(reading notes for Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian
Diogenes of Sinope was the West’s first conscientious objector, a man who thought the customs and rules of the city, any city, had rotted beyond hope. The lifestyle he chose—drinking and debating all day, urinating openly, sleeping in a wine-barrel—won him the nickname of kunos, the dog. His school took up the label proudly, calling themselves Cynics, and when respectable people asked Diogenes what city was his home, he replied, “I am a kosmopolites”: a citizen of the universe.
A generation after Diogenes, a young intellectual firebrand named Zeno of Citium set up shop in the very heart of Athens, in a strip-mall colonnade called the Stoa. The school he founded, known as the Stoics, would be the most influential source of ideas for the next ten centuries in the West. They disagreed with Plato and Aristotle and agreed with the Cynics that the city-state was over; but whereas Diogenes had tossed citizenship to the merry dirt, the Stoics exalted it. All men on earth, they contended, share in the logos, the divine reason of the gods. The world must be governed not by local custom but by the reason that unites all mankind and binds together the universe. And thus, in versions high and low, transcendent and cynical, the cosmopolitan idea came to be.
A Small World is a social network for the private-jet set, the kind of website where Italian bankers living in Singapore debate the merits of the latest Gulfstream and the pitfalls of intercontinental dating.
The global citizenship conference, it turned out, was a trade event on how to buy, sell, and renounce national citizenship—completely legally, and above board—in order to travel more freely, pay lower taxes, hide from their governments, and overall, buy a plan B in case of trouble back home. Adding to the intrigue was the fact that this business appeared to be mediated by a small handful of privately held companies that helped poor countries like St. Kitts and Nevis and Dominica sell their citizenship to the wealthy from Russia, China, and the Middle East.
“Regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship,” the political scientist Benedict Anderson wrote in his important 1983 book Imagined Communities. “Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.”
Citizenship in the twenty-first century is changing, changeable, interchangeable; new crises explode the old mythologies of national power and take personal allegiances with them.
the government of the United Arab Emirates had launched a novel program to grant citizenship to the bidoon—stateless residents of the UAE who had no documentation, and whom the country considered illegal immigrants. Only the Gulf monarchy didn’t give the bidoon Emirati citizenship; it bought for them citizenship from the Comoro Islands—an impoverished archipelago off the east coast of Africa whose very name most of these would-be citizens wouldn’t recognize. The agreement the Gulf state had with the Comoros did not include a provision to actually resettle them on the islands. Their Comorian citizenship would be, by design, paper-thin.
What kind of citizenship was this? Who had come up with such a plan? How much money was exchanging hands, and how did the bidoon feel about suddenly “becoming” Comorian? The story seemed to indicate that spillover effects of the high-end passport market were a lot more widespread than helping the wealthy expatriate. It suggested that repressive governments had identified a market-based solution to citizenship as a valid way to manipulate a second-class population. This, too, was confirmed: I later learned that one of the recipients of this citizenship had been deported to Thailand for speaking out against the authorities. I tracked the man down in London, Ontario, where he’d sought refugee status. After spending his entire life as a stateless non-citizen of the Emirates, he, too, had become a global citizen—albeit an unwitting one.
The “global citizens” who buy papers from Caribbean tax havens without setting foot in their adopted countries, and the disenfranchised residents of the Emirates who obtain Comorian citizenship with no plans to ever go there, represent two sides of a common phenomenon. They challenge any meaningful connection between man and state. Global citizenship is itself a new form of statelessness.
this sense of statelessness, of being somehow “of” the world without belonging anywhere within it.
Kuwait-Comoros Friendship Association.
The islands’ nickname in international circles is “Cloud Coup-Coup land.”
Bashar Kiwan, a Kuwait City-based Syrian-French media executive and erstwhile honorary consul of Comoros to Kuwait.
Al Waseet International
The country’s draconian citizenship laws, which made naturalization close to impossible, and even then distinguished between native-born and “new” Kuwaitis, denying the latter the right to vote and rendering them subject to denaturalization at the government’s whims.
