A senior Portuguese minister has said his country's "golden visa" scheme is generating wide interest in the Middle East, with Arabs and South Asians among the most common applicants. `
Eurico Brilhante Dias, Portugal’s secretary of state for internationalisation, revealed that most applicants from the region come from Pakistan, followed by India and Egypt, including some living in the UAE.
The scheme has generated about €4 billion (€16.66bn) in investment for Portugal since it was set up in 2012. The vast majority of the 6,000-plus applicants granted visas so far are Chinese with those from the Middle East taking visas numbering in the hundreds.
"We have people living in the UAE but also in Pakistan and India and other countries in this region interested," Mr Dias said. "China and the Middle East in particular."
In a wide-ranging conversation with The National as he concluded a three-day trade mission, Mr Dias, 46, also spoke about the Brexit deadlock, his ambitions to ramp up trade with the UAE, and floated the idea that his country could consider a visa-free travel regime for Emiratis.
On the golden visa scheme, Mr Dias said it had been beneficial for Portugal.
Twenty EU countries have such schemes. Three – Cyprus, Malta and Bulgaria – give passports to non-EU citizens. Others, including Portugal, grant residency which can lead to citizenship. In Portugal’s case, foreign nationals are granted permanent residency if they invest €500,000 in property, €1m in the economy, or create a business that employs 10 or more.
In January, the EU Commission warned member states to tighten checks on these schemes, cautioning that they could be used for money-laundering and tax evasion.
“Our scheme is transparent,” said Mr Dias. “All money related to laundering or that could have come from a criminal source – that money is not welcome in Portugal.”
Opposition parties in Portugal have also clashed with Mr Dias’s ruling Socialist Party, claiming these investors do not create enough jobs.
“This is not true,” said Mr Dias. He also rejected the idea that Lisbon could develop a host of ghost houses – owned primarily by wealthy overseas who don’t live there – that denude communities of their vibrancy.
“To have an empty house is not rational. I don’t know many cases like that. The large majority [of investors] are making second and third investments.” He said there are no plans to end the scheme.
On Brexit, Mr Dias admitted it was a difficult moment but insisted EU politicians are not playing games with people’s lives.
“I have three children and they are living and will live in this EU, this Portugal and this world,” he said.
“People’s lives are our first priority. Political games that are not focused on that – we cannot say that is politics.”
With just weeks to go until the UK leaves the EU, a hard Brexit is looking increasingly likely on March 29. The deadlock is sending currents of economic uncertainty across the UK, Ireland and even rippling into mainland Europe.
Mr Dias said the day Britain chose to leave was a sad moment but the 27-member EU bloc had actually emerged stronger. Mr Dias said that the UK would remain an ally but it needed to understand what was at stake.
One of the major sticking points is the Irish backstop plan – an arrangement in the event of a no-deal Brexit to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The backstop means keeping the UK aligned with the EU’s customs union and Northern Ireland with elements of the EU’s single market but critics say it undermines British sovereignty.
Earlier this month, European Council President Donald Tusk also sparked controversy when he said there is a "special place in hell" for the people who pushed Brexit without a plan, which some observers say articulated Europe's frustrations at how the exit has been handled.
“We are not punishing [the UK] – we are respecting the vote,” he said. “But the UK needs to understand we are part of a project and we need to defend that project. The EU is something that we relate with peace, democracy, freedom. It is about more than trade and investment.”
The Portuguese community in the UAE numbers in the hundreds, two-way trade stands at about €500m, and scores of Portuguese companies, such as clothing firm Sacoor Brothers, operate here.
Just this week, Emirates announced the launch of direct flights between Dubai and Porto. It already flies to Lisbon.
During the visit, Mr Dias visited the Expo 2020 site in Dubai, attended the Idex defence exhibition in Abu Dhabi, and met members of the Ismaili Muslim community, which is led by the Aga Khan and headquartered in Portugal. He also said Portugal could consider a visa-free travel regime for Emiratis. Currently UAE citizens must apply for a Schengen visa in advance.
“But we need to increase the trade figures,” he said. “We want more trade, more investment and a fantastic Portuguese participation in Expo 2020.”