Late PM Benazir Bhutto’s son is Pakistan’s new foreign minister

Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, 33, is scion of Pakistan’s most influential political dynasty.

Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari
Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari takes oath as Pakistan's new foreign minister from President Arif Alvi in Islamabad [Press Information Department/Handout via Reuters]

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has appointed Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, son of assassinated former Premier Benazir Bhutto, as foreign minister, giving his coalition ally a senior role in repairing frayed ties with the United States and other Western countries.

On Wednesday, President Arif Alvi took the oath from the Oxford-educated Bhutto-Zardari, scion of the country’s leading political dynasty.

His mother Benazir was assassinated at an election campaign rally in 2007, and his grandfather Zulfikar Ali Bhutto – also a former foreign minister and later prime minister – was hanged by a military dictator in 1979.

Benazir’s killer has never been caught, and a United Nations inquiry found that Pakistani authorities had failed to protect her or properly investigate her death.

At just 33, Bhutto-Zardari becomes one of the world’s youngest foreign ministers but inherits a diplomatic bag of issues that started well before he was born, including relations with archrival India.

Bhutto-Zardari, chief of Pakistan Peoples Party, said in a Twitter post he was “honoured” and humbled to take the oath as foreign minister.

He and his party “will play our part in restoring democracy, passing electoral reforms, fighting for a fairer economy and advocating Pakistan’s case on the world stage,” he wrote.

Bhutto-Zardari became a party leader at 19 while a student at Oxford, following his mother’s assassination.

With more than half of Pakistan’s population aged 22 or below, Bhutto’s social media savvy is also a hit with the young, although he is frequently mocked for a poor command of Urdu, the national language.

Political commentators have mixed opinions on Bhutto’s abilities – or how long he can maintain good relations with Premier Sharif of the rival Pakistan Muslim League-N party.

“I believe he is an un-tested missile,” analyst Hassan Askari Rizvi told the AFP news agency.

“It is too early for a young MP like Bilawal Bhutto … and it will be difficult for him to handle issues Pakistan faces, with serious challenges on external fronts.”

Fellow analyst Farzana Bari disagreed.

“I think Bilawal is intelligent enough to hold the fort,” she told AFP, adding he was “more progressive” than the leaders of other political parties.

Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari speaks to media.
Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari speaks to media after parliament took up a no-confidence motion moved by opposition legislators in March in a bid to remove PM Imran Khan [File: Akhtar Soomro/Reuters]

First foreign mission to Riyadh

Bhutto-Zardari’s first foreign mission will be accompanying Sharif on Thursday to Saudi Arabia, a key trade partner and regular source of relief for Pakistan’s struggling economy.

Sharif announced a 41-member cabinet after he took over from removed premier Imran Khan earlier this month.

Khan has alleged that the US backed a conspiracy to topple him just because he refused Washington’s advice not to visit Russia in February, a charge Washington denies.

Pakistan’s foreign office, military and civil leadership also rejected Khan’s allegations.

The trip to longtime ally Riyadh starting on Thursday is Sharif’s first international visit as prime minister.

A statement from Sharif’s office said he would have talks with Saudi leaders “with particular focus on advancing economic, trade and investment ties and creation of greater opportunities for the Pakistani workforce in Saudi Arabia”.

The two sides will also discuss a range of regional and international issues of mutual interest.

Sharif is likely to seek financial support from Saudi Arabia to help build the country’s foreign reserves, which have fallen to $10.8bn, hardly enough to pay for two months of imports.

Sharif’s newly appointed finance minister, Miftah Ismail, has said Pakistan faces widening fiscal and current account deficits, falling foreign exchange reserves and high inflation.

Source: News Agencies