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Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian

In 2008, the United Arab Emirates finally offered to provide citizenship to the Bidoon, a stateless population ignored by the government for decades. However, the Bidoon soon learned that they were not becoming Emiratis, but were instead being given citizenship in the Comoros, the small African island nation who was making the offer in exchange for millions of dollars in UAE development aid. Despite both domestic and foreign pressure to formalize the status of the Bidoon, Abu Dhabi did not want to grant Emirati citizenship—with all the social welfare benefits that would come with it—to the large stateless population. The deal with the Comoros provided a way out.

Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian
Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen, Atossa Araxia Abrahamian (Columbia Global Reports, October 2015)

Of course, the Bidoon were not consulted, and their lives were little different once they became Comoroti. The agreement with the Comoros did not provide a mechanism to resettle any of the Bidoon there. In addition, as foreign nationals, the Bidoon could now be deported from the UAE if they complained about their living conditions: many Bidoon activists were put on one-way flights out the country.

 

This strange situation is the subject of Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian, a journalist and editor for Al Jazeera. The novella-length book comes from the new Columbia Global Reports publishing imprint, which commissions original on-the-ground long-form reporting.

Cosmopolites is an exploration of the term “global citizen”, or those not tied to a particular country—sometimes not by choice. Abrahamian investigates both the stateless people of the UAE and the pioneers of the citizenship-for-sale schemes in the Caribbean to explore the contrast between the upper and lower ends of the income spectrum, and how the experience of “statelessness” differs significantly between them. Abrahamian interviews and profiles the various players involved, such as the Syrian-French media executive that set up the deal between the Comoros and the UAE, the Bidoon activist whose sudden status as a foreigner facilitated his deportation to Thailand, and the founder of a citizenship consulting firm who holds five different passports.

Many small countries in Caribbean and elsewhere have explored “citizenship-for-sale” as a source of revenue. These countries’ citizenships, sometimes due to previous colonial ties or other institutional arrangements, provide visa-free access to several Western countries with otherwise stringent requirements; thus, gaining these citizenships can be a real asset for a jet-setting elite. Malta, with its own citizenship scheme, is a case in point: as a member of the European Union, Maltese citizenship gives the right to live and work in such other European countries as Germany, France or the United Kingdom.

 

As the role of the nation-state has changed in the 21st century, so too has the nature of “citizenship”. The benefits of citizenship have become more codified: access to social services, stronger political rights and—important for “global citizens”—easier foreign travel. These benefits, along with easier global travel and communication, make it easier for the elite to apply for a second citizenship. Those with multiple citizenships are thus analogous to the global multinational that re-domiciles for tax purposes.

There is still a core belief that citizenship also coincides with belonging to a certain place and community which is why, for Abrahamian, “for-sale” citizenships are so troubling. These citizenships are purely artificial, with little connection to the deeper sense of belonging. Those that purchase citizenships have little or no ties to the state in questions, and are buying them purely for their legal benefits, including but not limited to visa-free access.

Governments also have an incentive to make applications as easy as possible, especially if there is little risk the purchaser will actually live in the country. To return to the Maltese example, Abrahamian explains that its residency requirement for citizenship—implemented after the European Union threatened to find a way to prevent Malta’s plan to sell citizenship—was easily circumvented by purchasing (though not living in) an apartment in Malta.

Stateless peoples like the Bidoon raise a different question: do states get to choose who their citizens are? There are many cases where governments have actively denied citizenship to segments of their population, such as the Bidoon in the UAE, the Rohingya in Myanmar or the ethnic Haitians in the Dominican Republic. State governments argue that these excluded populations are not truly residents—often using quite ugly language. The claims by the government of Myanmar that the Rohingya are “Bengali migrants” are an example currently in the news.

 

Abrahamian is unsure about these changes, believing that they represent another manifestation of the unfair consequences of globalization. She asks

 

what does it mean when the wealthy can move freely between countries and exploit the ‘borderless’ world that globalization has promised, but that the poor who try to cross borders can’t—or if they can, routinely die trying?

 

At a time when the developed world is finally facing its own de facto stateless population—the wave of Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan refugees—this is a question worth asking again. Cosmopolites is thus more than a surprisingly enjoyable presentation of long-form journalism (although the book’s format, and the imprint’s initiative, are interesting on their own merits), but is also a pertinent exploration of how the changing role of the state can lead to unexpected changes.


Nicholas Gordon has an MPhil from Oxford in International Relations and a BA from Harvard and is a researcher at the Global Institute for Tomorrow. His writing has also appeared in The South China Morning Post, The Diplomat, China Daily and Caixin.