”Global citizenship is essentially a branding exercise” and passport shopping is big business

The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen (Columbia Global Reports, Nov. 2015) is Atossa Araxia Abrahamian’s debut book. It’s an intriguing, thoroughly reported look at the evolution of nationality and citizenship, and how the latter is quickly becoming a marketable commodity to the world’s well-heeled jet set, while remaining heartbreakingly out of reach for those who need it most.

The book hops from glossy “global citizenship” conferences in Toronto and Singapore, where Abrahamian learned that, for roughly $250,000, she could become a citizen of the tiny Caribbean nation of St. Kitts and Nevis; to the little-known Comoro islands, where stateless peoples from the Gulf states are being bought passports en masse by their governments.

Abrahamian chatted with Quartz about the story behind the book; her own personal relationships with the concepts of citizenship and nationality; and the future of “global citizenship” as a movement with major political and economic implications.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Quartz: You’ve written about it at length in The Cosmopolites, but for readers who haven’t had a chance to check it out yet, what was the inspiration for taking on this project?

Atossa Araxia Abrahamian: I have three citizenships, three passports. And I grew up in a really international environment where peoples’ passports did not necessarily reflect where they had spent most of their time living, or even where their families were from, or even where they considered themselves from.

My parents both worked at the UN—so this isn’t surprising. A lot of those families moved around a lot. On top of that, I was in Switzerland, in Geneva, where something like 30 or 40% of the population is foreign-born. Everyone was from everywhere. People didn’t identify with countries as much.

What really shocked me when I moved to the US—this was during the Iraq War, in 2004—everyone was saying “we are at war.” And I was like, “we?” I’d never heard anyone talk like that before! It was really eye-opening. It kind of made me realize, A) what a privileged upbringing I’d had, and B) how different it was from this more nationalistic way of thinking.

So the disconnect between the passport and the person and the place made me curious about territoriality and sovereignty. Then, about a year after I finished grad school, I got an email from this social network called A Small World. I had just been dealing with some annoying immigration stuff to stay in the US, because I’m not a US citizen, and A Small World was inviting all of its members to a global citizenship and residence conference. I thought it woud be a crunchy UN thing, but then it kind of turned out to be a conference for people who wanted to buy passports.

I went. I talked my editors into letting me go, and it was fascinating! People were talking about selling citizenship like it was a pair of shoes! And that’s when it all clicked. I thought, “Okay, well global citizenship is essentially a branding exercise.” It’s become very corporate. Cosmopolitanism has taken on this very corporate life of its own, and the term “global citizen” is being used in ways you wouldn’t necessarily think it would be. Countries being able to sell their citizenship openly is a really fascinating departure from this idea of one person, one country, one vote.

QZ: You’re a triple citizen! Canada, Switzerland, and Iran—correct?

AAA: Yes.

QZ: And two of those are what people in the passport-selling business call “good passports”—Switzerland’s being the best in the world, according to some. Already having these two “good” passports, why do you like living in the United States?

AAA: I love New York! I went to school here, and all of my friends here. When you grow up in such a mixed-up environment, all of the people you know tend to move away. I don’t actually know all that many people still in Switzerland. I know a handful, but I actually realized after college, “Wow, most of my friends aren’t actually in Switzerland!” Some of their parents might be, but because most of the people I went to school with are not even Swiss, the place where I lived for 18 years is also a place where I socially feel like kind of a foreigner, a stranger. So, I guess the place where you establish yourself as an adult is a lot more significant then where you happen to be brought up.

QZ: And I’m sure in places like Geneva, where such a significant portion of the population is involved in international-affairs work, there has to be a huge turnover!

AAA: Huge turnover! Growing up, amost every year, it was like, “All right, well who’s staying this year and who’s leaving? What kind new kids are we getting?” It doesn’t make you feel especially rooted.

QZ: But in between this global jet-set demographic, either the very rich or the very politically connected, and people at the other end of the spectrum—Syrian refugees, the bidoon, which you’ve written about in The Cosmopolites, people who are just trying to get documented so they can participate in a society and survive—is there a middle ground? Would an ordinary person want multiple passports?

