raised in Geneva, she is now the holder of three passports, never exactly sure where she belongs. While living in New York, her visa running out, she entered the ‘diversity visa lottery’, which gives away 50,000 green cards every year to people from countries with low immigration rates. She was lucky, for a moment: when she went to collect her green card, she found her winning ticket was invalid. The American government didn’t consider her Swiss because she wasn’t born there, and Canadians weren’t eligible for the draw. Over two thousand years ago, Diogenes declared himself a kosmopolites – citizen of the universe – but who are the cosmopolites of today?

The search for answers takes Abrahamian, a reporter for al-Jazeera, on a global mission. The Comoros is an archipelago of volcanic outcroppings between Madagascar and Mozambique. The islands’ economy is based on a few ‘luxury’ crops – vanilla, spices and the ylang-ylang flower – but, for the most part, the Comoros is underdeveloped. The roads have more potholes than asphalt, the hospitals regularly close for lack of supplies, teachers haven’t been paid in months and tourists are unknown. On the largest island, 60 per cent of the inhabitants have access to electricity, while only 20 per cent of those on the smallest island do.

Since gaining independence from France in 1975, the Comoros has seen twenty coups. Behind many of them was Bob Denard, a French mercenary and collector of world religions (he tried three: Catholicism, Judaism and Islam) and wives (eight), who inspired Frederick Forsyth’s novel Dogs of War. He was a modern corsair, he told the New York Times, but instead of receiving the written consent of kings to go about his marauding, ‘I had passports given to me by the intelligence services.’ Denard flew to the Comoros for the first time in 1975 when he received a phone call from Geneva asking for his help after a socialist takeover of the newly independent islands. His CV was long – Angola, Rhodesia, Yemen, Gabon, Zaire – and within three years he had led two coups in the Comoros, first deposing the president, then bringing him back. For one expedition, he hired a deep-sea trawler and took the islands over with a militia disguised as scientists.

After years of political instability and economic struggle, the islands were receptive when Kuwaiti and Emirati businessmen appeared in the mid-2000s suggesting a massive investment scheme. Comoro Gulf Holding (CGH) proposed to put up thousands of square feet of office space, housing and shops along the rocky volcanic coastline. A luxury hotel would be erected, accompanied by a marina, a private 75-bed hospital and a cable car running to the top of the volcano. Animated videos brought the vision – including a sprawling dairy farm – to life. If Dubai could be conjured from the desert, why couldn’t the same be done in the Comoros?

Leading the investors was a Syrian-French media mogul called Bashar Kiwan. ‘If Denard was the ideal intermediary to provide offshore services for rogue regimes,’ Abrahamian writes, ‘Kiwan was the man for market-based solutions to global problems, delivered with an educated veneer of legitimacy – a Davos man, if you will.’ Kiwan’s toehold on the archipelago dated from the elections of 2005, when he installed Ahmed Sambi, ‘an idealistic imam-turned-mattress-and-perfume salesman’, in the presidential palace. While Sambi took care of things at home, Kiwan jetted around the Gulf on a diplomatic passport, hustling for the islands. Using connections to the Arab elite as collateral, he set up a complicated investment deal involving the Comoros, Kuwait, the UAE and the Bidoon people.

Distinct from Bedouins, the Bidoon are people born and raised in the UAE and Kuwait whose families neglected to fill out the paperwork when citizenship was doled out forty years ago – they are defined by their lack of papers. In the Gulf, where life used to be nomadic and rural and structured around allegiance to local rulers, citizenship is a relatively new idea. In the 1970s, many didn’t bother with the government’s forms. Since then, Kuwaiti and Emirati citizenships have become among the most valuable in the world. They are rentier states with an extreme combination of exclusion and welfare provision: 70 per cent of the Kuwaiti population is foreign, and 85 per cent of the Emirati, and in both cases nearly all jobs in the private sector are done by non-nationals for whom there is no route to naturalisation. For the lucky few who are citizens, government provision is lavish. In the UAE, male Emiratis receive a stipend of around $55,000 a year, land to build a house on, an interest-free mortgage, a marriage bonus of $20,000 and free healthcare and education. The Emirati state claims to have only a few thousand stateless Bidoon; Refugees International puts the number at 100,000. Kuwait’s figures are similar.