To begin to grasp the appeal of the Comoros to a power-hungry foreigner, and to comprehend the islands’ receptiveness to the designs of these ambitious outsiders, consider the legacy of the mercenary Bob Denard, the man believed to have inspired Frederick Forsyth’s novel Dogs of War. Denard, born Gilbert Bourgeaud in Bordeaux, France, in 1929, was an officer in the French army whose aversion to communism and appetite for adventure had led him to participate in numerous battles across the African continent as a hired gun. He fought in or led post-colonial insurrections in Katanga, Rhodesia, Gabon, Yemen, Benin, Zaire, and Angola, claiming to have been supported, albeit tacitly, by the French government. Denard would compare his work to that of the corsairs, the privateers who would raid rival ships during monarchic times. “The corsairs in France would receive written permission from the king to attack foreign ships,” he would say. “I didn’t have such permission, but I had passports given to me by the intelligence services.”
Comoros has almost no political identity to speak of. It is one country; it could just as easily be three countries, or no country at all. Iain Walker, a researcher at Oxford University, wrote a paper called “What Came First, the Nation or the State? Political Process in the Comoro Islands.” His conclusion: “There is, in no real sense, either state or nation in the Comoros.”
Even today, the Comoro Islands are a lost place—too small to make out on a map, too poor to wield any geopolitical influence, too distant to register as a real country to anyone who doesn’t study the region. The Arabic word for Comoros is Kamar, or “moon”—a name that speaks to the islands’ breathtaking night sky, and the uncanny feeling of total remove that many outsiders experience when they visit
a population whose brand of Islam is best characterized as “slacker Sunni.”
Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi, an idealistic imam-turned-mattress-and-perfume salesman and a relative newcomer to politics.
The idea that a small country like Comoros could help an oil-rich economic behemoth solve a problem like statelessness is not an entirely original Kiwan enterprise. A similar deal was floated in 1997, under the presidency of Mohamed Taki Abdoulkarim, according to Mohamed Kalim Mze, a former secretary of state who now wears the distinctly louche title of “itinerant ambassador.” Mze says he led talks discussing the possibility of a citizenship program with a Kuwaiti envoy in Johannesburg, and he claims they had detailed contracts drawn up. But President Taki died shortly thereafter, and the plan was left unexecuted
The deal, in other words, was pitched as a stopgap measure for the benefit of wealthy investors who just so happened to be stateless. That’s a much more attractive prospect than having to take in a large group of strangers from another country. Out of ignorance, willful or genuine, the Comorians played along.
They did not want to blatantly allow for the naturalization of the bidoon, but they were perfectly happy to grant outsiders “economic” citizenship—which did not include the right to vote in local elections, nor reside in the Comoros permanently—in exchange for “investments” in their country. This applied whether the applicants were stateless or had six passports, whether they intended to visit the Comoros or not.
Six weeks later, the men gathered in the National Assembly to debate and vote on the economic citizenship bill. The text spoke simply of granting papers to “partners” of the Comoro Islands from all countries, so long as these partners did not have criminal records, belong to terrorist organizations, or threaten the social and cultural cohesion of the country. New citizens “naturalized” under this procedure would obtain passports but not the right to vote, serve in the armed forces, or run for office; it was a kind of hack by which the country would recognize these citizens as their own on paper, but grant them very few privileges in person. “Basically, the person doesn’t have Comorian citizenship,” Sidi explains. “His only right is to have a passport, invest in the Comoros, and if there’s a problem, address it with the local tribunal.”
Ahmad Abdul Khaleq, a vocal blogger who had become one of the fiercest activists for the rights of stateless people, knew nothing about the Comoro Islands when he became a citizen of the tiny country on May 21, 2012. An official in Abu Dhabi handed him a passport—something he’d wanted all his life. But unfortunately, the country that had issued it was not the United Arab Emirates, where Khaleq was born and had lived his entire life; nor Balochistan, the once-independent Pakistani province from which his ancestors had emigrated generations ago. Before this day, he himself was stateless, or bidoon, like up to 100,000 people in the Emirates, and up to 15 million in the world. Suddenly, the nation to which he belonged was a small archipelago in the Indian Ocean.
