A billionaire who is among five people aboard a missing submersible vessel is a Maltese citizen.

Shahzada Dawood obtained Maltese citizenship in 2016, publicly available documents show. Records indicate that he became a Maltese citizen at the same time as his parents Hussain and Kulsum Dawood, with other members of his family following suit the following year.

A public profile of Dawood on the UK’s Companies House register also lists him as a Maltese national.

Dawood, 48, comes from one of Pakistan’s wealthiest families and serves as the vice-chairman of Engro Corporation, a conglomerate founded and chaired by his father, Hussain. He also does work for a number of philanthropic organisations, including the space exploration-focused SETI Institute and Prince's Trust International.

He and his 19-year-old son Suleman were aboard a small submersible vessel, the Titan, that was exploring the Titanic shipwreck when it went missing off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada, on Sunday.

OceanGate promoted its Titan tours as 'an epic voyage to the world's most famous shipwreck'. Video: AFP

A massive search and rescue operation involving the Canadian coast guard, US coast guard and US navy is now under way. There were reports early on Wednesday that underwater "banging" sounds had been detected in the North Atlantic where the craft vanished. But the search efforts are complicated by the fact that the Titan went missing at a depth which few vehicles can reach.

Rescuers are also racing against time, as they must find the vessel before its 96-hour reserve of oxygen runs out. Experts believe the vessel will run out of oxygen on Thursday afternoon.

How did Dawood become a citizen?

It is not known whether Dawood and his family have any meaningful connection with Malta. Citizenship lists published every year by the government do not make any distinction between those who obtain citizenship through naturalization, marriage or investment schemes.

Sources with knowledge of Malta’s citizenship procedures, however, told Times of Malta that Dawood obtained a Maltese passport through the Individual Investor Programme, which provides wealthy investors with a path to EU citizenship.

The programme, introduced in 2013 shortly after the Labour Party rose to power, was revised in 2020 to tighten notoriously lax residency requirements. Despite those changes, Malta has come under pressure to scrap the scheme and is currently locked in a European Court of Justice battle to prevent it from being shut down.

Born in Pakistan but educated in the US and UK, Dawood lives in London with his wife and two children.

“We are very grateful for the concern being shown by our colleagues and friends and would like to request everyone to pray for their safety,' the Dawoods said in a statement.

A scramble to save lives

Five people were aboard the Titan at the time of its disappearance: Dawood and his son, British billionaire explorer Hamish Harding, former French navy diver Paul-Henry Nargeolet and Stockton Rush, the CEO of OceanGate, the company behind the expedition.

Rescuers are dropping sonar buoys in an effort to detect any activity underwater and have directed a remote-controlled vehicle equipped with cameras to the area where the Titan lost communication. Planes are flying over the remote area in the hope of detecting the missing vessel.

OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush is among the five people aboard the missing vessel. Video: AFP

OceanGate charges people $250,000 each for a chance to explore the Titanic shipwreck using its “experimental” submersible. Passengers first undertake a 595km journey aboard a ship to the wreck site, then do an eight-hour dive aboard the Titan to visit the Titanic.

The Titan is a small vehicle, measuring just 6.7 metres long, 2.8 metres wide and 2.5 metres high. While it is equipped with a toilet and heated walls, there are no luxuries aboard. The submersible is operated using a modified video game controller and OceanGate has previously admitted that it is built using "off-the-shelf technology".

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