The time bomb

Apr 16 2020


The writer is an author.
The writer is an author.

IT is an unusual image to recall. A flight from Dubai landing at Hyderabad airport in Indian Andhra Pradesh in the late 1970s. Oil petrodollars had begun to lubricate the world’s economy.

A planeload of sari-swathed women debouched from the aircraft. They were covered with as much gold as they could wear, for gold carried on one’s person was duty-free. Shiny bangles up to their elbows, enough necklaces to weigh down a stone deity, their ears sagging with tiers of earrings, more rings on their fingers than the Beatle drummer Ringo Starr, and their feet a glistening ransom of toe-rings.

Each female was followed by a Gulf Arab (aged or disadvantaged in some way) who led their common progeny. These Indian expatriates were returning home with the spoils of their servitude.

Over the past 40 years, the demography of expatriates in the Gulf has changed. Arabic-speaking foreigners and stateless Palestinians were gradually replaced. Nouveau-riche watanis went abroad for their holidays, shopping along London’s Bond Street and Paris’ Champs-Élysées. Now, they entice pallid Brits, energetic Europeans, and convoys of Chinese to frolic in the Gulf’s winter sunshine (the only luxury that is still free there).

Pakistanis may be forced to return in planeloads.

For Pakistanis, the Gulf countries have held different levels of allure. For businessmen, it was a market in which rules of business were malleable. Professionals saw it as a stepping stone for migration to countries in the West, to Canada and to Australia. And for semi-skilled and unskilled workers, the prospect of converting their talents into foreign currency was irresistible. They sold their lives so that their children did not have to mortgage theirs.

Remittances from Pakistani expatriates have changed from being a shot in the arm to becoming the very plasma of our economy. Can we survive without them? Remittances from Saudi Arabia over the last five years have oscillated between $4.8 billion and $5.9bn. The comparable amounts from the UAE are from $3.1bn to $4.3bn. These earnings are generated by 2.6 million overseas Pakistanis in Saudi Arabia and 1.5m in the UAE.

One recent local report, quoting the IMF, asserts that despite the austerity measures and fiscal consolidation reforms in Saudi Arabia, “a strengthening Saudi economy is expected to further increase demand for our labour and therefore more remittances”.

The same report talks of the opportunities in the UAE labour market. It recommends that “by providing the necessary training, Pakistan can better capitalise on the opportunity”. This is wishful academese. However essential our professional talents and manual dexterity may be, the Saudis and the UAE (the two largest markets for Pakistani manpower) will certainly post Covid-19 reassess their needs.

The grandiose Saudi 2030 scheme will be pruned as the Saudis struggle to prevent oil prices from sinking back into the sand. Tom Cruise is unlikely to use again the Burj Khalifa in Dubai to film a sequel to Mission Impossible.

Here, overseas Pakistanis are ostensibly the responsibility of the Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis & Human Resource Development (OP & HRD). It monitors over 8.84m of them across the world. It stands on a tripod of the Bureau of Emigration & Overseas Employment, Overseas Employment Corporation, and Overseas Pakistanis Foundation.

The OP & HRD ministry has a budget of Rs1.24bn, 50 officers and 263 officials, and no minister. One would imagine the ministry would be working overtime on plans to replenish our overseas task force with fresh blood, and preparing for the return of those declared redundant.

Foreign investors have been likened to pigeons; they come one by one, but when they leave, they do so all at once. Pakistanis went overseas one by one; they may be forced to return in planeloads. That is not inconceivable. The spectre of insolvency can shrink even a rich man’s purse. Those who have spent years toiling in the Gulf have done so with the expectation that when they do leave, their final dues will be given to them before their departure.

In the predictable contraction of straitened economies, Gulf employers might be tempted to repatriate employees without settling their full dues. One ruse they may use is to hold out that all claims for salary arrears and end-of-service benefits would be settled — after verification by authorities in the country of origin. Another could be to deport unwanted manpower on a technicality and worry about legalities later.

Is our OP & HRD ministry aware of this impending tsunami? Has it made plans to handle even a hundred thousand (leave alone a million) returning Pakistanis? To reintegrate them? To fight for their dues?

The OP & HRD ministry, if it cared to look down, is sitting astride a time bomb.

The writer is an author.

Published in Dawn, April 16th, 2020