Growing up, Khaleq didn’t feel stateless; he felt local. He knew no other community. Both sides of his family emigrated in the 1940s and ’50s, he says, when unrest in their native Balochistan drove them to flee the region. So their presence in the country predates the existence of the United Arab Emirates, which was only formed in 1971, after its six semi-autonomous emirates of Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Sharjah, and Umm al-Quwain declared independence from the British. (A seventh, Ras al-Khaimah, joined the federation in 1972. Bahrain and Qatar were invited to join the union, but they declined.) Previously, each emirate had been overseen by an individual ruling family, so there wasn’t a strong, pre-existing sense of unifying Emirati nationalism
The Arabian Peninsula was for centuries largely inhabited by nomadic tribes and traveling merchants, so it was a little absurd from the outset to claim that anyone was more “native” to a given patch of desert than anyone else. Put another way, everyone was bidoon until someone decided they weren’t.
the concept of nationality in the region was an unfamiliar one when these states were formed, and many people who are now stateless fell through the cracks: they didn’t, couldn’t, or weren’t called upon to register. Many didn’t see the point of obtaining a passport. Some of them were nomadic, and some of them simply traveled often. In that part of the world, this wasn’t unusual.
The concept of registering as a national was new to the senior Khaleq. He lived in the Emirates, had been born in the Emirates, and even worked at the Ministry of the Interior, Ahmed says. He didn’t feel that he needed papers to prove anything. It was a grave mistake, and he wasn’t alone in making it. As the Emirates gradually became a more powerful nation-state, it contended that those without papers were not native to the land, and therefore had no place in the oil-rich society. As time passed, it became more and more important to provide formal proof of citizenship to receive any kind of government services. Having missed their window, nothing has come of the Khaleqs’ dozens of claims to citizenship. Without a passport, Khaleq hadn’t been allowed to cross borders, so he had never left the Emirates. For the bidoon, even a pilgrimage to Mecca requires special permission.
After the Gulf states achieved independence, “the regime of free movements, comings and goings across the Persian Gulf or the North-Arabian desert [were] replaced by a system of regulated migrations where modern states use legal tools of control, such as nationality, visas and residency permits,” Beaugrand wrote in a paper, “Nationality and Migration Controls in the Gulf Countries.” As the Emirates and their neighbors became active participants in a world characterized by United Nations Security Council votes, population surveys, and oil-fueled development, they took on the trappings of a European-style nation-state. They created structures that distinguished between natives, foreigners, guest workers, and illegals, even if it didn’t make sense to suddenly transpose these categories on a historically tribal, nomadic population and land with fresh borders.
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, the philosopher Hannah Arendt, who was stateless for more than a decade during and after the Second World War, famously described citizenship as “the right to have rights.” What do human rights even mean, Arendt probed, if they depend so largely on the assignment of a citizenship by a particular country, rather than a common shared humanity? Being arbitrarily denied nationality is a kind of first-order deprivation that carries over into all parts of life.
Fixing statelessness isn’t technically very difficult; it can be solved with some basic organization and paperwork. But the political will to help and even acknowledge the problem is what’s often lacking. The Emirati government, for instance, contends that there are fewer than 5,000 bidoon living within its territorial borders; it has said in the past that many residents who claim to be stateless are covering up their real nationality in order to stay in the Emirates. But Refugees International, an advocacy group, puts the number closer to 100,000. There is also a sizable bidoon population in Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia
The UN estimates that there are just shy of 100,000 stateless people in Kuwait and 70,000 in Saudi Arabia. And the governments, despite claiming to want to resolve this situation, have barely done so.
Statelessness in the twenty-first century is confounding for another reason: globalization. In a world governed by free trade, the fate of the stateless is largely dependent on whether the nation in which they were born will accept them. Edward Kleinbard, a tax law professor at the University of Southern California, has been studying the topic of stateless income: money generated by multinational companies which, thanks to loopholes and creative accounting, has no discernible country of origin. “Stateless persons wander a hostile globe, looking for asylum,” Kleinbard noted in a paper. “By contrast, stateless income takes a bearing for any of a number of zero or low-tax jurisdictions, where it finds a ready welcome.”
