When Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, accompanied by his delegation, met the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) and his aides in Saudi Arabia, the joke goes, neither the hosts nor the guests looked at their wristwatches — for fear of embarrassing each other.

None wanted a reminder of what had happened to a certain wristwatch, presented to former prime minister of Pakistan Imran Khan by MBS. Several memes popped up on social media, with funny lines by witty meme creators, supposedly from conversations between the two dignitaries centred on the fate of that expensive watch.

Jokes aside, had it not been for the tenacity of Islamabad-based journalist Rana Abrar Khalid, whose freedom of information request, routed via the Pakistan Information Commission (PIC), was long denied by the Cabinet Division — citing dangers to Pakistan’s relations with brotherly foreign governments — the matter would have remained buried in files. Khalid’s persistence, despite enormous pressure, including the loss of his job, pushed the matter into the Islamabad High Court (IHC).

It was the court that blew the lid off the issue. Everyone found out how many gifts Khan and his spouse had received from foreign heads of state and governments, including members of the Gulf royalty, and how many had been retained or purchased by the first couple after paying a small percentage of their value. In fact, it was the Cabinet Division’s appeal to the IHC, challenging the PIC order to make the details public, which cost Khan dearly in terms of his reputation.

The Toshakhana scandal presents a story of Pakistani greed. Imran Khan is hardly the first leader to have dipped into the state gifts repository to acquire expensive items at throwaway prices. But he’s become the first to openly profit from it

Admittedly, Khan is not the first Pakistani leader to either retain gifts received from foreign dignitaries free or by paying a small percentage of their assessed value. But there is no recorded instance of the Toshakhana [State Repository] being denuded of its rich inventory by a leader who then sold on the presents for a sizeable profit.

Although neither government’s functionaries have confirmed this, the most embarrassing element was that one of the wristwatches — one of a handful made by the manufacturer — was sold off to a Dubai jeweller. Since it was market knowledge who the rare watches had been sold to, the jeweller (or the manufacturer, tipped off by the jeweller) is alleged to have made a call to Saudi Arabia to check if one of their watches had not been stolen, as it was being offered for sale.

It has not been confirmed whether the call was indeed made to the Saudis, but Khan and his close confidante Zulfi Bukhari both have confirmed on camera that the gifts, after being acquired from the Toshakhana, were sold off. “Once I have followed procedure and bought the gifts, I am the owner and have every right to do as I want with them,” Bukhari told a TV interviewer in defence of Khan.

His impeccable logic could not be faulted. However, the question that remains to be answered is why the Cabinet Division dug in its heels and refused to oblige the PIC till the IHC forced its hand.

Considerable embarrassment was caused to the country after it emerged that a gift received from a brotherly Arab leader was sold on the market. There is no point going into the details of what was retained and what proportion of the ‘assessed value’ was paid, as those have been in the public domain in recent days. But over 100 items were taken by Khan and his spouse, valued at nearly 150 million rupees.

Some of the gifts in the State Repository include necklaces and bangles, silver crockery, gold-plated guns and watches worth millions of dollars
Some of the gifts in the State Repository include necklaces and bangles, silver crockery, gold-plated guns and watches worth millions of dollars

However, the scandal is that there is no parliamentary legislation, like elsewhere in the democratic world, covering the retention or purchase of gifts from the Toshakhana, where they are placed for safe-keeping after being received. Abrar made the shocking disclosure that, in the absence of a law, such transactions are carried out under the Procedure of Toshakhana Office Memorandum issued/amended by the Cabinet Secretary.

It is clear parliament will have to focus attention and legislate on this. This is imperative. For example, the cabinet secretary is entrusted with getting the value of the gifts assessed by ‘independent assessors’. But how independent the assessor and their assessed value can be is evident from the fact that the cabinet secretary steers the whole process.

Given how things are done in Pakistan, if the prime minister — the cabinet secretary’s boss — expresses an interest in ‘buying’ a particular gift by paying 20 percent or 50 percent of the assessed value, how credible will the assessment process be? Or how close to the real price would the assessed one be?

The question remains whether the “Gaaf” wristwatch under scrutiny, with an “assessed value 85 million rupees”, was actually worth more, as the watchmaker makes collectors’ items and the former prime minister paid only 20 percent of the assessed value. And heaven forbid if someone in the Cabinet Division misspelt the watchmaker Graff as “Gaaf”. I say this because the former Swiss brand makes watches that are priced up to 55 million dollars!

