WASHINGTON DIARY: The gravity of the problem
Investors were avoiding Pakistan even before the Taliban threat and they will remain so even after the Taliban are gone. Pakistan has multiple problems that repulse the foreigners, whether they are investors or tourists
I ran into Mr Eric Lawson, an investor, in a conference organised by a Pakistani group. My unusual take on Pakistan’s troubles intrigued him quite a bit and he asked me to get together sometime. After six months, out of the blue he called me and invited me over for dinner in a downtown Spanish restaurant.
I have passed from that street hundreds of times but I never noticed the Restaurant Hispania where a bottle of wine can cost up to $ 500 or above. Mr Lawson, noticing my shocked state of mind, laughed and told me that most of the people around us were from the World Bank and IMF being dined-wined and wowed by developing world governments. This restaurant runs on the loan/aid money given to developing countries or people like me who make money in those countries in other ways, he added.
After we were settled, he asked me as to what was going on in Pakistan and if the military could eliminate the Taliban insurgency. I told him that I was reasonably optimistic that the military will prevail because it was their creation. In the past, the military was not confronting them sincerely because of their misplaced fairytale policy of getting strategic depth in Afghanistan. Now, the military has learnt the lesson as suicide bombings kill people near the capital of Islamabad. I further added that I hope investors like you can return to Pakistan, and ended my explanation with a smile.
“No, you are wrong here. I hope your optimism is realistic as far as the Taliban are concerned. But the Western investors are not going to return to Pakistan even then. Investors were avoiding Pakistan even before the Taliban threat and they will remain so even after the Taliban are gone. Pakistan has multiple problems that repulse the foreigners, whether they are investors or tourists,” he told me.
“I know there is immense corruption in Pakistan and foreigners do not know how to deal with it. But so are most of the developing countries where the US and European investors and tourists readily go. What is special about Pakistan other than this?” I asked.
He became a little frustrated and impatient and promptly busted out “No, this is where Pakistanis do not get it. We all know about corruption in the developing world and we know how to deal with it and make money. But Pakistan’s problem is Islamisation and restrictions on personal liberties and most aspects of entertainment that we consider a necessary part of life. Why would we go to a prison-like country to make money when we have better choices all around? Why not to go to India or China where we can make money and enjoy life as we like to.”
I could not fully appreciate his highly negative characterisation of Pakistan and could not resist rebutting in pointing out: “If you are talking about unavailability of alcohol, you as foreigners can buy it from any five-star hotel. Oh, and if you are talking about other entertainment, that is also arranged easily.” To keep the atmosphere pleasant, I joked, “By creating some hurdles in your way, we provide you the chance to save some money.”
He was more upset now and almost yelling “You guys will never understand us. We make money to spend it not like you guys who earn to horde. This is why we progressed and you did not.” He went on, “To answer your take on alcohol and so-called other entertainment by which you probably meant prostitutes, I will say we are neither addicted to alcohol or prostitutes. We enjoy these things as you enjoy tea and company. The difference may be that we have female friends along with males, which is rare in your societies. Buying alcohol from five-star hotels feels just like stealing and drinking like thieves. We want to go out to bars of different kinds where we can see and meet different types of people and enjoy their company for a while.”
I was more perplexed than ever and did not know how to respond to him. After having lived three decades in the West I knew what he was talking about. But for face saving I threw my last argument, “Pakistan is not the only ideological state. Israel, Saudi Arabia and some others are ideological too and you do business in those countries.”
He laughed whole-heartedly and said, “Thank you. I was expecting this excuse much earlier. This is a favourite excuse Pakistanis use. But let me tell you that Israel may be too cruel for Palestinians, but it is an open society like any European nation. Saudi Arabia can afford any ideology because of its oil wealth and tribal society. Furthermore, not many investors go there except oil companies and the Saudis have created free zones for foreigners that Pakistan cannot. Your society is very poor but relatively open-minded. You can neither feed them like Saudi Arabia nor create islands for foreigners because society is very vocal. You are stuck by imposing an ideology that you cannot afford. Therefore, you will remain stuck even after the Taliban are gone. And, the worst part is that even intelligent people like you do not appreciate the gravity of the problem.”