As Diogenes and Zeno pointed out a long time ago, all borders are constructs. The lines in the sand between Saudi Arabia and the Emirates are no more meaningful than the ones separating the United States and Mexico. In Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson explains that it takes time for free-floating ideas surrounding nationhood and nationality, or “imagining,” to boil down to a cohesive glue, and for borders to carry any real meaning. “In the modern conception, state sovereignty is fully, flatly, and evenly operative over each square centimeter of legally demarcated territory,” Anderson writes. “But in the older imagining . . . borders were porous and indistinct, and sovereignties faded imperceptibly into one another.” The newer the country, the fresher the boundaries, and the more arbitrary the distinctions between those who are said to belong inside and those who belong outside
Emirati citizens currently make up around 15 percent of the population, and male Emirati citizens receive benefits that would make a Scandinavian social democracy blush: an annual, no-strings-attached stipend of around $55,000 per year; free land on which to build a house; a no-interest loan to finance it; a marriage bonus of almost $20,000; subsidized utilities; and the free healthcare and education that all Emiratis receive as a matter of course, and that many bidoon are denied or have trouble registering for.
When he was a bidoon, Khaleq couldn’t be deported. Countries typically refuse entry to visitors who have no home which they can return to. But he was now a Comorian citizen. His interlocutors were devising just the plan. “They would say, ‘Okay, Ahmed! What do you say we send you to Afghanistan, to Iran, or to Pakistan?’” he recalls. The Comoro Islands were conspicuously absent from his list of options. That’s because the Comorians had issued his passport with the stipulation that they didn’t want him around. Khaleq had no interest in this so-called homeland. After he turned down Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan, he was given a chance to go to Thailand. He reluctantly agreed. He would get his freedom, but he could never go home.
“Sometimes it is necessary to dissemble one’s nationality.” —Evelyn Waugh, Scoop
Kalin, who has at least five passports, is the chairman of Henley & Partners, a private consulting firm that helps the wealthy buy citizenships and residence permits, and advises countries on how to sell them.
No one knows passports or believes so deeply in holding additional citizenships as Chris Kalin. Nor has anyone been so instrumental in presenting citizenship as a commodity that can be bought and sold, or has so single-mindedly thought about the economic, political, and moral implications thereof, as Christian Kalin.
It’s not about buying passports; it’s about self-actualizing as a global citizen.
There’s a late-capitalist logic to the scheme. If citizenship can be freely bought and sold, why shouldn’t governments buy them for stateless people?
The U.S. Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1990, which included the EB-5 visa program, effectively selling permanent residence, or so-called green cards, to foreigners willing to invest at least half a million dollars in the U.S. In 2014, the program reached its yearly capacity of 10,000 permits for the first time; 85 percent of demand came from China. Since 2009, the overall number of applicants has almost doubled each year.
A St. Kitts and Nevis passport got a lot more desirable in 2009, when holders were granted visa-free access to the Schengen Area, comprising 26 European countries.
The transformation of St. Kitts came so suddenly and unexpectedly that observers, skeptical of the durability of the boom, speak of a “passport bubble.”
according to Bloomberg, investor-citizens spent $2 billion buying passports in 2014.
a cultural sea change in the way countries and citizens conceive of the social contract, arguing that traditional ways of allocating citizenship to individuals—by birth or through blood—are fundamentally arbitrary: After all, you don’t choose where you’re born or who your parents are. Since we live in a globalized world, he says, birthplace and blood no longer hold the same significance as they used to.
By marketing passports like merchandise, the citizenship business has eroded a moral veneer that, for the past hundred years or so in the West, has come part and parcel with being of a place. What Kalin calls “access rights” to countries has become transactional
Countries cannot technically prevent other nations from selling their citizenships, because naturalization is a fundamental part of state sovereignty. This legal question surfaced in 2014, after Henley designed its program for Malta. The European Parliament, egged on by the outraged Maltese opposition party, held a debate on whether it was permissible for one of its members to sell off access to the entire Eurozone—with an EU passport, qualified investors could just as easily live in Berlin or Rome as they could in Valletta, Malta’s capital. “It is legitimate to question whether EU citizenship rights should merely depend on the size of someone’s wallet or bank account,” the EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding said at the time.
During a meeting in January 2014, European Parliament representatives voted to oppose the sale of citizenship in the EU by a margin of 560 to 22, with 44 abstentions. The Maltese sent their attorney general, accompanied by Kalin and a law professor named Dimitry Kochenov, to argue that the supranational body had no basis from which to regulate the naturalization policies of sovereign states.
Malta also added a residence requirement of one year to the conditions—ostensibly to prove that these new Maltese could demonstrate a genuine link to their so-called nation—and the EU backed down. But even that requirement is ambiguous; investor-citizens can meet it by renting an apartment for twelve months.