AAA: Totally. I’m sure you have friends, and I have tons of friends who are now trying really hard to find an Italian grandparent or a German grandparent to get that extra passport. And it’s a great thing to have, it gives you so many opportunities and makes life so much less of a bureaucratic pain in the ass.

Some people are deeply offended by nationality of convenience, but it’s not insidious. You’re just trying to live and work in another country. What’s wrong with that?

QZ: There are also security reasons for obtaining multiple passports, right?

AAA: Yes, if you’re from a place that’s kind of politically unstable. Take for example, if you’re Egyptian or Libyan, a place in the world that’s a little volatile, politically, and you’re rich, and you can afford to have an escape route, it seems pretty wise. You don’t necessarily need another passport to do it, but if it’s an issue of “we need to leave now,” it’s a pretty great thing to have.

QZ: But not everyone can do that. Inequality was a pretty common theme you encountered while writing the book.

AAA: You turn on the TV and you see it with the whole situation in Syria and the Mediterranean. All the refugees coming to Europe, they often lack documentation. They are taking these very dangerous journeys because they have to show up and seek asylum directly. They can’t apply for it externally. But a Libyan billionaire can just buy a Maltese passport and fly first-class and not have to deal with any of it.

I think what’s interesting—and I don’t think I really got into this in the book—is Thomas Piketty’s whole thesis about inequality. Basically the existence of tax havens, the existence of vehicles to sort of de-nationalize incomes—I think it speaks to a huge divide between rich and poor, because if there ever was a time in history where very, very wealthy people felt compelled to pay taxes in their country, whatever country that may be, those days are gone! Now, it’s the Cayman Islands. People are paying taxes in places where maybe they’ve gone on vacation a couple of times.

And not only is there this divide between rich and poor, there’s this divide between citizenship on paper and actual belonging and feeling like you’re part of a community.

QZ: I think that speaks to the reaction people had to Eduardo Saverin defecting to Singapore. On one hand, borderlessness sounds great in theory; but people were still upset that this guy tried to outsmart the US government and deprive it of all those tax dollars.

AAA: And he successfully did!

The book itself kind of challenges the necessity of the nation-state, but it’s because of the nation-state that there are these loopholes and the very smart, rich people can slip through the cracks. Actually, the nation-state is very much alive and well, it’s just a matter of who can get around it, and what kind of loopholes exist and for whom.

QZ: Right—you have ultra-rich people trying to escape or disavow themselves of the constraints of the nation-state, and then you have the very poor who are craving some kind of national belonging because then they can benefit from the social programs that are, in part, funded by the taxes of the same ultra-rich.

AAA: What I thought was curious, too, was—I spent a couple weeks in Kuwait with some bidoon activists. They are like, “We are native! We feel Kuwaiti!” They feel very invested in this national project. And, on the flip side, you have these very rich Kuwaitis who are like, “Oh, whatever, I’m going to go live in Dubai or London.”

It’s kind of heart wrenching. You’d think that countries would see that it’s in their interest to welcome people who feel very much part of a country and who want to put forward the narrative of the nation. Countries aren’t doing that. That’s what I think about when the Republicans, or even some Democrats, complain about undocumented immigrants—my God, if you just gave these people documentation they would be awesome, outstanding, taxpaying citizens! Who feel deeply grateful and deeply connected to their country, because they came here by choice.

QZ: Ahmad Abdul Khaleq, an Emirati bidoon you feature prominently in the book, really fits into that narrative.

AAA: Yeah, so Abdul Khaleq’s family is originally from Balochistan [in southwestern Pakistan]. For some reason or another—he says because they just didn’t sign up or get a passport early on when the Emirates were established—they missed the opportunity to declare themselves citizens, and were subsequently denied or were unable to complete and file and have the paperwork approved to become citizenship. As a result, they’re stateless.

A lot of bidoon are very poor. He actually had an okay job. He worked for the police department, so it’s not like he was destitute or struggling or anything. But he was still undocumented, and not recognized as a citizen, and definitely did not enjoy the very generous benefits that Emirati citizens get.

