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No Country for Rich Men

A new book exposes winners and losers on the new global market for passports.

Yasser Al Zayyat / Getty Images

There is a story that Kwame Anthony Appiah tells in his book Cosmopolitanism about his father, a Ghanaian statesman and once-close confidante of the country’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah. Joe Appiah, his son writes, would not consume bushmeat from animals killed in the Ghanaian forest. The elder Appiah, who raised his children in London, attributed his avoidance of bushmeat to his membership in the Ekuona clan of central Ghana’s Asante region, which viewed the West African forest buffalo with sacred reverence. But beyond the Ekuona clan, similar restrictions mark the dietary practices of urban communities worldwide. In fact, Appiah uses his father’s avoidance of bushmeat to introduce the concept of taboo, a society’s collective disapproval of particular personal habits, like certain diets, various acts of sex, or ways of presenting oneself in public. The universality of the taboo, Appiah insists, is the stuff of cosmopolitanism: the paradoxically common experience of revulsion between communities of different identities. 

Social theorists like Appiah commonly describe cosmopolitanism as a matter of worldview, which varies along with the human experiences that inform it. This is the case for Appiah himself, whose life as a British Ghanaian who now lives in America is embedded in his studies on the subject. In the introduction to For Love of Country?, a small volume published in 2002, philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote in defense of cosmopolitanism as an alternative to the insistent patriotism that followed the 9/11 attacks: “[If] our moral natures and our emotional natures are to live in any sort of harmony we must find...our ability to imagine the situation of others to the world of human life as a whole.” Cosmopolitanism, for Nussbaum and the volume’s contributors, is an imaginative state, dependent in large part on the collective compassion of a global public.

These are the sentiments that frame Atossa Araxia Abrahamian’s new book The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen, a report on the many facets of the contemporary “global citizen.” In its highest form, the global citizen—the “cosmopolite,” in Abrahamian’s terms—is a member of all the world’s societies and thus, of none. They inhabit a world defined by the expansive reach of globalization: their schools are international, their friends diverse in origin, and their commerce global. Abrahamian is a global citizen herself—a so-called Third Culture Kid, born in Canada, raised in Switzerland, and a citizen of Iran, where her “parents of Russian and Armenian descent lived before leaving to study in Europe.” In one respect, Abrahamian’s work is her attempt to grapple with the institutional origins of her (lack of) belonging.

In another, it is an investigation into the consequences of global citizenship. She introduces two main forms of global citizenship: one for the wealthy and one for the stateless. The wealthy, like the Syrian-French-Kuwaiti businessman Bashar Kiwan, are members of a jetsetting class, whose claim to multiple passports allows them to conduct business on a global scale with ease. The stateless, like not-quite-Emirati activist Ahmed Abd al-Khaleq, live in the shadow of a system of global capital often built by their labor. For Abrahamian, both the pursuit of global citizenship by the wealthy and its imposition on the stateless poor demonstrate the permeability of the modern nation-state. For those willing and able to buy, the most fundamental responsibility of that state—the enactment and regulation of citizenship—is up for sale. Abrahamian cites the example of the American EB-5 investor visa program, which offers permanent residence—and thus, a path to citizenship—for any foreign individual willing to invest at least half a million dollars in the U.S. economy. 

In the early years after World War II, Abrahamian suggests, cosmopolitanism was a form of protest against the violence of state sovereignty; cosmopolitanism now is to facilitate a display of the depth and reach of global capital. As a political economy that both emerges from and challenges the basic institutions of the state, cosmopolitanism has become much more than a moral concept that binds the world’s humanitarians—and, for the stateless populations for whom cosmopolitanism is mandatory, much less.

The center stage of Abrahamian’s drama is the Persian Gulf, where a substantial glut of oil revenues has allowed an elite class to define the terms of political development throughout the region. The cast of characters responsible for the Gulf’s lucrative industry surrounding the purchase and sale of citizenship is small but influential, reflecting the exclusivity of the region’s politics of belonging. Chief among them is Bashar Kiwan, a resourceful media executive of Syrian and French origin based in Kuwait City. Kiwan is a plutocrat’s plutocrat: “He didn’t just make friends with powerful people; he went into business with them,” Abrahamian writes. Kiwan’s business ventures led him to Comoros, a sovereign archipelago nestled between Mozambique and Madagascar. In 2005, Comoros was six years out from its most recent coup d’état, a memory that had stifled investment by most foreign firms. Comorian officials began to court potential new investors in the Gulf to boost foreign interest. Kiwan was an enthusiastic candidate. He became close with Comorian presidential candidate Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi, whose ascendancy in 2006 opened up a new universe of commercial activity for Kiwan’s ventures.