CS Global, a firm run by a former Henley employee named Micha-Rose Emmett, is financed by one Dev Bath, the flamboyant son of an Indian industrialist
Arton Capital, a Dubai-based consultancy firm, is another big name that’s giving Kalin a run for his money. The company is run by a smooth-talking Armenian-Canadian-Dominican-Antiguan-Comorian named Armand Arton, who says he buys passports from the countries he works with out of sheer principle.
In early 2015, Kalin announced that Henley had partnered with the UN Refugee Agency to help those “at the other end of the spectrum of global mobility”—actual stateless people and displaced persons, as opposed to denizens of Davos. Arton has a more creative plan. “I had a thought that for every passport we sell, we should donate one to a stateless person,” Arton told me. What capitalism can do for shoes, capitalism can do for passports, too.
Arton’s 2014 “Global Citizenship Forum”
Henley has put on its own Global Citizenship and Residence conferences since 2006.
“In this world, shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely, and without a passport, whereas Virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers.” —Herman Melville, Moby Dick
On May 25, 1948, a 26-year-old American veteran named Garry Davis walked into the U.S. embassy in Paris, renounced his American citizenship, and declared himself a citizen of the world.
“I’m still me. The only thing that changed is I was one passport lighter,” Davis said. “I slept that night quite illegally.”
Davis quickly learned what millions of stateless people around the world know all too well: Without papers, he was legally not allowed to remain in France, and he couldn’t go anywhere else, either. He was given a residence permit for three months, but he threw it in the trash, because documents “give status, dignity, and privilege to the issuing authority rather than to the bearer.” When his permit expired and was not renewed, he fashioned a World Citizen International Identity Card out of cardboard. He was citizen number one.
An early solution to the problem of stateless people traveling had been the “Nansen” passport, conceived by Fritjof Nansen, who served as the League of Nations' High Commissioner for Refugees in the 1920s. His initial mandate was to figure out what to do with the large number of White Russian refugees who’d fled their country after the 1917 revolution and had their citizenship taken away under a 1922 denationalization decree.
Mark Mazower in Governing the World, a history of international organizations.
Notable Nansen passport holders included Vladimir Nabokov, Igor Stravinsky, and Ivan Soboleff, a White Russian Cossack officer who quit his regiment in Chinese Turkestan, then traveled around the world by bicycle and motorbike for two years. He wrote a book, Nansen Passport, about his adventures. (Soboleff’s exploits recall the old Prussian term for the passport: Wanderbuch.)
Torpey notes that countries began to define themselves not just culturally, politically, or militarily, but administratively, too. “The emergence of passport and related controls on movement is an essential aspect of the ‘state-ness’ of states,”
World Federalist movements
On November 19, Davis entered the assembly hall with Camus, Sarrazac, and some fifty other sympathizers, who’d brought cameras, film equipment, and audio recorders. Davis stood on a balcony waiting for a lull in the session, and when his cameraman made a sign, he jumped the railing and ran onto the podium. “Mr. Chairman and delegates, I interrupt in the name of the people of the world not represented here,” Davis declared, ripping off his coat. The room fell silent. He felt a frog in his throat. “Pass the world to the people!” he shouted, forgetting the rest of the 45-second-long speech he had written. “One government for one world!” Security escorted him out and Sarrazac took over the podium, and their comrades carried on the show for half an hour. The next day, Davis was once again the talk of the town. In the coming months, hundreds of “World Citizen Clubs” formed around Europe Entire towns announced that they were “World Towns.” Leaflets were dropped around Paris advocating for Davis’s cause. He held press conferences regularly. In December, Sarrazac and his friends arranged for Davis to give speech to almost 20,000 people at the Vélodrome d’Hiver.
Davis also formed the World Service Authority, a Washington-based organization now staffed mainly by idealistic interns and law students. The WSA says it’s issued World Passports and ID cards to more than 2.5 million people who were willing to pay $45 and fill out a simple form. Some holders have successfully crossed borders using their documents; others depend on it as their only form of identification. I received a World Passport free of charge in 2012, but the only border I’ve crossed with it was the one between a street and the inside of a bar.
Just weeks before his death, Davis appeared on CBS news and announced that he had sent Snowden a World Passport.
what Garry Davis described as “the cavernous, bureaucratic, subhuman passageway of dots and curlicues, lorded over by rubber stamps.”
