|A detail of Pakistan's colourful truck art.
© Shafiq Morton
Flowing over 3,000 kilometres through the centre of the country is the Indus River, Pakistan’s socio-economic lifeline. It is the cradle of an ancient valley civilisation whose writing still has to be deciphered, but whose cultural legacy stretches back to at least 5,000 years.
When I’d last visited Pakistan in 2010, the Indus had overflowed its banks in one of its biggest floods in living memory, the water moving 50 kilometres inland at a height of over one metre.
This time I was a guest of the Trade Development Association of Pakistan (the TDAP), who were hosting their 8th annual trade expo in Karachi, the country’s bustling economic hub and coastal city of 16 million.
Since its 1947 partition from India, Pakistan has experienced difficult times. Regional discord, religious extremism, military coups and natural disasters such as floods and earth quakes, have tested the vision of its founding father, Muhammad ‘Ali Jinnah, at every turn.
Embroiled in a nuclear arms race with India during the 1990’s, the country has fought four wars against its neighbours over the past 60 years, three on the issue of Kashmiri partition and one about Bangladesh in 1971.
During the Russian invasion of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, Pakistan became the launching pad for Saudi-US trained foreign mujahideen.
Of all the conflicts in the region, Afghanistan has been the most damaging, and after the cessation of the Russian-Afghan war, it saw mujahideen such as Usama bin Laden turning on their sponsors, and Pakistan’s rugged eastern territories being plagued with a Taliban insurgency.
As fate would have it, a 7.7 earthquake on the Richter scale hit the remote eastern Baluchistan province as we landed in Karachi.
But in spite of its latest tribulation, I discovered that the recently elected Pakistan government – reeling from its most recent natural disaster – was serious about trade and was talking a new language, openly acknowledging its socio-economic problems and back-footing the Taliban mullahs with an offer of peace.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, an old political warhorse and former businessman, had spoken during his successful election campaign in May about making Pakistan a “respectable country”, and reviving a lagging economy that was 27th largest in the world in terms of its purchasing power.
This much was evident at the opening function of the TDAP’s Expo Pakistan 2013, which was attended by over 1,000 delegates from 28 countries. The local Minister of State for Commerce, Khurram Dastagir Khan, said that whilst terror had undeniably taken its toll, Pakistan was willing to rise to the challenge.
Describing Pakistan as a “land of opportunity”, Khan said that it was one of the world’s biggest agricultural producers and was rich in gold, coal, timber, copper, marble and granite. The country’s high-quality textile sector had contributed to over 50% of its 25 billion dollars of exported goods in 2012.
Calling for bi-lateral trade, he said that “transparency, reliability, consistency and clarity” were the watchwords of the new government. It wanted to realise Pakistan’s immense potential in human resources, entrepreneurial skills and natural resources. Pakistan was open for business.
President Mamnoun Hussein said that Pakistan was committed to being a “preferred business destination”. It offered a complete basket of products. He cited liberal terms for joint ventures, adding that Pakistan had learnt from the failures of other developing countries in terms of restricting capital flows.
Chatting to the exhibitors I discovered that there was great determination to sell Pakistan. Omar, a young textile salesman from Faisalabad, told me that blowback from the “war on terror” had affected business badly.
“It destroyed everything…our lives, our economy.”
At the exhibition I noticed many women operating the exhibition stalls, a contrast to Malala Yousafzai being hounded by the obscurantist Taliban in Swat. Secretary of the TDAP, Ms Rabia Javeri Agha, told me that Pakistani women played a vital role in the economy.
Later on I was to meet Sultana Siddiqi, director and founder of Pakistan’s biggest commercial TV channel, Hum TV, which was listed on the stock exchange. The doyenne of Pakistan TV and a passionate ambassador for women’s rights, she has won numerous awards for her work.
Members of the South African delegation were impressed. Jason Drew, honorary Pakistan Consul-General in Cape Town, described Pakistan as a country of “warm, welcoming people” with “extensive opportunities for bi-lateral trade”.
Local businessman, Dr Anwah Nagia, said that the Expo showed all the positive elements for a viable international business footprint in Pakistan. There were great opportunities for South African business.
“These people were on top of their game, and hungry for trade with a ‘nothing is impossible attitude’. Their fresh produce meets EU standards. They also have a big mining sector, 300 years of coal reserves and an untapped tourist market.”
Pakistan’s High Commissioner, Zaighum ‘Uddin Azam, told me that South African exports in 2012 had been R 2.4 billion, imports R 2.1 billion. “We look forward to increasing those figures,” he said.
Mr Yusuf Emeran, former president of the Cape Chamber of Commerce, said he had been pleasantly surprised – the current stereotypes of Pakistan didn’t apply. He urged that to establish benchmarks, the various Chambers of Commerce should establish links with SA.
On my last day I visited the mausoleum of Muhammad ‘Ali Jinnah, the patriarch of Pakistan. On a plaque I read his famous 1948 BBC broadcast, his crisp words of 65 years ago echoing the heartfelt sentiments of so many people that I’d spoken to:
“Our object should be peace within and peace without. We want to live peacefully and maintain cordial relations with our neighbours and with the world at large…I would like Pakistan to become a synonym and hallmark for standards and quality in the market-place of the world”.