VALLETTA, Malta — At the end of a narrow road, past crushed beer cans and the remnants of a chain-link fence, a weathered sandstone building overlooks the Mediterranean coast. The British tourist who answered the door of a third-floor apartment had no idea she was staying at the residence of one of the world’s richest men.
Peter Thiel, the billionaire and Republican political patron, has declared the two-bedroom apartment that he rents himself as his address while he works toward a goal he has pursued for about a year: becoming a citizen of the tiny island nation of Malta, according to documents viewed by The New York Times and three people with knowledge of the matter.
Mr. Thiel, 55, is in the process of acquiring at least his third passport even as he expands his financial influence over American politics. Since backing Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, the technology investor has become one of the largest individual donors in the midterm elections next month, spending more than $30 million on more than a dozen right-wing Congressional candidates who have decried globalization and pledged to put America first.
Mr. Thiel has long expressed deep dissatisfaction with what he perceives as America’s decline, railing against bureaucracy and “a completely deranged government” ruled by elites. To address that, he has funded fellowships to push people to drop out of school and start businesses and supported political candidates who would push the country in his preferred direction.
All along, Mr. Thiel has also hedged his bets. That includes obtaining foreign passports — Mr. Thiel was born in Germany and holds American and New Zealand passports — that would let him live abroad. He has sought to build a remote compound in a glacier-carved valley in New Zealand, and supported a “seasteading” group that aims to build a city on floating platforms in international waters, outside the jurisdiction of national governments.
Through a spokesman, Mr. Thiel, who co-founded the digital payments company PayPal and was Facebook’s first professional investor, declined to comment. His net worth stands at $4.2 billion, according to Forbes.
There is no obvious tax benefit to Mr. Thiel to gaining Maltese citizenship, lawyers and immigration experts said, though wealthy Saudi, Russian and Chinese citizens sometimes seek a passport from the island nation for European Union access and to hedge against social or political turmoil at home.
It is unclear why Mr. Thiel’s nominal residence in Malta is listed as a 185 euro-a-night vacation rental on Airbnb. Maltese naturalization laws are straightforward for those who can pay more than €500,000 for a passport, but they prohibit would-be citizens from renting out their official residences while their passport application is pending.
What is clear is that a Maltese passport would give Mr. Thiel an escape hatch from the United States if his spending doesn’t change the country to his liking. He has started developing business connections in Malta, and is a major shareholder in at least one company registered there in which his husband, Matt Danzeisen, is a director.
In the United States, the bulk of Mr. Thiel’s political donations have gone to support two friends who previously worked for him: J.D. Vance, a Republican running for Ohio’s open Senate seat, and Blake Masters, the Republican challenger in Arizona to Senator Mark Kelly. Mr. Vance worked at Mithril Capital, one of Mr. Thiel’s investment funds. Mr. Masters was chief operating officer of Thiel Capital, the billionaire’s family office.
Both candidates have espoused a form of nationalism that, in part, blames globalization and leaders’ involvement in international affairs for American stagnation. Mr. Thiel has endorsed that worldview with his money and in speeches, including one at the National Conservatism Conference last year where he called nationalism “a corrective” to the “brain-dead, one-world state” of globalism.
“In order for there to be any chance of reversing the wrong direction in which the country has been heading, in Arizona this year it’s Blake or bust,” he wrote in an endorsement on Mr. Masters’s website. Mr. Thiel has supported Mr. Masters’s run by hosting fund-raising dinners and spending $15 million.
Mr. Masters was Thiel Capital’s chief operating officer when Mr. Thiel began his Maltese citizenship application. A spokeswoman for Mr. Masters, who left Thiel Capital in March, didn’t respond to questions for comment.
Malta, located in the Mediterranean between Europe and North Africa, has been a destination for traders and crusaders for centuries. Outside powers controlled it until 1964; since it gained independence from Britain, it has struggled to build a sustainable economy. The island, which has little industry and few natural resources, joined the European Union in 2004.
Malta has found a lucrative economic lever in selling passports. Since 2013, the country’s investor citizenship programs have granted around 2,000 applicants and their families passports, generating millions of euros in revenue.
