When he was on the campaign trail last year—and for years before that—Imran Khan’s rallying cry was that he was on a crusade against Pakistan’s bone-corrupt political mafias.However, once he became the prime minister last August, Imran had to quickly shift gears. It dawned on him that top priority had to be given to fixing a haemorrhaging economy—the bequest of series of corrupt governments preceding his. The economy Imran inherited was on life-support and the Nawaz regime’s bequest to him was an empty treasury. Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves had been declining, barely enough to cover less than two months of imports.
So, with his well-known crusading zeal, Imran embarked on a mission that had barely figured in his campaign to become Pakistan’s leader. He had to revive the moribund economy before it became a terminal case.
The options in front of him were few.
There was the easy option of going to IMF, which had been the wont of all governments and regimes coming before him. The begging bowl was there and so was IMF. But in his election rhetoric Imran had lambasted his political rivals for the blight of loans crushing Pakistan under their weight. In the ten years—from 2008 to 2018—that Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif alternated in power, the two corrupt dons had borrowed more than twice as much from the outside world than all the previous governments had in sixty years.
Moreover, Imran had decried IMF habit of giving loans with lots of strings and conditionalities attached. (Talks between Imran’s government and IMF for a bailout package are still going on.) He decided to explore another option: knocking on the doors of Pakistan’s rich friends and brothers-in-faith in the Arab world.
Abandoning an election pledge that he would not go abroad and instead spend all his time fixing the country’s myriad socio-economic problems at home, Imran visited Saudi Arabia and UAE (United Arab Emirates) twice within his first three months in power. He refused to be distracted by his political rivals and detractors thumbing their noses at what they pooh-poohed as his unabashed U-turns.But it seems that Imran’s decision to ask for largesse from the rich and powerful sheikhs and potentates of the Gulf is paying visible and early dividends.
The Crown Prince of UAE, Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan, arrived in Islamabad on January 6 on a two-day visit to lend a hand of munificence to Imran’s ‘New Pakistan.’ He came with a handsome package of $6.2 billion in badly needed economic assistance to Pakistan. Of this amount, $3 billion is going to be a cash deposit for Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves and $3.2 billion in the form of oil
supplies to Pakistan on deferred payment.
In addition, Parco, a joint venture between Pakistan and Abu Dhabi, will set up, at Khalifa Point in Balochistan, a deep-conversion oil refinery worth $ 5 billion to $6 billion.Earlier, Imran had courted the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a.k.a. MbS, at a time when the royal was being shunned by his Western friends for his alleged culpability in the heinous murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, Turkey.
That gambit by Imran had also garnered lucrative goodies for Pakistan. The Saudis, too, agreed to bolster Pakistan’s low foreign exchange reserves with a hefty dole of $3 billion. Two billion dollars of it are already in Pakistan’s kitty. In addition, oil supplies worth $3.2 billion was pledged to Pakistan on deferred payment.
The Saudis are also going to commission a petro-chemical complex in the Pakistani city of Gwadar, which is not very far from their arch-rival Iran. In addition to these two generous Arab ‘brothers’ of Pakistan—who have between them doled out nearly $14 billion dollars to shore up the Pakistani economy—the International Islamic Trade Finance Corporation (ITFC) in Jeddah is extending, on a nod from the Saudis, its principal benefactors, $1.5 billion in trade financing support to Pakistan.
It has stunned Imran’s friends and foes alike that in a short span of four months, he has managed to drag Pakistan back from the precipice of almost-certain economic ruin. And the remarkable achievement is that he has done it without IMF, with whom talks are still dragging on for the bailout package.Imran’s legions of fawning fans credit this achievement to his charisma and his image of an incorruptible and honest leader. The sheikhs of Arabia, too, apparently seem impressed by him.
However, the more seasoned pundits, looking at the larger picture, warn of an impending test of his yet-unproven skills as a statesman. Both Saudi Arabia and UAE are sworn enemies of Iran, Pakistan’s next-door neighbour. They tried to take on Iran in Yemen but their misadventure has fired back on them. They may have decided to take a chance on Imran’s Pakistan.
Imran is not known for his caution. But he will have to learn, quickly, how to walk the tightrope with Arabs on one side and Iranians on the other.
Karamatullah K Ghori
Former Pakistani diplomat