For anyone with conventional notions of citizenship – that people belong to the nations they were born into, that citizens have the right to reside in their own country and that nationality can’t carry a price tag – the deal Kiwan struck was staggering. The Emirati interior minister promised him $200 million in state funds in exchange for giving 4000 Bidoon families Comorian citizenship. Kiwan sent the Comoros’s MPs to Dubai to imagine what their capital, Moroni, might come to look like and to meet a few Bidoons, securing exclusive rights for all Comorian citizenship deals in the Middle East along the way. The plan he proposed – you might call it a ‘citizenship hack’ – was to give the Bidoon qualified rights. They wouldn’t be able to settle permanently in the Comoros, or to vote in its elections, but they could start businesses and have their cases tried by a local tribunal. And they would get Comorian passports. The locals were against it. ‘It’s been 33 years since we stopped being a French colony. Now we’re being colonised by Comoro Gulf Holding,’ one blogger wrote. But the new law was voted through – by candlelight after the electricity generators in Moroni had shut down for the night. The Bidoons would be able, as one Comorian MP put it, to ‘collect their nationality’.

It’s hard to see what any Bidoon would have to gain by becoming East African. But the UAE applied pressure. When one Bidoon activist in the Emirates, Ahmad Abdul Khaleq, tried to renew his driver’s licence he was shown to the Comorian citizenship bureau. Told he couldn’t use government offices or hospitals without papers, he signed up, but as soon as his passport arrived he found himself shown to prison, and then to a plane. No longer stateless, the dissident could finally be deported. The Comoros wouldn’t take him, but Thailand did, a country whose former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra acquired Nicaraguan and Montenegrin passports for himself as an insurance policy against imprisonment. Then Amnesty International stepped in and secured asylum for Khaleq in Canada. He now shares a house in London, Ontario with a Kurdish refugee and runs a fast food outlet called Pizza Pizza.

Soon the Comoros were printing passports in bulk and flying them over to the UAE. But the promised $200 million didn’t go directly to the government. Rather, it went through Kiwan’s Comoro Gulf Holding. Kiwan’s grand plan, it turned out, was to relocate the Bidoon to the Comoros – hence the houses, hospitals and even the cows. The new Comoros would become the home of the homeless. But the money that flowed into CGH didn’t flow out again, and the venture unravelled after Kiwan and Sambi fell out after a dispute over Gaddafi. Kiwan told Abrahamian he felt bitter that the work he put into his ‘humanitarian effort’ hasn’t been appreciated. When she asked him what citizenship meant to him, he replied: ‘I’m a Syrian who’s always lived outside my country. So for me, citizenship doesn’t mean much.’

As the arrangement with the UAE crumbled, the islands struck a deal with another Gulf country, Kuwait: the Bidoon population would get a Comorian passport and a five-year residence visa. Abrahamian asked Kuwait’s minister of the interior why it’s fine to sell Comorian citizenship but not Kuwaiti. ‘Our citizenship is expensive!’ he replied. ‘Here we take care of every citizen’s needs from when he is born until he dies. All of his expenses: healthcare, school, everything. Do you know what the benefits of our citizenship are? They pay for our marriages, give us work, pay for our housing, our retirement.’ What does it mean to be a citizen of Kuwait? ‘What can I say, other than that it is great?’

*

On the other side of the world, Chris Kalin, a Swiss-Maltese-Kittitian-New Zealander, offers his services to ‘global citizens’ of a different sort to the Bidoon: the peripatetic elite for whom a bad passport is ‘a constant reminder that the playing field is never truly level, and that life for your average Canadian billionaire will be easier than for a billionaire from Botswana or Peru’. Kalin will flatten borders – for a price. He grew up in Switzerland, where financial services, tax avoidance and lifestyle management have long gone together. In 2006, he went to St Kitts and Nevis. Once the first stop on the slave route, the islands still relied on sugarcane exports but their preferential access to European markets had recently ended. Kalin had heard that they possessed a little-used law that allowed citizenship to be exchanged for significant financial contributions to the country. The forgotten rule became a slick passport product: citizenship in ninety days after a direct donation of $200,000 to the government (now $250,000) or a real estate investment of $400,000 and basic background checks. That there would be no need to go to the island to take an oath clinched it: everything could be done remotely. Kalin promoted Kittitian citizenship to global banks and elite financial planners, and his company made 10 per cent commission on each donation. ‘When you market Canada,’ Kalin said, ‘you don’t have to explain what Canada is – it has a brand. But you have to educate people about what St Kitts and Nevis is. We positioned St Kitts and Nevis as a viable product.’

