UAE expatriate Belal Nasser goes on a holiday with his family. Image Credit: Supplied

Highlights

  • Expatriates in the UAE who have money to spare are not just splurging on cars, yachts or apartments – they’re spending a fortune on a second citizenship
  • Second passports are increasingly being sought after in this part of the world, as expatriates seek more global mobility or travel freedom
  • Those who have been fortunate to secure a second citizenship are saying goodbye to a life of queues at immigration counters and consulates, and most importantly, from the constant fear for security

Dubai: Whenever he travels abroad, UAE-based Syrian expatriate Shawakh simply shows his passport and breezes through immigration counters without so much a fuss.

Unlike many other people from war-torn Syria, the 55-year-old doesn’t go through hoops or stand in long queues at immigration counters when he goes on a holiday or a business trip.

Like an elite traveller, he can jet off to as many places as he likes, including Italy, France, United Kingdom and even the United States* at a drop of a hat. He can even work in any state in the European Union and open bank accounts, or send his children to school in many places that are often off-limits to Syrians.

These are all thanks to the Maltese passport that he acquired only about two years ago. But the Syrian was not born in Malta. He is neither a refugee in the European state. He isn’t married to someone from Malta, either. So, how come he’s holding a Maltese passport?

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Shawakh, who has called the UAE his second home since 1996, is one of the growing number of Syrians who are acquiring a dual citizenship. He was fortunate enough to have saved enough money to afford one, after nearly two decades of working in banking and education sectors.

Back in 2016, a few years since mortar bombs started tearing through homes in Syria and droves of Syrians fled their villages and poured into Europe in order to seek asylum, Shawakh was granted a full Maltese citizenship, and consequently, free access to more than 170 countries – including the Schengen states and the US.

I can’t return to my country. I have left that place when I was small and haven’t returned since.

- Belal Nasser, Palestinian expat

The second citizenship also came just right in time. About a year after it came out, US President Donald Trump imposed a travel ban on citizens from Syria and six other countries: North Korea, Yemen, Venezuela, Somalia, Iran and Libya. Getting the second citizenship

How did he do it? The UAE expat drew out his hard-earned money and invested approximately 1 million euros (Dh4.1 million) into the economy of Malta.

Malta has a program in place called Malta Individual Investor Program (MIIP). This is for foreigners who want to acquire a second passport.

The primary requirement is for the applicant to raise approximately 1 million euros as a “contribution” into the economy of Malta.

A huge chunk of the capital (650,000 euros or Dh2.6 million) will go into the country’s development fund as a donation, while at least 350,000 euros is allocated for the purchase of real estate, or the applicant can opt to take out a property lease for at least 16,000 euros every year for a period of five years. Another 150,000 euros will go into government-approved financial instruments.

It was difficult to go anywhere. It’s a big headache to go on a trip. You have to plan two or three months in advance if you want to go on a vacation because you have to submit a visa application and it takes a long time to process it.

- Belal Nasser, Palestinian expat

Belal Nasser is a Dubai-based expat from Palestine. Like Shawakh, he now enjoys the peace of mind knowing that his family will no longer live in the shadow of war. The 51-year-old, who hasn’t set foot in his own homeland since he was a boy, made a decision to acquire a second citizenship from Antigua & Barbuda recently.

In exchange for a Dh1.5-million-dirham investment that he poured into the Caribbean state, Nasser and his entire family were granted the Antiguan citizenship last year.

“I can’t return to my country. I have left that place when I was small and haven’t returned since. I ended up living in Jordan for several years and then moved to the UAE in 1976. This has been my home for more than 30 years,” he said.

“But with my passport, it was difficult to go anywhere. It’s a big headache to go on a trip. You have to plan two or three months in advance if you want to go on a vacation because you have to submit a visa application and it takes a long time to process it,” said Nasser, who has been working as a sales manager for an automotive company in Dubai for three decades.

“Sometimes your application gets denied or you’re not even allowed entry. Then, there’s a lot of problems at the airport. So, I took the decision to get another passport. And the difference between my first passport and the new one in terms of ease of travel is between zero and one million,” Nasser said as he chuckled.

With the second passport, Belal Nasser and his family can go on a holiday in Europe whenever they fancy. No more standing in queues at the immigration or consulates. No more lengthy interviews to gain entry. Image Credit: Supplied

Since the second passport was issued, Nasser said his life has completely changed. He and his family can now travel freely anywhere they like, as the Antiguan travel document enjoys visa-free access to more than 100 countries, including Italy, Spain, United Kingdom and Switzerland.

“My children can now study abroad. In fact, my daughter is taking up Master’s at a school in London,” he proudly said.

Is it all worth it?

While it sounds like second passport seekers need to spend a lot of money, they said it’s all worth every euro or dollar spent.