While in office, Khan talked ad nauseam about democracy in the United Kingdom and often asked whether it was possible for many things that we witness in our nascent democracy to ever happen in the UK. Mostly the issues he predictably mentioned one could never see in the UK: those related to the conduct of the Opposition, or floor-crossing by his party members, or other actions that were inconvenient to him.

Here too, however, he was not accurate and got his facts muddled. For example, the iconic Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, known as the Iron Lady, was, in fact, ousted from office in an internal coup led by her successor, John Major, after a Treasury rebellion. That aside, Khan is unlikely to mention that the UK code for ministers and the prime minister mandates that only gifts up to the value of 140 pounds can be retained free. Otherwise, they can only be retained by paying the full price of the item.

Similar legislation was ushered in in the US in 1966, after wealthy Arab leaders started getting way too generous with their presents, even gifting cars to US presidents. Here, too, a limit of 375 dollars was set. Any gift above that value had to be paid for in full by the US dignitary to retain it. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton once wanted to retain a black pearl necklace gifted to her by Burma’s Aung Sang Suu Kyi in 2012, and paid its full price of 970 dollars. No leader can profit from these transactions.

When the Toshakhana scandal heated up in recent weeks, the Indian media proudly started to recall what their prime minister, Narendra Modi, had said in 2018 — when he informed an audience that, as the chief minister of Gujarat, he had not kept a single gift he had received. Instead, he had them auctioned and used the money received from competitive open bids to pay for girls’ schools.

The rules also do not allow the Indian prime minister to retain a gift valued at over 5,000 Indian rupees and, as the prime minister, Modi has had all gifts auctioned and the proceeds donated to the ‘Clean Ganga’ project, which aims to clean up the iconic river. In the event any Indian prime minister wants to buy state gifts, he or she has to pay the full price for them.

The Pakistani greed story presents a stark contrast. For example, according to published press reports from 1999 to 2009, the presidents and prime ministers took away gifts whose assessed value exceeded 100 million rupees, by paying a maximum of 20 percent of the value. Between them, Gen Musharraf and his prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, retained some 2,000 gifts received while in office.

Musharraf’s spouse may have retained a six million rupee necklace gifted to her by an Arab dignitary, by paying 20 percent of the value into the national exchequer; Mr Aziz got the lion’s share of the 2,000 gifts, as he retained some 1,126 gifts. The irony is that Musharraf’s premier, a multimillionaire and a successful international banker, could easily have paid the whole assessed value out of his own pocket, and yet decided to benefit from the ‘rules’.

In only the first year of his five-year presidential tenure, Asif Ali Zardari also retained gifts received from foreign heads of state and government worth some 60 million rupees, by paying a little over nine million rupees. Among these gifts were two BMWs and two SUVs gifted by the then Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi.

As was the case with Aziz, Zardari could also afford to pay the entire assessed value but did not. His prime minister Yousuf Raza Gillani did not even pay the 20 percent on a necklace presented to his spouse for the flood relief fund by the spouse of the Turkish president Erdogan. Gilani had to return the necklace after the matter became public.

The leaders mentioned so far are, by no means, the only ones. Records show presidents Gen Ziaul Haq, Ghulam Ishaq Khan and Rafiq Tarrar and prime ministers Muhammad Khan Junejo, Nawaz Sharif, Benazir Bhutto, Balakh Sher Mazari, Zafarullah Khan Jamali and Chaudhry Shujaat Husain also benefitted, to varying degrees, by receiving and retaining high-value presents for a pittance.

But there is no evidence on record to suggest any other leaders matched the feat of the most recent past prime minister, who sold off the retained gifts for profit. A PML-N leader remarked, “What a fall from ‘Allah ka diya sub kuchh’ [God has given me everything] Sharia-adherent Taliban Khan and ‘Sadiq and Ameen’ [honest and upright] to Toshakhana salesman.”

It was, undoubtedly, a harsh and unkind comment — but one that, in a way, captures the evolution of the man and leader who has generally reserved contempt for material gains and looked down upon all those who have sought material benefits or chased monetary gain.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

He tweets @abbasnasir59

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 15th, 2022

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