By Moustafa Daly
With visa-free access to over 150 global destinations, Antigua and Barbuda’s passport is considered among the world’s most powerful. This realization led the Caribbean nation to catch up to its neighbors by launching a citizenship by investment program in 2013.
With minimum investment of $100,000 per main applicant, the program soon proved to be lucrative for the tourism-dependent economy. Up until 2023, the program encountered few obstacles, but after the Russian war on Ukraine, policymakers in the U.S. and EU began paying close attention to Caribbean CBI programs in fears of them serving as backdoors for Russian oligarchs seeking hassle-and-visa-free entry to their territories.
This led to both entities making demands of Antigua and Barbuda and other Caribbean nations, that mostly aim at tightening due diligence on their programs and cutting off Russians’ access to them.
Discussions with the EU and U.S. were seen in a positive light by Antigua and Barbuda Citizenship by Investment Unit (CIU) officials.
“In fact, a number of those agreements are things that we have in place already,” says Sherelyn Hughes Thomas, deputy CEO of Antigua and Barbuda’s Citizenship by Investment Unit.
“We think that anything that engenders collaboration between the units and standardizes the operations of all the programs are good for us as individual countries and are good for the industry in the Caribbean on a whole. And so we don't really have any challenges with them,” she adds.
When it comes to Russian applicants, Antigua and Barbuda was among the first Caribbean nations to stop processing their applications – all the way back when the war started in March 2022, says Thomas. As per the latest figures published by the CIU, there were no accepted Russian applications in the second half of 2022.
This addresses only one of the demands made by the EU and the U.S.
Antigua and Barbuda isn’t planning to increase CBI investment threshold soon
Another demand reportedly made by the EU is to make all Caribbean programs more expensive, to start at $200,000. Other than St. Kitts and Nevis, no Caribbean nation has yet complied with this demand.
“We do not have an official communiqué from the EU which gives a directive [in regards to increasing investment thresholds],” said Thomas. “We review the program all the time, looking at issues of affordability as well as at issues that surround whether or not the investment amounts can be increased.”
Antigua and Barbuda’s program isn’t simply going to replicate what others are doing, says Thomas. “What we'll do is have those conversations internally and also have the conversations sub-regionally, and then make a final decision,” she explains. “But no, we have not made a decision as to whether or not those investment thresholds will be increased in the immediate near term.”
Further discussions with the EU, U.S. and the UK will inform the final decision in regard to hiking investment threshold, according to Thomas.
What are changes to be anticipated with Antigua and Barbuda’s CBI program?
While impending changes remain subject to parliamentary approvals, Thomas explains that the country’s CIU is looking at modifying the definition of dependents and also look into “nuanced situations we find in family sizes and family mixes,” she says, adding that the program will only witness general tweaks to maintain its attractiveness to potential applicants.
When it comes to due diligence, Thomas remains confident that the program’s due diligence process maintains the highest of standards. “Since the inception of the program, we've been very transparent about it. Our due diligence is in very high order. We do a very thorough review of our applicants other and there are certain countries that we will not do business with in terms of applicants and so on,” says Thomas.
Could the UK’s scrutiny of Caribbean CBI program affect Antigua and Barbuda?
A decision that came as a surprise to many was when the UK in July suspended visa-free travel with five countries among them Grenada, which also operates a popular CBI program. The sudden decision concerned the industry, particularly to competing programs like Antigua and Barbuda - whose citizens also enjoy visa-free travel to the UK.
“We don’t have any fears,” asserts Thomas.
“We fully respect the position that the UK has taken; it’s a matter of national sovereignty and border management and control. But we have always had a very good relationship with the UK and we engage in an ongoing dialogue with our partners in the UK; we provide them with reports and frequent updates on the program and we respond to their concerns regarding the program,” she adds.
This level of disclosure, she explains, has led the UK to be very familiar with the program and led to a level of comfort on part of the UK officials that the program doesn’t pose a border or security threat to the country.
However, Thomas and other CIU officials “recognize that these decisions are made in corridors and in rooms that we don't necessarily always enter. But what we do is we speak with the technical officers who advise these policy makers,” she explains.
These ongoing discussions maintain Antigua and Barbuda’s confidence that they will be duly notified of any abrupt changes in visa arrangements with the UK. “But we don't anticipate that this will happen. We expect that their confidence in the program will remain,” she says.
How important is the CBI program to Antigua and Barbuda’s economy
Similar to other Caribbean nations, the CBI program in Antigua and Barbuda contributes heavily to the national economy. Though led by the tourism and financial sectors, the CBI program remains a pillar of the economy, contributing between 10% and 12% of the country’s total annual revenues, according to Thomas.
“We are a significant revenue stream for the government as well as for a number of private ventures that we approve and authorize,” says Thomas.
However, as a diversified economy, Antigua and Barbuda isn’t going to ‘collapse’ should the program come to an end. “Should the program be affected negatively in the short term, there will be no collapse to the economy which is really supported by tourism and financial services, and those sectors are quite robust,” asserts Thomas.
“The additional revenues from the program are of course very useful; they're widely used for public service and for public service projects, infrastructure, debt repayment, and social service support,” she adds.
“So of course any reduction would be noted. But no, there would definitely not be any threat of collapsing of the economy if the program were to be affected by any changes to the visa free access we have to a number of countries,” concludes Thomas.
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