“I am very happy with my decision. Having been granted a second passport has simplified my life in more ways than one. Firstly, it has allowed me to travel virtually unencumbered to more than 170 countries, which has made it easy for me to do business and easier for us as a family to go on vacation,” said Shawakh.

The UAE expatriate who now describes himself as “semi-retired,” recalls that, before he obtained the second nationality, it was difficult for him to visit any country. His job required a lot of travelling and there was also a constant fear of his own security and that of his family.

“The need to obtain visas for every trip is simply not viable when one works for a regional firm where 50 per cent of the job description entails travel on a very short notice,” he said.

“[The second passport also] gave me the option of permanent residence in a country that is internationally respected and attractive from many perspectives. Lastly, having obtained a second passport has given me total peace of mind, because it has given me the option of retiring in a place where I don’t have to fear for my life or that of my loved ones.

Growing trend

Shawakh and Nassar aren’t the only ones who are attracted to the prospect of dual citizenship. About 12 months after the Brexit announcement, a study by CS Global Partners showed that 81 per cent of people in the United Kingdom (UK) are willing to invest their savings in a second passport.

The results of the study suggested that “people are looking now more than ever for certainty and security amid a landscape of economic and political change,” said Micha-Rose Emmett, CS Global CEO.

In the UAE, which is attracting thousands of millionaires every year, well-heeled residents are splashing out not just on expansive villas and luxurious penthouses, but on second passports as well.

According to Andreas Keller, managing partner of Henley & Partners Middle East, a company that specializes in second passports, earning the privilege of a new citizenship is increasingly becoming an attractive proposition for those who can afford to invest outside their home countries.

Andreas Keller, managing partner of Henley & Partners Middle East, talks about the benefits of a second citizenship. Image Credit: Supplied

And, among those who are actively seeking one are Lebanese, Syrians, Egyptians, Pakistanis, Jordanians and Indians among others. The main motivation is mostly to gain more travel freedom, as well as to be able to secure safety and security for themselves and their families.

“There are many high-net-worth expatriates who have left their country of origin. These are people whom one would probably consider to already be ‘global citizens’ and yet, despite their wealth, find themselves living precarious lives, tethered to a weak passport, with no guarantee of an alternative place to live should the situation in their home countries turn sour,” Keller said.

“This is particularly relevant for expats in the UAE, who often come from areas in the Middle East and South Asia where political and economic uncertainty was the very thing that inspired them to move away in the first place. It is logical, then, that a second passport — and by extension, citizenship-by-investment — should hold great appeal to these individuals and their families. “

At Citizenship Invest, another firm specializing in second citizenship, there’s been a huge uptake from the Egyptian community and other Arab nationalities. “We witnessed an increase in demand by nationals from Syria, Pakistan and Egypt living in UAE. Egyptian expats had by far registered the highest increase in demand by 40 per cent in 2018,” Veronica Cotdemiey, the company’s CEO told Gulf News.

The UAE is a huge market for this kind of investment proposition, especially since the majority of the residents are expatriates.

People from Egypt, for example, whose passport can only give them visa-free access to 49 nations, as well as those from other places, would perhaps be tempted to become a citizen of another country that offers so much wider travel possibilities.

“If you are a natural-born citizen of Egypt, your passport will give you visa-free access to just 49 destinations… If you are from Pakistan, that number is 33,” noted Keller.

“However, if you invest in Moldovan citizenship, you will receive a passport that grants you visa-free access to 122 destinations, including the countries in the EU, Russia, and Turkey. If you invest in Maltese citizenship, the number of visa-free destinations you will receive access goes up to 183. Therefore, the main reasons that people want to invest in a second passport involve safety, security, and travel freedom, for themselves and their families.”

Among those who can afford, the most sought-after programs are those that provide business and travel access to Europe’s Schengen states, the US, Canada, China and other global destinations.

Why get a second passport?

A lot of people aren’t fortunate enough to have been born into a country whose passport offers ease of access to international destinations.

While they may be able to afford to travel the world, many of these passport holders have limited global mobility. They may have long dreamed of exploring the streets of Paris or the ruins in Rome, but whenever they’d apply for a visa, they’d get turn down.

Travellers check for their flight status at the airport. Image Credit: File photo

In some cases, these passport holders may be hoping to establish a new life somewhere else due to war but are unable to do so due to visa restrictions.“Anybody who comes from a country with a weak passport will be able to relate to the frustrations that come with that,” noted Shawakh.

The best recourse then would be to become a citizen of another country.

“Generally speaking, having a second passport is a massive advantage for an individual, whether from the point of view of business, leisure, or safety,” said Keller .