Ver recalls the day he rid himself of his American associations as “one of the happiest moments in my life.” His only regret is that he didn’t do it sooner. Still, he didn’t make himself stateless; the inconvenience would have been too great for such a frequent flyer. In this respect, Ver, too, is a man of his time
In advocating for better living through technology, Ver channels a bizarre brand of techno-utopianism that the writer Evgeny Morozov calls “solutionism,” which Morozov defines as “an intellectual pathology that recognizes problems as problems based on just one criterion: whether they are ‘solvable’ with a nice and clean technological solution at our disposal.” These problems include funding infrastructure, making medical research more efficient, and even death.
Besides zombies, the most fundamental problem that technology can solve is the problem of borders, according to Ver
Ver sees in Bitcoin a future in which nation-states cannot regulate the commercial activities of individuals. “Bitcoin is the money of the world,” he says. “It doesn’t care about borders. It doesn’t care about any of that. It doesn’t even care if you’re a human. Imagine!” On his website, Ver calls Bitcoin “the most important invention in the history of the world since the Internet.”
Davis felt accountable to all humankind; his cosmopolitanism mirrored that of the Stoics, in that it was inclusive and universal. Ver, ever the Cynic, sees global citizenship as a way of opting out. Call it dismal cosmopolitanism.
It is impossible to talk about renouncing American citizenship without talking about money. That’s not the case for most nationalities: the Internal Revenue Service is unique in that the agency requires all U.S. citizens, whether they live in Kentucky or Kathmandu, to file tax returns annually.
As a result of an ongoing crackdown on tax evasion abroad that requires banks to report the activities of their American clients to the U.S. government, an increasing number of Americans are choosing to call it quits. Last year, the U.S. Treasury released a list of names showing that at least 3,415 Americans renounced, up from just a couple hundred in 2008.
Since the tax rate in many countries tends to be on par with, if not higher than, in the U.S., renouncing doesn’t end up saving ordinary expats much money. A number of middle-class renouncers have told me that the relief of not having to deal with the IRS each year makes it worth the hassle; since 2010, Americans living abroad have had trouble opening bank accounts because the burden of reporting their transactions to the U.S. tax authorities under a new law called the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) has become so great.
In 2012, Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin was publicly upbraided when he was found to have defected to Singapore—which, like St. Kitts, has no capital gains tax—shortly before the social networking website announced its initial public offering. The Wall Street Journal estimated that he’d saved upwards of $700 million. Adding insult to injury was the fact that Saverin’s family fled Brazil when he was a child to seek a better life in the U.S. His global, a la carte approach to citizenship, residence, and taxation flies in the face of a more traditional view of belonging, which entails lifelong rights and responsibilities.
Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,
Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith and Columbia law professor Tim Wu say in the 2006 book Who Controls the Internet: Illusions of a Borderless World
Rather than indulging the Internet’s laissez-faire tendencies, nation-states have not only developed the Internet but powerfully encroached upon cyberspace, using national law, technological innovations such as firewalls and filters, and financial regulation to impose border-style controls and prevent their citizens from straying too far. And they show no sign of making concessions for Bitcoin or any of the businesses it inspires
The Seasteading Institute, a nonprofit funded by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, promotes the creation of “seasteads,” man-made autonomous islands in international waters. The islands don’t actually exist—the technology isn’t quite there, and the institute is mostly run by kooky volunteers. But the organization operates on the philosophy that the nation-state and national citizenship should by now be obsolete, and that people ought to “vote with their feet” and decide what kind of government (and tax regime) they want to live under. Since the oceans are technically international territory, little prevents wannabe nation-builders from establishing their own territories in this no-man’s land, if they can physically hack it.
Passports for Bitcoin
As a result of its lobbying, in particular related to the citizenship law, CGH was seen by more skeptical Comorians as a neo-colonizer. “It was the first time that a foreign private company passed a law concerning state sovereignty. It’s also the first time that a sovereign nation gave a foreign private company the right to profit at the expense of the state, when there were local institutions that could step in instead,” wrote Houmed Msaidié in a published debate. “It’s been 33 years since we stopped being a French colony,” he added. “Now we’re being colonized by Comoro Gulf Holding.”
