Islamabad: Pakistan’s overseas minister has vowed to bolster Pakistan’s ties with Gulf countries particularly the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, expanding business, cultural and tourism ties while expressing his gratitude to the UAE and Saudi leadership for continued cooperation with Pakistan.
In a special interview with Gulf News, Sayed Zulfikar Bukhari, Pakistan’s Special Assistant to the Prime Minister (SAPM) on Overseas Pakistanis and Human Resource Development (HRD), said the ministry is endeavouring to improve Pakistan’s ties with different countries especially the UAE and Saudi Arabia – top destinations for Pakistani workers.
Highlighting Pakistan’s relations with brotherly Gulf countries, Zulfi Bukhari said that the UAE has always been in close cooperation with Pakistan in diverse fields.
“Previously, we had only been sending labours, but recently, the UAE labour minister informed that Pakistan was the only country that recorded an 11 per cent increase in export of highly-skilled workers to UAE even during the COVID-19 crisis.”
Expanding Tourism ties
Bukhari, who also represents the national tourism board, said that Pakistan is eager to expand tourism ties with UAE and KSA. “UAE is known as a major tourist destination while tourism is now a key priority for Saudi Arabia under its Vision 2030. Pakistan is also heavily investing in world-class facilities” to attract more tourists. “Tourism is a connecting factor where the three countries can enhance collaboration with easy visa and other facilities”. He encouraged the Emirati and Saudi nationals to explore Pakistan’s diverse landscapes ranging from “snowy mountains to dusty deserts to sandy beaches, from green meadows to turquoise lakes as well as ancient historical sites and rich cultural heritage.”
Discussing the challenges faced by the ministry, Bukhari shared that the biggest challenge, now successfully accomplished, was the return of Pakistani expats after the pandemic disrupted world economies. “Pakistan, being a developing country with limited resources, had one of the best repatriation operations in the world with nearly 500,000 returning home” he told Gulf News. At least 60,000 were repatriated from the UAE by June 2020. Most of the 85,000 Pakistanis who had lost jobs in various countries during the first wave of COVID-19 “have been absorbed locally” he claimed. Bukhari is hopeful that increase in exports as well as the boost in industrial and construction sectors would create more jobs very soon.
Grateful to Pakistani expats
The minister expressed sincerest gratitude to Pakistani expats for their generous support during the pandemic. “Pakistanis sent home unlimited donations, helped arrange food for people in need, sent tons of cartons of essential supplies to the embassies, even arranged airline tickets for those who could not afford. For this, I thank them from the bottom of my heart” Bukhari said.
The dynamic minister is determined to improve efficiency and transparency within the office to offer improved facilities and continuous support to the expats, enhancing the ease of doing business by cutting red tape and streamlining processes.
During the last 18 months, the ministry diligently worked with foreign governments to bring back as many as 8,700 Pakistanis jailed abroad, including those 41 who were on death row in Sri Lanka. They will serve the rest of their sentences in Pakistan where they can be closer to their families. “We will stand up for every Pakistani abroad whether he has committed a crime or not and we will bring them back” he vowed. Facilitating Pakistani prisoners, especially those in foreign prisons for petty offences, and workers’ welfare is the priority for the ministry because of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s compassion towards the most vulnerable people.
Rediscover roots and identity
Bukhari, who grew up in the United Kingdom, feels obliged to serve the overseas Pakistanis as he understands the issues faced by the diaspora. “This ministry is not just focused on labour issues now but living up to PM Imran Khan’s vision to serve as a hub to connect professionals and second and third generation migrants with homeland” to re-establish their sense of identity. “They feel more connected to Pakistan and proud of PM Imran Khan who they feel truly represents them.”
Remittances from Pakistani workers employed abroad have remained over $2 billion during the last six months with the UAE and KSA as the key contributors to remittance inflows. “Multiple factors including the travel restrictions due to the pandemic and incentives offered by the State Bank of Pakistan prompted people to utilize proper banking channels but the biggest reason is their trust and confidence in the government.” Initiatives such as Naya Pakistan Certificates (government bonds) and Roshan Digital Accounts (for banking and investment in Pakistan) have done “phenomenally well”. The digital account figures touched $200 million in three months with 59,000 accounts opened by expats from 91 countries. “This year saw the record investment by overseas Pakistanis in the New Blue Area Islamabad commercial district”, he revealed.
Top 5 achievements of Pakistan Overseas Ministry since 2018
1. Nearly a million Pakistanis have been sent abroad for work since 2018 while actively exploring new avenues for Pakistani workforce in European and Far East countries.
2. Pakistan despite its limited resources managed one of the best repatriation programs globally that saw the return of nearly 500,000 people.
3. The support from the central bank and incentives from government helped increase the remittances.
4. The ministry brought home 8,700 Pakistanis imprisoned abroad and vows to bring back all those left behind.
5. Government to offer voting rights to overseas Pakistanis and working on a mechanism to allow dual-nationals to contest elections so that they can give back to their country.
Sayed Zulfikar Bukhari is Pakistan’s Special Assistant to the Prime Minister (SAPM) on Overseas Pakistanis and Human Resource Development (HRD) and the Chairman of National Tourism Coordination Board (NTCB). As a Pakistani-British, he has supported several social causes in Pakistan and in the UK. Bukhari, an entrepreneur, businessman, and philanthropist, is currently on a mission to strengthen the link of Pakistani expats with their homeland and to better support expat families.