Living in the UAE has its benefits. It’s always sunny and warm, the country feels safe, and you pay little tax. But there’s always an nagging problem for every expat: namely, your status in the country is insecure and you could be ordered to leave at any time. Most expats must renew their resident permits every year, which creates a certain amount of uncertainty, especially for those who want to build a life there and grow their wealth in the Emirates. Those most at risk are those who want to buy a house and grow their business in the UAE. For this group, a “Plan B” is a must.
The UAE tried to solve the problem by launching a new Golden Visa initiative in 2018 to provide long-term resident permits to investors, entrepreneurs, and key workers. The UAE Residence by Investment program offered a 10-year residence permit to those with public investments of at least AED10 million. More importantly, it also offered a 5-year permit to those owning a property in the UAE. By 2020, the initiative had raised AED 10 billion in investment. They also announce a plan for naturalization, but the process is still unclear.
For many expats, the UAE Investor Visa provided them with much-needed relief, even though it stopped short of permanent residence. The UAE is populated by many Middle Eastern expats from Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran, most of whom don’t want to return to their home country, given their precarious economic and social state. Holders of passports from these countries are extremely limited in their movement abroad and need a visa in most cases. They fall into the second-class global citizen category, as they must stop every time they want to enter a country. As good as the UAE passport has become in the last few years, gaining Emirati citizenship is not a straightforward process, and few try to navigate it.
This is why Dubai has become a hub for the second-passport market over the last decade. Every year, thousands of people in the Emirates pay money to obtain a second passport by applying to Citizenship by Investment programs, which offer a legal means to obtain nationality by investing in a country. Only a dozen countries offer such programs, and you can find one for every budget.
Turkey launched its citizenship programs in 2018. Although its passport is not highly rated, the program has been extremely popular, given the country’s 4 million refugees. The program only requires you to own a property in the country with a value of at least 250,000 USD. This program has been popular with wealthy Iranians who saw their purchasing power reduced due to Iran’s currency depreciation.
The most popular option for expats in the UAE has been the second passports offered by the Caribbean countries. Antigua & Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, St Kitts & Nevis, and St Lucia all offer similar Citizenship by Investment programs (CBI). These CBIs require a donation to the government of at least 100,000 USD or the purchase of a property worth at least 200,000 USD (with generally 35,000 USD in fees). Their passports are relatively well-rated, and all of them enable visa-free travel into the European Union.
Those with a lot of wealth will favor the best passport on the market, namely a European Union passport. Only Malta, Bulgaria, and Cyprus offer a Citizenship by Investment program that leads to EU citizenship after 1-3 years. However, the Cyprus Economic Citizenship program has been suspended since 2020, and the Bulgaria Immigrant Investor program’s fast-track to citizenship has been questioned due to its lack of results.
Today, the EU’s only second passport program is Malta’s Exceptional Investor Naturalisation (MEIN), replacing the Malta Individual Investor Programme (MIIP) in 2020. The Maltese passport is by far the best on the market, as it’s the only one that offers visa-free travel to the USA. A Maltese national can also live anywhere they wish in the European Union. All EU nationals enjoy the freedom of movement inside the union. That said, it’s an expensive program that requires applicants to donate at least 600,000 Euros and buy or rent a property in the country. It offers many benefits, but it has a sunset order and must be renewed every few years. It was renewed for another few years in 2020, but it’s uncertain if it will exist after 2025.
For many expats living in the UAE, second passport programs have become a priority. They provide some security and enable their holders to travel more freely for both leisure and business. In Dubai, this priority often overrides buying a house.