Malik, the CGH manager, estimates that between 2009 and 2010—the first year of the program—the company brokered the exchange of between 5,000 and 10,000 passports, and that Kiwan received additional commissions, possibly from the Emiratis, of up to $48,000 per document, again, off the books. In an April 2015 interview, the senior CGH manager who worked closely alongside Kiwan on the ground in the Comoros put the number of passports sold during his company’s heyday at between 10,000 and 15,000, at around 4,000 euros each. He said that in 2010 and 2011, he would receive calls from Kiwan once every two months to go to Sambi to fetch naturalization decrees—a list of approved names, essentially. The list, he said, was usually between 200 and 1,000 people. During the last six months of Sambi’s tenure, the senior manager says he personally negotiated the exchange of 10,000 passports, and that wasn’t the end of it, either. “When I left, there were still suitcases of passports that were coming and going,” he said.
That puts the total somewhere around 20,000 passports over the course of two years that CGH was active in the negotiations.
Mohamed Alhadi Abbas, a former chief of staff for the Comorian interior ministry, says he believes some 60,000 passports were printed and sold to the Emirates since the program was adopted. A foreign diplomat estimates it was closer to 100,000. If these numbers are accurate, and the passports were in fact sold for the estimated $6,000 to $8,000 each, the Comorian government should have gotten at least $360 million. This would mean that hundreds of millions of dollars never saw their way into the Comorian accounts, or at least the ones that the IMF was aware of.
The dream of Dubai-level development in the Indian Ocean turned out to be a sham; the Comoros gained little from the initiative. But what about the bidoon? It has become clear that the bet Kiwan had made on the Gulf states providing documentation for their stateless went far beyond “economic citizenship” and papers for just 4,000 bidoon families in the Emirates. The entire Comorian enterprise, Kiwan’s colleagues and friends say, hinged on the relocation of the bidoon to the Comoros, whether on their own free will or by force.
It was only a matter of time until these suitcases became the subject of a scandal. In the summer of 2013, Abou Achirafi, the head of the Comorian national security agency, was discovered to have been engaging in a passport-selling hustle of his own. He ran his operation under the nose of the local Interpol office, with which his department shares a compound, and was arrested at the Comoros airport with a suitcase full of passports.
“Il ne faut pas croire qui promet la lune,” it reads. “One should not believe he who promises the moon and stars.”
one Human Rights Watch officer wrote in an internal email a week earlier. “It would set a horrible precedent.” When the organization realized Khaleq was, in fact, on his way to Thailand, they rushed out a press release denouncing the Gulf country’s actions. “UAE authorities are trying to make it appear as though Ahmed Abd al-Khaleq is choosing to leave the country on his own volition, but this is a cruel and unlawful expulsion by duress, plain and simple,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the organization’s Middle East director, in the statement. “The UAE authorities are ever creative in coming up with outrageous tactics to silence dissenting voices.”
Under ordinary circumstances, it can take months, years, or even decades for refugees to obtain the necessary approvals to start new lives elsewhere. But Khaleq’s case was fast-tracked—in part to deter the Emirate authorities from repeating the process with another unsuspecting bidoon, but also because it was unclear how long the Thai authorities would tolerate Khaleq’s presence in Bangkok. Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thai prime minister (and erstwhile “economic” Montenegrin), was close with the UAE authorities, and retained a lot of clout. Advocates worried that Khaleq’s life would become more difficult if he continued his rabble-rousing, and Thaksin’s friends in Dubai pushed for his expulsion.
Over the summer, Khaleq obtained his asylum approval and was assigned to emigrate to London, Ontario, a Canadian city not far from Detroit.
The passports, meanwhile, give the Emirati state an opportunity to further stratify their society, and hold the bidoon apart from the native population both in practice and on paper. To this day, there are almost weekly reports in the Abu Dhabi press of rapes, murders, assaults, and robberies committed in the Emirates by Comorian passport-holders. The public naming and shaming of these “Comorian” criminals has proven to be a considerable inconvenience for ordinary, native Comorians: Some countries began to require all Comorians to obtain visas before traveling—even former heads of state.
Hakeem al-Fadhli, Kuwait’s most militant bidoon activist
the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had launched a campaign to end statelessness; it was hard to imagine that the bulk sale of Comorian passports was the response they’d hoped for.
