Wealthy Syrians and Iraqis buy second citizenship to escape war

Around the world, a number of countries offer citizenship or residency for foreign nationals in exchange for investment or property purchase. And with few other options, Syrians and Iraqis who can afford such programmes are being drawn to them.

BEIRUT // With a crackdown on refugees crossing into Europe by boat and slim chances of resettlement, Syrians and Iraqis have fewer legal or illegal ways to escape the region’s conflicts. That is, of course, unless they have money.

Across the world, a number of countries offer citizenship or residency for foreign nationals in exchange for investment or property purchase. With few other options, Syrians and Iraqis who can afford these programmes – most of which have price tags ranging from the hundreds of thousands of dollars to millions – are being drawn to them as the wars in their homelands continue.

Savory and Partners is a Dubai-based firm that acts as a middleman for clients looking to acquire a second citizenship or to secure residency by investment. Of late, Syrians have represented the company’s biggest client base, with Savory and Partners helping more than 100 Syrian families in the past year alone, with the vast majority opting for second citizenship services.

“The Arab Spring is where it all really saw an upswing in demand,” said Jeremy Savory, the company’s chief executive and founder. “So it started off with Egypt and Libya and then obviously we had Syria and Iraq.”

After Syrians and Iraqis, Mr Savory says Lebanese are his company’s third biggest clients.

Most of the Syrian and Iraqi clients at firms like Mr Savory’s are already out of their homelands, with many working and residing in Arab Gulf states. But despite being safe from the war, many find their passports increasingly weakened as countries restrict the entry of Syrian and Iraqi nationals. And as they watch the wars in their countries continue, many have lost hope that they can ultimately return and are looking for a plan B.

The situation in Syria and Iraq “is not getting better for the time being, so there is no chance that they will go back”, said Dua Yassin, a marketing and compliance executive at Henley and Partners Middle East, another company that facilitates second citizenships and residencies for clients. “So they will be interested in citizenship, just to make sure they have a future.”

Ms Yassin said the company was unable to provide exact figures, but Syrians and Iraqis now make up the biggest client base of its business in the Middle East.

“They’re just good people born in countries that in the space of a few years have been turned upside down,” said Mr Savory of his clients. “They’re upstanding individuals who are in a situation where they need a second passport to find stability for their family and their assets and their business.”

One Syrian who recently acquired a second citizenship is Yaser Akkad, a 44-year-old Aleppo native who is an executive at an information technology firm based in Jeddah. A few years ago, Mr Akkad was on a trip to England when he lost his passport. Knowing that Syria no longer had diplomatic representation in the United Kingdom, he panicked, putting advertisements in the local news and contacting the police.

Facing a long and difficult process of getting a new Syrian passport in a country with no Syrian embassy, some people advised Mr Akkad to apply for asylum in the UK or another European country. But as a successful executive who frequently travelled across the globe, he did not consider himself a refugee nor want to put his life on hold for a lengthy asylum process. Temporary travel papers could be easier to get than a new Syrian passport, but he said these would only get him back to Syria and a war he had no intention of seeing.

To his immense relief, Mr Akkad eventually found his passport among his belongings. But the experience shook him: in a world where Syrian passports open few doors and can be viewed with outright suspicion in many western countries, Mr Akkad decided he needed a second citizenship.

“I realised that this piece of paper that I have is not helping me carry on my business,” he said. Being Syrian was only a hindrance.

He turned to Mr Savory’s company, and after paying US$650,000 (Dh2.4 million) and waiting 14 months, Mr Akkad and his family were citizens of Saint Kitts and Nevis, a tiny two-island nation in the Caribbean. While little attention is paid to the country of less than 60,000 people, its passport is exceptionally strong, allowing visa-free travel to 132 countries including the European Union and the United States, according to visa restriction rankings compiled by Henley and Partners this year. In comparison, a German passport, considered one of the strongest, allows visa-free travel to 177 countries, while an Afghan passport only gives visa-free access to 25 countries.

Alongside Afghan and Pakistani passports, Syrian and Iraqi passports are among the weakest in the world. According to Henley and Partners, Syrians and Iraqis are officially allowed visa-free travel to about 30 countries, a list that has shrunk in recent years and mostly includes countries that are far away. But whether all of these countries would actually allow Syrians and Iraqis to enter now is debatable.

Saint Kitts and Nevis is a relatively attractive option for Syrian businessmen like Mr Akkad as it does not require those looking to become citizens to live in the country for any set period of time. In fact, prospective citizens never even have to visit the country.

However, with increasing numbers of Syrians turning to Saint Kitts and Nevis’ relatively hassle-free citizenship by investment programme, the country stopped processing applications from Syrians in December last year.

Getting citizenship in Malta – an EU country whose passport allows visa-free travel to 166 countries including the US – costs €1.2m (Dh4.9m) and requires applicants to live in the country for a year.

Citizenship of Cyprus, another EU country, can be acquired in as little as three months with no residency requirement for €2.5m.

On the other end of the spectrum, residency in cash-strapped Greece can be had by purchasing a property worth just €250,000 giving visa-free access to the EU. And citizenship of Comoros off the coast of Africa can be had for just $45,000 – but the passport is quite weak compared to others, with visa-free travel to just 44 countries, not including the US or the EU.

As long as countries like Syria and Iraq are at war, their nationals who can afford to do so will likely continue to look for citizenship-for-cash programmes that offer them a way out.

Syria is “destroyed, literally. So you need to create another home, in a decent way other than being a refugee”, said Mr Akkad.