“A second or third passport grants holders the right to travel, trade, and settle in an expanded set of countries and regions, as well as access all the benefits enjoyed by other citizens of the state in question (education, health care, and so on).”

“ It also eliminates a great deal of the inconvenience and waiting time surrounding visa applications and passport renewal or replacement processes. At the most extreme end of the spectrum, an additional passport can quite literally save a person’s life in times of political unrest, civil war, or heightened terrorism threats.”

But, just like getting a tourist visa in many countries, this option doesn’t come easy and it’s certainly not cheap. There is quite a number of countries that now offer foreigners a chance to acquire a second or third citizenship but they’re mostly in exchange for an economic investment.

One may be required to purchase a house and lot, start a business or invest in some government-backed financial instruments. And, the cost can run from several hundred thousands of euros to more than one million euros.

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And the process isn’t as simple as buying an expensive piece of art or a glamorous yacht.

“I think the term ‘buy a passport’ is misleading. I injected cash into an economy that was keen on bolstering its financial status by diversifying its revenue,” said Shawakh.

“Before agreeing to accept my funds, the country went through my background with a fine-tooth comb, making sure that every dollar I paid came from legitimate sources and that every job I held was with companies of good standing,” he said.

“The reason the country did it was to improve its liquidity; the reason I did it was to improve my ability to travel on short notice, which gives me more freedom, greater access to business opportunities, and the safety and security of having an alternative place of residence.”

Where to get a second passport?

Here are some of the countries that offer a second citizenship:

Cyprus

One of the most highly recommended destinations, Cyprus can issue a European passport in only six months without requiring applicants to relocate. A Cypriot passport allows citizens to visit more than 100 countries visa-free and offers them a chance to live and work anywhere in the European Union.

Cost: Investment of 2 million euros in luxury real estate, which can be sold after three years.

Number of countries with visa-free/ on arrival access: 156

Grenada

Those who are able to obtain a second passport from this Caribbean country can also enjoy residency in the United States. Grenada is said to be the only Caribbean state that allows citizens visa-free access to China – something that entrepreneurs can really take advantage of, especially if they have business operations and ties with China. Applicants are not required to relocate.

Number of countries with visa-free/ on arrival access: 127, including China, Schengen states and the United Kingdom

Cost: US$200,000 contribution to Grenada’s National Transformation Fund

Dominica

The country has a citizenship by investment program established since 1991 and it allows full rights in exchange for a sum of US$100,000. Like a few other countries, Dominica doesn’t require applicants to live in the country.

Cost: US$100,000 contribution to Dominica’s government fund

Number of countries with visa-free/ on arrival access: 123

Antigua & Barbuda

This island state in the eastern Caribbean Sea is reputed for its beaches and rainforests. Wealthy individuals who opt to have a second passport from this country don’t need to move there, but they’re required to pay their host a visit for at least five days. That’s not much compared to having to settle in another foreign land for years before acquiring a citizenship, as required in many other destinations.

Cost: US$250,000 contribution to the National Development Fund or an investment of US$400,000 in the country’s government-approved project. The country currently offers the option for a family of four members to make a financial contribution of $125,000.

Number of countries that offer visa-free/ on arrival access: 131, including Schengen, UK, Singapore, Hong Kong

Saint Lucia

Another popular destination in the Caribbean, Saint Lucia offers individuals and their families a chance to get a second citizenship without relocating. Applicants are not even required to visit the country. All they have to do is set aside US$100,000, to get instant visa-free travel to over 100 countries worldwide.

Cost: US$100,000 contribution to St. Lucia’s National Economic Fund or an investment in a government-approved project

Number of countries with visa-free/ on arrival access: 128, including Schengen, United Kingdom, Singapore, Hong Kong

Saint Kitts & Nevis

Another Caribbean country, Saint Kitts & Nevis offers citizenship without requiring applicants to relocate. Passport holders in this country are free to travel to more than 100 destinations worldwide without obtaining a visit visa.

Cost: US$150,000 contribution to the Sugar Industry Diversification Fund or a real estate investment of $US400,000 in any government-approved project

Number of countries that offer visa-free/ on arrival access: 133, including Schengen states and United Kingdom

Portugal

Portugal doesn’t provide instant citizenship, but applicants are not required to actually live there. Interested individuals are first required to obtain a residency card and keep it for six years before a citizenship can finally be granted. The card is issued in exchange for an initial investment in real estate.

Cost: Initial investment of 500,000 in property

Number of countries that offer visa-free/ on arrival access: 163

Note: Visa-free scores were provided by Arton Capital’s Passport Index; numbers could vary in other passport rankings

* The Maltese passport also allows holders visa-free access to the United States, although they are required to apply online to get a “travel authorization,” which will approve an applicant on the same day. This is also has to be renewed every two years.