The plan was based on the Emirati program, he said, but it was very important for Kuwait to have the option of sending criminals to the islands, with the archipelago serving the Kuwaitis as a kind of penal colony. Hearing al-Jarrah speak, it is difficult not to recall the Nazis’ plan to delay exterminating Polish Jews and ship them off to Madagascar instead. Franz Rademacher, the mastermind behind the so-called Madagascar plan, even suggested that the forced deportations would show how benevolent the German people were toward their undesirable compatriots—a sentiment al-Jarrah echoed when listing the many benefits the Kuwaitis would provide for their exiles from afar.
The IMF in 2013 reported that the citizenship program had been shut down, but a year later, its representative said money was still trickling in, albeit in tiny amounts. After its last review in early 2015, the IMF noted that Comorian authorities “indicated that they were optimistic that a new ECP program with Kuwait would be agreed,” and added that the agency “urged the introduction of strong safeguards to prevent the misuse of the program for illegitimate purposes and to ensure its sustainability.”
These cases illustrate that the only thing worse than being a second-class citizen is being a second-class non-citizen.
Our citizenship still determines who can go where, when, how, and for how long; even in times when citizenship can be bought, sold, renounced, and revoked; even at a moment when there are more refugees displaced from their homes than there have been since World War II; even when cross-border trade and technology have diluted the ties between citizens, strengthened bonds between geographical strangers, and revealed a fresh layer of arbitrariness to our national allegiances.
the sale of citizenship is interesting not because it is scandalous or even morally reprehensible, but because it speaks to the very arbitrariness of the concept of belonging to a nation to begin with.
The “financialization” of citizenship isn’t just a problem for traditionalists like Huntington. It’s also a disturbing trend for supporters of participatory democracy, social welfare programs, and wealth redistribution.
These days, Spiro went on to argue, people just do not share in quite the same way, because the social meanings attached to citizenship have broken down. That’s why practices like tax avoidance are expected and even permissible, and why so many countries now allow dual citizenship—a status that Teddy Roosevelt once likened to polygamy.
Ultimately, it is this disconnect between the place and the person, the citizen and the community, that allowed the Emirates to buy citizenship for the bidoon, and why the Comorians allowed themselves to sell it. “To the extent that the social membership part of the equation has been taken out, it becomes a commodity that’s now increasingly going to be governed by market parameters,” Spiro said.
But if the whole premise of national citizenship was built on the common cause of the nation, and if the nation is being called into question as a result of globalizing technology, trade, and crisis, it makes perfect sense for our connection and allegiance to the nation to be challenged too. In retrospect, it seems crazy to think that an institution like national citizenship could remain unaffected by globalization.
years before Jay-Z and Kanye West rapped about avoiding incarceration with five passports, John Lennon imagined a world with no war, no borders, no countries, and, presumably, no rivaling nationalities or visa restrictions on the movement of Russian and Chinese citizens.
there have always been competing versions of the cosmopolitan ethos. For every Cynic who dreams of personal secession, there will be a starry-eyed Stoic trying to hug the entirety of humanity; for ever Garry Davis, there will be a Roger Ver. The vision that prevails will be tremendously consequential. National citizenship, while by no means irrelevant on a practical level, is beginning to show its cracks as an institution. Countries are themselves undermining the very imaginings on which they were built, most explicitly by endorsing the sale of citizenship for short-term profit. If the nation-state is, in fact, losing relevance, ought we all aspire to be more global, and risk becoming unmoored and uprooted in the process? Can we truly divorce ourselves from geography and territory? Will technologies such as Bitcoin offer their own imaginings, changing the way we think about our communities and each other?
Estonia has come up with another model: electronic citizenship. Anyone in the world can sign up to use the country’s online infrastructure to open a business or register a domain name, and the state expects ten million new “E-stonians” by 2025. Their approach is inclusive and completely decentralized—anybody can register, and a visit to Tallinn is optional. But e-citizenship remains a fundamentally commercial initiative, and one that reveals how acutely transactional the notion of belonging has become. It overwhelmingly and unsurprisingly benefits the rich: Geography, ethnicity, and religion matter less than wealth, Internet access, and business savvy.
Will a new Nansen step in and create passports for climate refugees? Or will those displaced by the deluge end up bidding for a new nationality on the open market?