But what does a passport from a Caribbean outcrop buy? First it buys escape: a citizen of Germany – the most valuable nationality in the world, according to the analysts who put together the Quality of Nationality Index – can turn up on the doorstep of 176 countries; a citizen of Afghanistan, the least valuable nationality, can do the same for only 25. (Post-Brexit, the UK is predicted to fall from 11th to 30th on the list.) In 2009, St Kitts was granted visa-free access to the EU, a desirable proposition for Russian oligarchs, Egyptian businessmen or the Chinese nouveaux riches. ‘Citizenship, in these cases, functions more as a Global Entry Pass or an American Express card than as a way of meaningfully identifying one’s place in the world,’ Abrahamian writes. And the relationship is reciprocal. ‘It’s no coincidence that a recent advertisement for Citibank describes its new credit card as “the new American passport”.’

For St Kitts, the passport deal has brought about an economic miracle. Manufacturing makes up 5 per cent of the country’s GDP; passports now contribute nearly 25 per cent, which is more than tax revenues. Processing fees are set at $50,000 per application, contributing $100 million now that the country is welcoming more than two thousand new citizens a year. Timeshares and condos have sprung up along unpaved roads once mostly used by goats. If you buy a house worth at least $400,000, you qualify for Kittitian citizenship. Big-name holiday resorts even throw in citizenship as an investment bonus.

When Abrahamian visits Kalin on the island of Nevis, his phone won’t stop ringing: the opposition have just won an election and keep asking how things work. Kalin gives a sales pitch about the personal freedom, privacy and security that come with a citizenship upgrade, but he also claims that what he’s doing isn’t ‘about buying passports; it’s about self-actualising as a global citizen.’ Citizenship by investment is fairer than citizenship by birth, he contends, since it outwits fate (even if only for the rich).

St Kitts is no longer alone in the citizenship industry, which according to Bloomberg, generates $2 billion annually. Over the past five years, Antigua, Malta, St Lucia and Dominica have joined existing programmes in Cyprus and Grenada. And Kalin is now competing with Armand Arton, an Armenian-Canadian-Dominican-Antiguan-Comorian: they jostle for market share, producing their own country rankings, conferences and regulatory agencies. There are two global citizen magazines, two global citizen award ceremonies and two global citizen charity arms. Refugees are the preferred recipient of corporate social responsibility. Kalin funds the UNHCR’s documentation programme for the displaced; Arton supports a donation to European refugee programmes for every passport sold.

While the stateless Rohingya in Myanmar seek official recognition and refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East confront hastily constructed walls in Europe, Gérard Depardieu becomes Russian to avoid taxes and the Facebook cofounder Eduardo Saverin de-friends America and defects to Singapore. Who is the cosmopolite? For Garry Davis, the fighter pilot who handed his passport back to the US embassy in Paris in 1948 and lived as a ‘world citizen’ from then on, global citizenship meant responsibility to humanity. Now, for Roger Ver, the ‘Bitcoin Jesus’ who contends that ‘borders are imaginary lines,’ it’s a way of avoiding one’s responsibilities. Davis called on us all to broaden our allegiances; Ver wants economic transactions that reach beyond the state and its accountability. Davis, in his charmingly unhinged way, convinced mayors to call their small towns ‘world towns’; Ver contributes to pelagic colonies, which could be taken from science fiction, ruled only by the free market. Ahmad Khaleq, the Bidoon-cum-Comorian-Canadian, is hoping to use the profits from his pizza place to go back to Thailand, though this time he’ll be on holiday.