As published on qz.com, Thursday November 14, 2019.
Seventy-three more people can now live in Saudi Arabia for as long as they like, as of Monday, when the Middle Eastern country launched its new “premium” residency program.
The recipients, selected from thousands of applicants, will pay 800,000 riyals ($213,000) for the right to permanent residency, or 100,000 riyals ($26,700) for a renewable one-year permit. The visa allows these extra-special investors, doctors, engineers, and financiers to purchase property and do business freely in the kingdom, as part of the country’s long-term attempts to diversify away from oil.
“Golden visas,” as they’re sometimes known, are becoming more and more common. The world’s borders may be closed to most migrants and refugees, but they’re wide open for those with the ability to pay. Wealthy people can now purchase visas—or straight-out citizenship—in countries such as Thailand, Latvia, and the UK, via a flat fee, “donation,” or hefty investment in the country. At least four EU member states offer passport-for-purchase privileges.
For the very wealthy, “citizenship by investment” programs can be an easy route to waiving time-consuming naturalization requirements, which may include language skills or residency in the country. For the approximately 60 countries with programs in place, it redirects international funds into the national economy. Tiny Montenegro’s “golden visa” program, which launched last month, is expected to raise around $1 billion in the first three years.
In Panama, investors can receive the right to residency for the small price of $80,000, which must be invested in the country’s teakwood industry. In the UK, requirements are more stringent: To qualify for the Tier 1 Investment Visa program, non-EU citizens must invest at least £2 million ($2.6 million) into the UK economy. The visa is growing in popularity, Brexit uncertainty notwithstanding: Applications grew 36% year-on-year in the first half of 2019, with ones from China making up more than 40%. In cases such as these, migrants are able to apply for citizenship after a period of five or six years.
But international watchdogs and bodies such as the EU have called for states to clamp down on this growing trend. A Transparency International report found a worrying lack of accountability and transparency, where even applicants with criminal records were still considered for the visas. “By their very nature, golden visa schemes are an attracting prospect for the criminal and the corrupt,” the report notes. In some cases, states offered the visa to more than 90% of applicants.
These more worrying aspects are doing nothing to stymie the growing popularity of the visas, however. And enterprising folks have taken note, with the visas launching a cottage industry of sorts: In 2018, the Citizenship by Investment Property Fair (CBIPF) launched its inaugural event at the Nile Ritz Carlton, in Cairo, Egypt. Next year’s fair will be held in Beirut, Lebanon, in March 2020. At this year’s event, also in Beirut, experts including legal consultants and property developers from around the world hosted panel discussions on how to apply for and obtain these visas—and promote their services in the process.