Buy your favorite nationality: investigating the business of golden passports

Eleven countries in the world sell their passports for cash. The architect of this citizenship business is a Swiss lawyer. Nicknamed the “King of Passports”, he runs the most powerful company in the market. An investigation by the RTS program Mise au Point lifts the veil on this industry estimated at 20 billion francs.

This content was published on February 01, 2023 – 16:30

Jérôme Galichet, RTS

On its website, the company Henley and PartnersExternal link sells nationalities like luxury goods. Among the eleven countries listed, there are micro-nations of the Caribbean such as Saint Lucia or Antigua, but also states of the European Union such as Austria or Malta. Prices vary between 100,000 and several million francs.

For the States, the goal is to attract the money of the great fortunes. For the ultra-rich, it’s the promise of a passport that will allow them to travel freely. Henley and Partners has designed several programs with governments. The firm pockets a commission on each nationality granted.

The “king of passports” is a Swiss lawyer

The chairman of Henley and Partners is a lawyer from Zurich. Nicknamed the “king of passports” or “Mister Citizenship”, Christian Kälin agreed to respond to Mise au Point. According to him, “citizenship is a lottery. No one chooses to be born in this or that country. It is unfair. This is why we believe that citizenship should be made accessible for money or investment”.

It all started in the Caribbean in the 2000s. Christian Kälin ran the passport sales program for Saint Kitts and Nevis, a microstate in the region. “At the time, the country lacked income. Many people are out of work because the sugarcane industry has collapsed. The sale of citizenship has attracted a lot of investment and many hotels have been built,” he explains.

Henley and Partners then designs the program for the island of Malta. The sale of his passport brings in the smallest state in the European Union more than a billion euros. Hundreds of Saudis, Chinese and Russian businessmen have purchased Maltese nationality to travel freely within the Schengen area, including Switzerland.

Fictitious domiciles, collusion and suspected dubious profiles

The profile of some buyers questions. “Several Russian oligarchs have bought Maltese citizenship. We can cite Arkadi Voloj, he is a Russian billionaire close to the Kremlin, placed under sanction by the European Union last summer”, indicates Roland Papp, investigator for the NGO Transparency International.

On site, the Mise au Point team was able to observe that the homes advertised by buyers of Maltese passports do not at all correspond to their way of life. For many local journalists, these are fictional homes.

“It disgusts me. Henley and Partners is a hacker firm. It targets states where institutions are fragile to expand its business,” says Matthew Caruana Galizia. A Pulitzer Prize winner, he is the son of Daphne Caruana Galizia, a famous investigative journalist who long investigated golden passports before she was murdered in 2017.

According to him, the passport sales program has generated an unhealthy climate and suspicions of corruption. “The institutions have been weakened by the collusion between Christian Kälin and the political world in Malta”, he denounces. After the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, several Maltese politicians had to resign. Neither Henley and Partners nor Christian Kälin have been the subject of legal inquiries.

The boss of Henley and Partners refutes these accusations. According to him, the golden passport program has generated unprecedented economic growth in Malta. “There are always people who abuse the system but the risks are minimal, especially when compared to those of the migration system as a whole,” he says.

>> The explanations of Jérôme Galichet in Mise au Point:

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Buy your favorite nationality: investigating the business of golden passports