Doha, Qatar – From her Doha residence, Nawal Hafeez tuned into a Pakistani TV channel as cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan delivered an uplifting election victory speech live from the capital, Islamabad, thousands of kilometres away.
Like all overseas Pakistanis, 27-year-old Hafeez was unable to vote in last month’s general election, but has been closely monitoring political developments in the country.
Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) emerged as the single-largest party in the parliament for the first time ever, shattering the political status quo and breaking the decades-long duopoly of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).
All newly-elected candidates were sworn in as members of the parliament on Monday. Khan, the 1992 World Cup-winning captain, officially took oath as the country’s 22nd prime minister on Saturday.
“I visit Pakistan twice a year, but never found myself ready to go back permanently,” Hafeez, who was born and raised in Qatar, said. “But with things stirring in the right way now, I am positive about having an existence in my home country as well.”
Hafeez, who runs a special education programme in the Qatari capital, is among an estimated 7.6 million overseas Pakistanis living, working or studying in a foreign country, according to the latest data collected by the Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis and Human Resource Development in 2013. Almost half of them are based in the Middle East.
They include students seeking better quality education and skilled professionals shooting for greener pastures, befitting their qualifications, abroad.
There are also millions of unskilled Pakistanis who tend to work as physical labourers and drivers, mainly in the Gulf.
But the new government – led by Khan – is looking to lure the overseas population and cash in on their worth, beyond the billions of dollars in foreign remittances they send back to the homeland every year.
“I think our greatest asset is our overseas Pakistanis,” Khan said in his post-election address. “We will invite them into the country and we will give them an opportunity to invest here.”
‘Breath of fresh air’
His words and ambitious election manifesto have struck a chord with many Pakistani expatriates.
Under the slogan of “new Pakistan”, Khan spearheaded a campaign against corruption with a promise to reform systems of governance in the country.
“Accountability will start with me, then my ministers, and then it will go from there,” Khan vowed in his victory speech last month.
The PTI chairman has also pledged to create as many as 10 million jobs in a country which has an unemployment rate of four percent, in addition to building five million low-cost housing units over the next five years, according to his party manifesto.
“The agenda may sound ambitious, but it befits what Pakistan needs right now,” said Ali Hassan, a 28-year-old engineering student living in the Turkish city of Izmir.
Syed Rafe Hafeez, another overseas Pakistani who works as an investment banker in Britain’s capital, London, agrees.
“Imran Khan is a dreamer, an idealist,” said the Lahore native. “While his ideas may seem unrealistic, they are a breath of fresh air.”
Rooting out corruption
Khan’s rise to power was catapulted, in part, by the corruption scandal surrounding former prime minister and PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif.
A vocal critic of the now-jailed Sharif, Khan pushed the Supreme Court case instigated by the Panama Papers leak scandal against the former prime minister, which ultimately led to his disqualification and imprisonment.
Pakistan ranks 117 out of 180 countries, according to Transparency International’s corruption index.
Nawal Hafeez said she welcomed Khan’s declaration to root out the high-level corruption.
“The best thing is that Khan has urged Pakistanis to hold him and his government accountable if they are not able to produce the results they have pledged to do so,” she said.
But others are wary and sceptical of the “over-the-top” goals set by the legendary all-rounder, who ended his professional cricket career in 1992.
“It [ending corruption] cannot happen overnight and somehow, it feels as if Imran Khan is promising that,” said Aanya Niaz, a 30-year-old education policy consultant, living in France’s capital, Paris.
“In any case, I remain hopeful to see whether aiming for the stars does, in fact, help us land on greener pastures here down on Pakistani soil,” added Niaz, who has lived in five different countries over the past 11 years.
Saqib Ahmad Saki, a US-based engineer, who won the fully-funded Fulbright scholarship award from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to pursue his Master’s degree, believes Pakistan has other problems besides corruption.
“I am positive about his [Khan’s] intentions, but bringing Pakistan to the right track is not going to be an easy and quick task,” said the 33-year-old from Jhang, Punjab.
Education and better salaries should be a priority for Khan’s government, according to Mujtaba Nazar, a driver working in Doha.
“If I was more educated, then I wouldn’t have to drive for a living,” said the 36-year-old high-school graduate.
Khan and his ruling coalition meanwhile have little time to bask in their post-election glory, as the next five years present massive economic challenges for the new government.
Pakistan is currently facing a balance-of-payments crisis – with a nearly $18bn deficit – and its foreign exchange reserves are dwindling fast, at $10.3bn, according to the latest figures by the State Bank of Pakistan.
Its public sector debt stands at $75.3bn – which is 27 percent of Pakistan’s Gross Domestic Product.
Another bailout by the International Monetary Fund – Pakistan’s 13th since the 1980s and estimated at $12bn – is on the cards, but new loans are likely to come with strict conditions.
PTI member Asad Umar, who is tipped to become the country’s next finance minister, has admitted that the government will have to act fast and is considering “all options”.
In an effort to avert an escalating crisis, Umar has told local media that the PTI-led government will issue special investment bonds to overseas Pakistanis and vowed better security for their money.
But economic analysts and business experts have cast doubts over the impact investment from the diaspora could effectively have on turning the economy around.
“There’s very little – hardly anything – that Pakistani businessmen abroad can do to change things here in Pakistan,” said Khurram Husain, an economic analyst and journalist.
“Even if they sent every penny that they have back to Pakistan that would probably only be enough for a few months of the current account deficit,” he added.
Sohaib Jamali, research editor at local newspaper Business Recorder, said that Pakistan cannot run its economy on a charity-based model, relying on expatriates.
“They [new government] will have to show a great change in direction in the first 100 to 200 days to win the confidence of the expats, “he said in a phone interview from Karachi.
Each month, Nazar, the driver, sends back $367 from his $825 salary to support his mother, wife and two sons living in Lahore.
Remittances are Pakistan’s second-largest source of foreign exchange reserves after exports.
Last month, overseas Pakistani workers sent $1.9bn in remittances – a 25 percent increase from the previous fiscal year and a 21 percent jump from June 2018.
Some are encouraged to contribute and give back – both professionally and monetarily – even more so with Khan at the helm of political affairs.
“Seeing that we now have a leader who we surely believe will put our remittances to good use and effect, I am definitely encouraged to give back in the form of personal aid, business production and professional services to Pakistan,” said Mirza Saqib Habib, a graphic designer working in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
I remain hopeful to see whether aiming for the stars does, in fact, help us land on greener pastures here down on Pakistani soil,
Husain, the business editor at Dawn newspaper, does not expect a significant change in remittances, but said highly accomplished professionals willing to leave their life and occupation abroad, can contribute by serving in government as advisers.
“The new government is already saying that they are in touch with some overseas Pakistanis, have urged them to return and take charge of the state home enterprises and help turn them around,” he said.
As the new government settles in, overseas Pakistanis say they are keeping a close eye on how Khan follows through on his promises.
Ghausia Naghma Balkhi, who moved to Doha from Islamabad more than 30 years ago, said there are still a lot of uncertainties, but didn’t write off the possibility of a permanent return in the near future.
“If things get better, I don’t mind going back to Pakistan,” the 56-year-old public employee, told Al Jazeera. “I want to do some kind of social work, because I’ve had enough of making money.”
But others, particularly from the younger generation, are not quite ready to give up a good career, better opportunities and a comfortable life for “mere promises”.
“If Imran [Khan] makes Pakistan peaceful and with enough jobs, I shall be more than happy to settle in my homeland,” said Hassan.
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