At some point, he became involved in the bidoon rights movement. After the Arab Springs, the Emirates were cracking down on really any kind of dissent, and he was part of a group that was asking for certain, very basic-level democratic rights. That did not go over too well. Lots of things happened, but ultimately Abdul Khaleq ended up in jail. When he gets out, he then was pressured, he says, to obtain a Comoro islands passport along with his family. Which he did because he says he wasn’t able to get his license plates renewed on his car and some other administrative things, otherwise. He was basically unable to lead a normal life until he took this Comorian citizenship.

Once he had the Comoro islands citizenship, he found himself in a really awkward situation where he was, again, thrown in jail, and the authorities told him, and I’m paraphrasing here, “You’re a criminal, we don’t want you here. Also, you’re a foreigner, so get out.” They gave him a choice between going to some pretty nasty places—Afghanistan, Pakistan, some other places. Places he really didn’t want to go to.

He eventually ended up in Thailand. This guy never left the country before, he’d never been on a plane before, he’d never had a passport! And he finds himself on a plane to Thailand with a Comoro islands passport. A total unwitting global citizen. All he wanted was to live a normal live in the Emirates. Things turned out okay—as okay as they could be—he’s now in Canada. He did very well for himself, he got asylum them. But this sort of illustrates the dangers of arbitrarily documenting people with national citizenship or national ideas when they don’t actually belong in any way, shape, or form to the place that their passport says they belong to.

QZ: You say “arbitrarily,” but does some part of you think this was part of a conscious plan, on the part of the Emirati government, to get so-called undesirables out of the country? By giving them this citizenship that ultimately doesn’t really help them do anything?

AAA: I really don’t know about the Emirates. They’re just really secretive about these things. When I was in Kuwait, they announced they were essentially going to do the same thing, document something like 100,000 of the bidoon with Comoros passports. I talked to one of the ministers who’d announced this, and he said, “Yeah, we’re going to deport all the criminals.” So, the Comoros would essentially turn into a penal colony for Kuwait. It was so funny—he said about 10% of them would be deported, but “don’t worry, we’re going to give them houses and health care in the Comoro islands.” It was really absurd, and I’m not sure if they’re going to follow through with it, and if they are, how they’re going to do it. But according to this one minister, yes, that was part of Kuwait’s plan. It’s unclear what the plan is now, but a year ago, that was what he was saying.

QZ: This Syrian-French-Kuwaiti businessman you profiled in the book, Bashar Kiwan, he fancies the Comoros as more of a tourist-investment destination for the Gulf states, right?

AAA: I guess he was modeling it on the passport markets for St. Kitts or Dominica—sell citizenship to rich people. Maybe if all these people could buy in, or these governments will buy citizenship for them, the Comoros will attract more investment.

QZ: So, you can be a global citizen and still have love for one country in particular. You can be a nationalist and an internationalist?

AAA: The Stoics and the ancient Greeks imagined cosmopolitanism as concentric circles of belonging. You have yourself and your family, your town, your kingdom. You can extrapolate to a circle that’s a nation, and maybe the EU, or if you’re Pan-Africanist, you have an Africa circle, and then the whole world.

I think that, for me, the biggest political question is, okay, if we’re global citizens, how do we manage redistribution. Where do we pay taxes? For what, to whom, to what end? I think nobody’s really figured that out yet. Piketty talks about a global wealth tax, but it’s unclear how that’s actually going to happen.

One way to do it might be taxing financial transactions—but I don’t even know! That’s way above my paygrade. But I think that’s the central issue as markets become more global and people become more global, you still need some mechanism of redistribution. Libertarians love global citizenship because you’re off the hook for it, right? If you’re not rooted, you’re like, “Well, I don’t have to pay taxes.” That was the whole reason for Gerard Depardieu not wanting to pay taxes in France was, “I’m a global citizen.”

So, I think that’s the essential question for me. Right now, we do need countries and democracies to implement this. Because no one else is doing it. No one’s come up with anything better.

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