Michael Karam: The Lebanese know all about passport loopholes

The Lebanese know their way around nationality rules and any loopholes there may be because they love, and need, a foreign passport.

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I was having dinner in Beirut with a young Lebanese couple. He had Canadian citizenship from his father, who had studied in Montreal in the ‘70s. She was able to claim the Portuguese nationality from her maternal grandmother. Their kids would be Portuguese, being ineligible for Canadian citizenship, as successive generations cannot be born outside Canada to a foreign mother.

The Lebanese know their way around nationality rules and any loopholes. Just ask those West African expats with British Protected Persons status and their dependents who pounced on full UK citizenship after the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act was passed in 2002, without having set foot in Great Britain or in many cases were unable to speak a word of English.

The Lebanese love, or should I say, need, a foreign passport. The Lebanese one has been ranked by Henley & Partners Visa Restrictions Index “a global ranking of countries based on the freedom of travel for their citizens,” among the top 10 worst passports to own because of visa restriction issues.

My wife will gladly testify to this. In 2010, we were invited to a wedding in Ireland. Being a Lebanese passport holder, she needed a visa. No biggie, we thought. Just go to the Irish embassy or consulate. The only problem was the nearest one was in Damascus, so she was forced to travel to Syria to submit her application at the Irish consulate, a process that took her passport to the nearest Irish embassy, which was in Cairo. Had the Irish Honorary Consul not been the brother of a family friend (the Finnish Honorary Consul as it happened) and been able to deliver her passport and visa to Beirut, she would have had to return to Damascus to pick it up personally.

And if you’re thinking “well, OK but Ireland is a relatively obscure country”, let us not forget that in the years after the 1975-90 civil war, those Lebanese wishing to travel to the not-so-obscure US, had to make a similar journey across the border into Syria, where they were subjected to a stringent interview. My wife did it twice. No surprise she can’t wait to qualify for a UK passport in a little over a year.

Twenty-five years on, the Lebanese still have to queue. They are still asked to verify with whom they are staying; how long they have been employed in their current job and how much money they have in their bank account. The notion of just getting on a plane for a mini-break, a luxury afforded the citizens of all First World nations, is a luxury.

So it is not surprising that we will explore any avenue to join what we see as an elite club. During the civil war, more than a few of my 21 first cousins appealed to the Swedish government to consider their application for citizenship on account of their Swedish grandmother. Others, like another family friend who has put a sizeable chunk of cash in Bulgaria, will look for investment opportunities in the most unlikely places.

The Iraqis, whose country has been up against it since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, have been eyeing up investment opportunities in Antigua and Barbuda, where the government recently cleared the way for them to acquire nationality of the tiny Caribbean island (population 81,000) under the Citizenship by Investment Program.

Not everyone is happy. The island’s opposition United Progressive Party and its leader, Harold Lovell, is up in arms, protesting against the government’s policies, in particular plans to open an embassy in Baghdad and the planned appointment of an Iraqi as Antigua’s ambassador to Iraq. Mr Lovell was also critical of the admittedly curious Sweet Homes project in Ajman, which also offers A&B citizenship to those who buy property in the emirate’s Uptown project.

"This administration does not have the judgment, sobriety of thought to be able to discern those persons and those policies that will benefit the country," Mr Lovell told Antigua's Daily Observer.

Still, not all Lebanese would be thrilled at the idea of belonging to one of the most beautiful countries in the world – Antigua has a beach for every day of the year. A rich “Canadian” friend once told me she was seriously unimpressed with her second nationality. “I don’t see why I couldn’t have got a British or French passport,” she moaned. “Have you seen who Canadians are letting in these days? Seriously.”

Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton.


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