Alternative Citizenship: Putting a Price on a Passport

Worried about your future in the Middle East? If you’re wealthy enough, citizenship of a safer far away country is only a check away.

By Elisa Oddone

Keen to insure themselves against regional political and economic uncertainty, a growing number of wealthy Jordanians are choosing to invest or buy property in European Union countries like Spain, Portugal, and Cyprus in return for permanent residency or even citizenship.

Muhannad Samara, of the multinational immigration consultancy ACIC, said his firm’s Amman office receives around 250 inquiries every month about alternative residency and citizenship, of which no more than 10 are pursued. Typical applicants knocking on Samara’s door are established, financially-stable professionals in their 40s and 50s. They have large families and earn an annual income of between JD100,000 to JD1 million.

The need for greater financial security is amongst the biggest motivating factors for seeking out ACIC’s services. “The exponential increase of prices in Jordan is causing people to look at their resources, do the math for the future, and realize that given the steady increase in prices, their plans are simply not going to work. They are instinctively prompted to seek an alternative,” Samara said.

But requests for a second status have also grown in the wake of ever-increasing regional instability. “Since we started in 2004, we were the only commercially-accredited entity to practice Canadian immigration, we therefore always had volume and client load, but a surge has certainly been witnessed over the past few years in light of the political turmoil. I would approximate this surge by no less than 40 or 50 percent,” Samara said.

Where to Go

ACIC is currently working with the Portuguese government as advisers for would-be “economic citizens” applying to become permanent residents in exchange for investing around JD400,000 in the country. The process takes six-years, and applicants are required to spend some time in Portugal and learn the language.

Getting residency is one thing, but gaining citizenship is quite another. “Western European countries, the United States, and Canada do not give away their nationalities unless certain requirements are profoundly met,” he said. “You must show that you speak the country’s language, that you have ties to the country, and you know its laws, norms and, for those countries which do not have a lengthy residency obligation, that you have spent some time there.”

Before putting its JD450,000 resident investment program on hold, Canada was one of the most sought-after countries by Jordanians because of its welfare system and free-of-charge higher education.

Portugal and Spain are now becoming popular choices for well-off Jordanians. Required investment in real estate, companies or banks for a permanent residency in these countries can be had for around JD400,000.

Meanwhile, wealthy Jordanian investors apply for the UK mainly for financial reasons. But its government only grants temporary business visas in exchange for an equity purchase in a British company worth some JD1 million, or the establishment of a business worth between JD55,000 and JD220,000. But the foreign investor can apply for a permanent residency two years later.

Long a preference for Jordanians in the past, political and financial uncertainty has made the United States a less appealing destination for Jordanians today. Instead, Eastern European countries are becoming increasingly tempting in light of their speedy residency process.

Malta and Cyprus are some of the latest countries seeking to boost their troubled economies by using EU membership to lure wealthy foreign investors, many of whom are no doubt tempted by the prospect of visa-free travel to over 150 countries.

Even though it recently tightened up the rules surrounding how it issues passports to foreigners, Maltese citizenship can still be had for around JD1 million. While Cyprus asks applicants to invest around JD4 million in anything from government bonds, financial assets of local companies, real estate, local bank deposits, or a combination of them all. Applicants are granted citizenship within three months, but not before first obtaining residency, which already assumes a country investment of some JD400,000.

The Mediterranean island was forced to take on international bailout of around JD8 billion from the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund in early 2013 after its banks lost billions of euros from their exposure to a Greek sovereign debt write-down.

Costas Alexiou, a senior diplomat at the Cypriot embassy in Amman, said his country didn’t require such criteria for residency or citizenship before the bail out, and each case was instead studied individually.

He said the amount of applications shot up following the recent outbreak of conflicts across the neighboring Middle East. “Before we didn’t even know there were people interested in these programs. [Recently] officials from Cyprus even started coming to Jordan to promote the program,” he said, adding that some 300 Jordanians attended the last seminar to highlight the investment program.

Ease of Travel

A young Jordanian business entrepreneur contacted by Venture said he was seriously considering applying for Portugal’s residency program, which he said requires an investment of around JD400,000.

He said one of the main reasons for applying was the ease of travel that a European Union passport would allow. “Every time I need to go to Europe, I need to apply for a visa, and I have to wait days,” he said. “Most of the time, they give you a single entry, and for people who travel to Europe often for business, to get the residency would make things easier,” said the 28-year-old, who declined to be named.

He also said residency of a second safe and stable country was another motivating factor. “Look at our neighbors,” he said. “I don’t see anything happening in Jordan in the near future, but one should have an opportunity for security in case something happens … both in a political context and business-wise.”

Increasing desire for second passports has also given way to a budding ring of scammers and misinformation peddlers.

Excited to obtain an alternative citizenship, applicants often jump at opportunities they find on the Internet. But many of them are far from legitimate. Samara calls them “ghost practitioners” as they do all the work but don’t have a regulatory status to formally represent the applicant before the relevant departments.

“Because they are not regulated, monitored, or subject to any code of professional conduct, they take advantage of families in distress and those who urgently need a residency status,” the consultant said. “So if they tell someone: Pay me a couple of hundred thousand dollars and I will get you a citizenship within the next two or three months to a country that is safe, they would, unfortunately, immediately pay.”

Furthermore, some wealthy first world countries have started to raise objections about how easily visa-free travel to their countries can be achieved.

The small, Caribbean twin-island nation of Saint Kitts and Nevis has sold citizenship to scores of investors down the years. International patrons poured some JD280,000 worth of real estate investment into the nation in exchange for the supposed passport’s availability to travel to 132 countries visa-free.

Recently, however, countries like Canada have started demanding an entry visa for those presenting the island nation’s documents at its borders, citing the country’s infamously lax security measures. This can leave passport recipients feeling jilted. “Imagine an investor who just paid a substantial amount of money to buy the country’s passport,” Samara said. “Now, they would just start realizing the minimal value of the documents they purchased.”

Still, regardless of the challenges, regional turmoil and economic insecurity are still convincing more and more Jordanians to embark on the often-grueling search for a second citizenship.