March 20, 2015


A Friday rundown of Pakistan’s top policy headlines on JI’s radar this week

Saudi Dilemma

Half a dozen unofficial trips later, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif made his first official visit to Saudi Arabia in March. During his three-day visit, the PM held talks with newly crowned King Salman, performed Umrah and visited Madina to offer prayers at the Masjid-e-Nabvi. While PM Nawaz Sharif has long enjoyed close relations with the Saudi monarchy – he sought refuge in the oil-rich kingdom after his second term as prime minister was ended by a military coup – the politicized nature of this bilateral equation has become increasingly divisive in Pakistan.

Assuredly there is an economic basis to the relationship: annual trade volume between the two countries exceeds $4.5 billion. Saudi Arabia also hosts more than 1.7 million Pakistanis, whose remittances contribute significantly to the Pakistani economy. But Saudi benevolence is not without its strings. Last year Saudi Arabia loaned $1.5 billion to Pakistan to help Islamabad shore up its foreign exchange reserves, meet debt-service obligations and undertake large energy and infrastructure projects. In exchange Pakistan was reportedly asked to tilt its Syria policy to align with Riyadh. More recently a Saudi request for Pakistani troops to help shore up Saudi defenses in the face of a rising IS threat in its northern deserts has caused a stir back home, and could embroil the PML-N government in further controversy. Another explanation for new overtures by Saudi Arabia is Riyadh’s need to bolster regional alliances in a bid to counter a Shia Iran’s growing international rehabilitation.

But this again raises questions about Pakistan’s relationship with the Saudi kingdom, especially as it attempts to crack down on militancy and sources of fundamental extremism at home. Back in January a federal minister accused the Saudi government of destabilizing the Muslim world. Going forward, maintaining a balance in its relations with Riyadh and Tehran will require careful diplomacy in Islamabad, and a cognizance of wider trends in play in the Middle East.

Strategic Priorities

In continuation of its efforts to attract foreign investment and trade, the government hosted the Pakistan-US Business Opportunities Conference last week. The conference provided an opportunity to present investment avenues in Pakistan to US based companies and the visiting US Commerce Secretary reciprocated by stressing the importance of enhanced trade ties between the two countries. But her remarks also indicated the US Congress’s lackluster interest in passing trade-related legislations with regard to Pakistan.  Admittedly, both the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement as well as the Generalized System of Preference for Pakistan remain impending matters.

Indeed, Pakistan’s Ease of Doing Business (DB) indicators offer little respite, as the US Commerce Secretary suggested. The need for regulatory reform is acute and an inconsistent tax structure is bound to turn away foreign investors. US investment in two of the three key sectors identified by Pakistan, namely energy and infrastructure, remains largely non-existent. However, the government’s Euro Bond and Sukuk issues last year still managed to get investor attention, signaling confidence in a rapidly growing market and shoring up the country’s foreign exchange reserves.

More importantly, China has ramped up its efforts to invest in the same sectors that are high on the government’s priority list but unlikely to attract significant US interest. Work on the main highway of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has already started, while Chinese firms are also increasingly investing in alternative energy and infrastructure-related projects. China’s renewed interest in Pakistan is matched by the US’s efforts to enhance bilateral trade ties with India – an apt reflection of how the economic gradient is shaping strategic priorities in the region.

A Progressive Shift

The fight against terrorism underway in Pakistan has given hope for a brighter future. Progressive voices are gaining traction in public discourse and have become more pronounced in the aftermath of the Peshawar tragedy. At the eve of Holi this year, a group of students in Karachi mobilized people from different walks of life to form a human shield around the Swami Narayan Temple as a gesture of interfaith harmony and religious coexistence. The act was widely acknowledged and stood in sharp defiance to extremist apologists and militant organizations. The message is strong. It is one of defiance. The right to live as a minority in a country that takes pride in the white part of its flag has not always been easy. Previously, citizens in Karachi had gathered to form a similar shield at the Shah-i-Najaf Imambargah in the wake of sectarian attacks against Shias.

The act, albeit small in scale, demonstrated quiet defiance and sent a clear message to militant organizations and individuals that sections of the Pakistani public will not bow down in the face of pressure and discrimination. In a county besieged with violence, extremism and religious intolerance, it is important to acknowledge moments of unity and humanity showing its strength. 



Tehreek-i-Niswan, one of Pakistan’s foremost cultural groups, performs at the Arts Council in Karachi to celebrate its 35th anniversary. 

Image Courtesy: Dawn


 Gulalai Ismail, a young rights activist from Swabi, was conferred the prestigious ‘Youth Award for Excellence in Development’ in London. Ismail, now 28 years old, had established an organization for empowerment of young women in Pakistan when she was just 16 and has been an ardent activist against extremism in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. She is also a recipient of the International Democracy Award by the US Congress and is one of Foreign Policy Magazine’s 2013 ‘Leading Global Thinkers’.


 Incidents of religious extremism in Pakistan reported by the local media
March 13-20 (1)


Policy Brief: Restructuring Pakistan’s Devolved Family Planning Services by Safieh Shah

In 2014, Pakistan’s population was estimated at being over 188 million making it the world’s sixth-most populous country. Since the census in 1951, the population has quadrupled while the urban population has increased seven times. Despite lowering fertility rates in the late 20th century, the country’s growth rates are still the highest in the region, and are only exceeded by sub-Saharan Africa across the world. In 2014, the population growth rate of the country stood at 1.49% putting it within the top 35% globally.