Kiwan’s plans were ambitious. Abrahamian describes a potential market for “tourism, development, commerce, and trade” at unprecedented scale. The centerpiece of Kiwan’s Comorian business would be the officially sanctioned sale of Comorian passports and, consequently, citizenship. In Kiwan’s mind, a Comorian citizenship market solved three problems. First, it offered additional credentials to a globetrotting, oil-rich business elite across the Gulf, who seek additional passports to ease their access to new markets. (Visa-free access to many countries is, for instance, not permitted by a Syrian passport, and many others.) Second, it presented the cash-strapped Comorian government with a new source of revenue. And third, it offered a path to citizenship for the bidoon, stateless residents of various countries in the Gulf, who lack access to the social, political, and economic benefits of citizenship. The country’s National Assembly approved the scheme following public debate in 2008. 

Of these three groups, the Comorian government’s citizenship sale has had arguably the greatest impact on the stateless population of the United Arab Emirates. While the Emirates’ recent oil wealth funds government-supported healthcare, education, and social security stipends for its own citizens, which comprise less than 15 percent of the country’s population or 1.4 million people, these benefits are not extended to its stateless residents (even those who were born in the UAE and have lived there all their lives). A widely cited Refugees International report published in 2010 suggests there are between 10,000 and 100,000 bidoon living in the Emirates. The bidoon subsist in a sort of legal purgatory. Without Emirati citizenship, they have few established rights and therefore even fewer opportunities for legal recourse; their statelessness, however, limits the Emirati government’s ability to deport them elsewhere.

The possibility of Comorian citizenship gave the Emirati government a way around these restrictions. In April 2011, Emirati authorities arrested Ahmed Abd al-Khaleq, a bidoon activist involved in protests in support of citizenship for the stateless population. For Abrahamian, Khaleq is Kiwan’s foil, the human consequence of the system the Kuwaiti executive wrought. He was brought to trial and convicted for “public insults” against the regime in 2011, and received a presidential pardon in November of the same year. The Emirati government began to pressure bidoon residents to register for Comorian citizenship as early as 2010. At the request of Emirati immigration officials, Khaleq and his family submitted their own citizenship request to the Comorian consulate in early 2012. Comorian consular officials approved Khaleq’s citizenship request on May 21. The next day, the government arrested the newly Comorian Khaleq and offered the activist a choice between deportation and indefinite detention in Abu Dhabi’s cramped, decrepit al-Sadr prison, according to Human Rights Watch. “He now had a passport,” writes Abrahamian. “But it felt more like a curse rather than a blessing.”

Each of the characters in Abrahamian’s book are testaments to, in her words, “the very arbitrariness of the concept of belonging to a nation to begin with.” Among the most lasting determinants of a person’s sense of belonging is the one over which they have the least control: their birthplace. A liberal concept of citizenship defines a person’s rights—to health, to political participation, to security and safety—according to where they live, and not according to their birth. That citizenship—or, at the very least, permanent belonging—can be purchased, either in bulk, by wealthy Gulf immigration authorities, or by individual investors, is the antithesis of that idea. The arbitrariness of the nation-state opens it up to rampant abuse, allowing the wealthiest people unfettered access to the privileges of belonging, while furthering the exclusion of those already on that society’s margins. The cosmopolitanism of both the wealthy, by whom it is purchased, and the stateless poor, for whom it is coerced, undermines the definition of the state’s purpose and function.

But that same cosmopolitanism is also, paradoxically, a result of the modern state. Citizenship and its benefits enshrine the state as the ultimate arbiter of belonging. The statelessness of the Rohingya, the Muslim population of Burma’s western Rakhine state, followed the administrative growth of the postcolonial Burmese regime. Since a 1982 citizenship law that prevented Rohingya from holding Burmese citizenship, the state has excluded Rohingya from a suite of civil rights, including political participation and basic social services. Rohingya communities have confronted both active violence and discrimination by successive Burmese governments, including Japanese forces during the Second World War. But their formal statelessness is a product of the state itself.  The Burmese government has deepened this state-sponsored discrimination in recent years, enacting four laws that restrict social practices among the Rohingya such as interfaith marriage. 

How, then, can cosmopolitanism advance human rights and claim high-minded ideals, when muddled, exploitative politics often follow in its wake? Abrahamian’s reporting is not a call to dispense altogether with the contradictions of the modern nation-state. Rather, it is a clearer demand for a better set of contradictions, which support the identities and participation of people who are now stateless living in societies that seek to expel them. The solution is neither commercial nor technocratic; it must instead be political, borne of a more equitable contract between states and all who dwell within their borders. As Abrahamian notes, these solutions are simple: we need to ensure full rights and services for all people who reside within a state’s borders. Without these rights, problems demanding attention on a global scale will continue to elude us.