Those offered citizenship on a fast-track route must pay €750,000 into a government fund and maintain a rental or purchased property throughout the 12-month application period and for at least five years after receiving a passport. After that, citizens are no longer required to maintain a residence or live in Malta, which has a population of just over 500,000.
Joseph Muscat, Malta’s prime minister who resigned in 2019 amid protests about corruption and the murder of a journalist who was critical of his government, called the passport program “an insurance policy” for wealthy individuals “where they feel there is a great deal of volatility.”
“It’s straightforward,” he said. “You pay into a national fund, and the national fund uses that money for infrastructure and for social housing.”
Malta’s fast track for citizenship by investment, or what’s more commonly known as “golden passports,” can take from 12 to 16 months, according to Henley & Partners, a consultancy that developed the Maltese program and helps clients obtain passports around the globe.
“We traditionally have had many Americans looking at that, and of those, quite a lot are from the tech sector,” said Christian Kaelin, Henley’s chairman.
European Union officials have criticized Malta’s golden passport program. Last month, the European Commission referred Malta to the union’s Court of Justice over the program, noting that citizenship in return for payments “is not compatible with the principle of sincere cooperation” within the bloc. Maltese officials have signaled they will contest any legal challenge.
Joseph Mizzi, the head of Community Malta, the agency responsible for selling passports, declined to comment on Mr. Thiel’s application.
Mr. Thiel has laid the groundwork for life outside the United States for years. In 2011, he obtained a New Zealand passport after donating 1 million New Zealand dollars to an earthquake relief fund in the country.
There is “no other country that aligns more with my view of the future than New Zealand,” he wrote in his passport application, which the local government released in 2017 after reporting from The New Zealand Herald. The news provoked outrage that lawmakers were selling citizenship.
Mr. Thiel is going through a similar process in Malta, where he has started laying down business roots. He is an investor in a Malta-based venture fund, Elevat3 Capital, run by Christian Angermayer, a German investor, according to the firm.
A spokesman for Mr. Angermayer, who has based his family office and other business ventures in Malta, did not respond to requests for comment.
In early 2021, Thiel Capital also became a shareholder in a Malta entity through a byzantine series of developments. The deal involved Coru, a Mexican online financial advice start-up, which has a parent company incorporated in London.
Entities controlled by Mr. Thiel and Mr. Danzeisen, his husband, were among Coru’s biggest owners, corporate filings show. The start-up needed additional funding in late 2020, but its investors could not reach an agreement to put more cash in, said two former investors. The company went into administration, the equivalent of bankruptcy.
Around that time, Mr. Thiel, Mr. Danzeisen and several other Coru investors established a company in Malta called EUM Holdings Melite Ltd., Maltese records show. That company bought Coru’s shares out of administration for about $100,000, according to British records. The records do not detail EUM’s business activities.
Now Coru is owned by EUM. Its shareholders include Mr. Thiel, Mr. Danzeisen, Richard Li — a son of Hong Kong’s richest man, Li Ka-shing — and a group with a former Nicaraguan government official and a scion of the Spanish family that made a fortune selling Lladró porcelain figurines.
Mr. Thiel began exploring Maltese citizenship around that time, said people familiar with the process. By late 2021, documents show, he was far along in the application process and retained an agency that fielded questions from the Maltese government about his businesses and political activities.
The questions included Mr. Thiel’s role with Palantir Technologies, a data analytics company he founded that works with governments and corporations, and his political activity supporting Mr. Trump.
Maltese government documents seen by The Times show Mr. Thiel and Mr. Danzeisen listing the apartment in Valletta, the capital, as their address on the island.
On a recent visit to the apartment by a Times reporter, a tourist opened the door and said a family member had booked the flat via a short-term rental service. The Times identified a listing for a “2BR Seafront Executive Penthouse” on Airbnb that used Mr. Thiel’s address.
Maltese property records show the apartment is owned by Andrew Zammit, a Malta-based lawyer whose firm works on citizenship applications. Mr. Zammit’s wife was named as the host of the Airbnb listing.
Mr. Zammit declined to say if he had rented the flat to Mr. Thiel or if the billionaire was applying for a Maltese passport. He also declined to say why the apartment was listed on Airbnb.
Within days after The Times inquired about the Airbnb listing, it was made unavailable for future rentals.
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