Dominic Volek is Group Head of Private Clients and a member of the Executive Committee of Henley & Partners.
In an era marked by endless uncertainty and rapidly shifting global dynamics, the emerging economies of BRICS are fortifying their alliances in the Global South in a bid to secure more influence in the international arena. The BRICS bloc now represents 45% of the world’s population and accounts for 28% of global GDP in nominal terms and 36% when adjusting for purchasing power parity. However, despite their unique strengths and financial prowess, most of the BRICS nations have comparatively low global mobility, which limits their travel freedom and economic growth.
The January 2024 edition of the Henley Passport Index, which measures the number of jurisdictions a passport-holder can travel to visa-free or by obtaining a visa on arrival, ranks new BRICS members Iran in 95th place (with access to just 45 destinations visa-free), Ethiopia in 93rd position (with 47 visa-free destinations), and Egypt in 87th place (with 55 visa-free destinations). This contrasts with those nationalities at the top of the index such as France, Japan, and Singapore who enjoy access to 194 destinations out of a total of 227 worldwide without requiring a visa.
The average Henley Passport Index score in percentage terms for BRICS is just 43% compared to the G7 on 85% and the European Union on 84%. Russia and South Africa each have access to around 50% of the world visa-free, with 119 and 108 destinations, respectively, but China (85 destinations), Saudi Arabia (89 destinations), and India (62 destinations) all sit in the bottom half of the ranking, which is based on exclusive and official data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
The exceptions in the BRICS cohort are Brazil, which is ranked 17th on the index (with access to 173 destinations visa-free), and newcomer, the UAE, which sits at the top of the BRICS passport power leaderboard in 11th place (with access to 183 destinations). The UAE remains the biggest climber on the Henley Passport Index over the past decade, adding an impressive 106 destinations to its visa-free score since 2014, resulting in a massive leap of 44 places in the ranking from 55th to its current 11th position.
The UAE has achieved its meteoric rise by prioritizing its efforts to fortify bilateral ties and trade agreements with other countries. The Emirates has also introduced innovative investment policies that have attracted wealth to its shores and boosted its development, one example being its highly successful residence by investment offering. In fact, it is noteworthy that the UAE, which is the BRICS nation with the greatest passport power and highest global mobility, is one of several that offer formal investment migration options. In March 2020, Egypt’s government published a new citizenship law (established in 2019) enabling foreign investors to make a financial contribution and thereby gain eligibility for citizenship. Russia introduced a golden visa program in 2018, and Saudi Arabia launched its Premium Residency offering in January 2024. Among the rest, Brazil, Ethiopia, and Iran offer investor visas, South Africa a business visa, and India also has a route to long-term residence via making an investment.
Greater global mobility enables a country’s citizens to participate in international commerce with greater agility. Passport power, which is defined by Henley & Partners as the proportion of GDP that passport-holders can access visa-free or visa-on-arrival, is a key factor in determining a country’s economic growth potential and its ability to bolster its financial resilience in times of crisis. A nation’s capability to develop and engage in worldwide trade can be severely hindered if its businesspeople, investors, and entrepreneurs are unable to travel with ease to high-value markets in search of commercial opportunities and actively participate in the international investment sphere.
China, which accounts for a formidable 18% of global GDP, only has access to a further 8% visa-free, ranking 90th on the January 2024 Henley Passport Power Index. Brazil and Russia, sizeable economies with similar GDPs, differ considerably in their passport power (43.11% and 20.58%, respectively on the Henley Passport Power Index) with Brazil enjoying visa-free access to 77% of the world’s destinations visa-free compared to Russia’s access of just 53%.
Interestingly, the BRICS bloc has the lowest score of any grouping when it comes to the internal visa-free access that members enjoy within their own cohort. According to new data published in the Henley Global Mobility Report 2024 Q1, the internal access average for BRICS members is just 44% compared to the G7, G20, and European Union blocs, which all enjoy 100% visa-free access to other members within their groups. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) also score highly when it comes to providing visa-free access to each other, with 94% and 95%, respectively.
When it comes to BRICS, UAE citizens can access almost all the other member nations visa-free or with a visa-on-arrival, with the exception of India, whereas China, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, and Iran can only access under half of the other jurisdictions in the bloc.
Residence and/or citizenship by investment programs can play a transformative role in attracting debt-free capital and talent and fostering an interconnected ecosystem. The Henley Global Mobility Report 2024 Q1 data shows a correlation between a bloc’s affluence (as a percentage of GDP) and how open its immigration policies are to foreign investors. Notably, the G7 and the European Union, which comprise the wealthiest trade bloc members as they have the highest GDPs, are the ones where investment migration solutions have been adopted most vigorously.
Investment migration can also serve as a powerful tool for wealthy individuals to enhance their passport power, enabling affluent individuals from jurisdictions with limited global mobility to transcend the limitations of their passports. By building a portfolio of investment migration assets they can unlock access to greater business opportunities, a better quality of life, improved education and employment or business opportunities for their children, as well as top-tier healthcare for their families. Importantly, by diversifying their domiciles, high-net-worth individuals can also protect themselves and their wealth against civil unrest and political instability as well as climate-related and security threats.