Wealthy Chinese and Arab officials and businessmen have bought Cypriot passports in large numbers in an attempt to escape restrictive regimes in their home countries, the Al Jazeera Investigation Unit has found.
The Cyprus Papers, a huge data leak on Cypriot passport applications obtained by Al Jazeera, reveals more than 500 Chinese nationals and 350 Arabs who have been approved for Cypriot citizenship after investing at least $ 2.5 million in the Member State of the European Union.
For people from China and the Middle East, having a European passport is attractive as it allows them visa-free travel, work, and banking options all over Europe, an advantage that they usually wouldn’t have. given that their country is often referred to as “corruption and financial crime.”
Suppression of Chinese corruption
The Cyprus Papers reveal that the Chinese are the second largest group, after the Russians, to have purchased passports over a two-year period, from late 2017 to late 2019.
Wealthy Chinese began to look out of their own country after President Xi Jinping’s 2012 crackdown on “tigers and flies,” which began as an anti-corruption campaign but eventually led to more rigorous scrutiny of how the Chinese business elite earned their money and where they kept it.
Among the Chinese names in The Cyprus Papers are Yang Huiyan and her husband. She is often described as Asia’s richest woman, worth an estimated $ 27 billion thanks to her real estate company, Country Garden Holdings, which builds luxury estates.
Another Chinese national who now also holds Cypriot citizenship is the relative of a wealthy businessman, whose identity will not be made public by Al Jazeera for the safety of those involved.
The businessman has not been seen since he was kidnapped in Hong Kong by Chinese security officers earlier this year.
“I think almost all of your very rich people in China would probably have a second passport to give them some sort of security,” Professor Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of China, told Al Jazeera. ‘University of London.
Until recently the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom were preferred options, but the ease of obtaining Cypriot citizenship, and with it access to the EU, has made of the island a destination of choice.
Paying the $ 2.5 million for a passport is a small price to pay for increased security, visa-free travel, and the ability to move money easily.
“Strictly speaking, everything is illegal,” Tsang said. “The law in China controls the outflow of capital beyond $ 50,000 and so if you try to make money out of it, without going through the formal process and permission, you are breaking the law.
“A lot of times they use Hong Kong as a way to get their money out of China, and there are a lot of creative ways to do that. And sometimes they use Macau casinos as another way to get money out of China as well. . “
In recent years, China has pressured other countries to extradite high-level officials and political opponents, but so far the country has not targeted the super-rich.
Tsang warns that if that changes, a Cypriot passport might not offer protection.
“I think Cyprus will never stand up against China if things go well,” he said.
“Xi Jinping sticks to the idea that if you have Chinese blood flowing through your veins, you are Chinese, and so they will come for you anyway.”
Another group that has found its way to the Mediterranean island are the people of the Middle East.
More than 350 passports have been purchased by Arabs living in a climate of political instability, mainly in Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
Some of the nominations come from people who still hold positions of influence, making them Politically Exposed Persons (PEPs), meaning they are considered to be at higher risk for corruption.
These include Apurv Bagri, Indian citizen and board member of Dubai Financial Services Authority, and Hussain Al Nowais, board member of state-owned Emirates Steel and National Petroleum Construction Co.
There are also several Saudi PEPs on the list, including Khaled Juffali, board member of the Saudi Monetary Authority, and Mohammed Jameel, member of the Saudi General Investment Authority.
Saudi Arabia, like China, has seen a crackdown on corruption in recent years following the rise to power of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), making many Saudis fearful for their future and their wealth.
During this anti-corruption crackdown, several opponents of the crown prince ended up being jailed at the Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh in 2017.
The detainees have reportedly paid a total of $ 100 billion for their release.
The crackdown, which critics say primarily targeted political opponents of Prince Mohammed, has led several wealthy Saudis to view the EU as a possible safe haven.
The Cyprus Papers reveal that the family members of one of those arrested at the Riyad Ritz Carlton, a wealthy industrialist jailed without charge for more than a year, were among those who bought Cypriot passports.
Another person in the leaked documents is a member of the once wealthy family of Bin Laden, who saw much of his business empire confiscated by MBS.
The individual with a Cypriot passport is a businessman with no connection to the infamous former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Ladan.
Finally, there is a broker who facilitated multi-million dollar contracts for Saudi infrastructure projects awarded to foreign companies.
The broker still has close ties to the Saudi royal family, but has expressed fears for their safety and is linked to an international corruption investigation involving a Saudi project.
‘No violation of the regulations’
Cypriot Interior Minister Nicos Nouris responded to Al Jazeera’s revelations at a press conference on Wednesday, calling Al Jazeera’s reports “propaganda”, local media reported.
“For 24 hours, we have been witnessing an orchestrated effort by the Al Jazeera network, which, after having succeeded in obtaining secret documents from the Republic of Cyprus, attacks our country by distortion, deception and impressions,” Nouris said. .
Responding to questions posed by Al Jazeera regarding its citizenship-by-investment program ahead of its publication, Nouris said his country “operated in absolute transparency.”
“No citizenship was granted in violation of the regulations in force at the time,” Nouris told Al Jazeera.
In total, the Cyprus documents consist of almost 1,500 applications containing almost 2,500 names and covering two years of Cyprus’s citizenship by investment program.
Among those who have obtained Cypriot citizenship, Al Jazeera has identified convicted criminals, fugitives from the law and those considered to be at high risk of corruption.
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