Irshad Ullah-Khan is one of the leading figures in Pakistan’s social and economic forums. A former Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and author of over 25 volumes of poetry, he is well recognized in Pakistan and known for his commitment to several philanthropic initiatives to help the country’s most needy. He is also the Chairman and Managing Director of MEFT Pakistan Ltd, a leader in solar and wind energy development. Here, Mr Ullah-Khan discusses the progress Pakistan has been making in tackling terrorism and corruption, the challenges facing its international image, and the country’s “fantastic opportunities for investors”.
Pakistan has been struggling securing the country in terms of terrorism and also assuring a reliable energy supply. Now, these things seem to be getting resolved. What are your thoughts regarding this situation?
Please let me start with the most important thing, particularly after what happened in Brussels recently, about terrorism.
At the moment we have a fantastic Chief of the Army Staff General Raheel Sharif, who is the first general who took on Daesh, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in one go. He started his service for our country by deciding to fight to conquer these evil terrorists and in less than a year and a half the Pakistan Army is doing a fantastic job in North Waziristan and in Pakistan.
A month ago I was the first person since everything started to be invited to visit Miramshah and Mir Ali, which are the main places of fighting. The fighting has been intense there; I have seen the entire market destroyed because the terrorists fought from the markets and homes. Most of the houses have been destroyed.
I addressed a Jirga of the notables of Miranshah on this visit. The amazing thing is that all of the people there said that the first thing they needed to re-establish in North Waziristan were girls schools. They consider this a very important factor in North Waziristan. They also require clean water and solar energy urgently.
The world must understand that these people are not fighting against any country. It is the foreigners who came from the Arab world and from the former USSR who infiltrated and they are the real ones who compose Daesh and Al-Qaeda. There is the local Taliban, of course, but it is not like Daesh, IS and Al-Qaeda, and the fact is that we have defeated them and now the only fighting left is in the Shawal area, which is the very mountainous terrain near Afghanistan. I had never in my life had this kind of experience. It was an incredible trip.
The fighting against Al-Qaeda and Daesh has been intense. The world must understand that our fantastic army is fighting these terrorists to destroy them so that what happened in Brussels does not happen here.
Pakistan declared three days of mourning for the Brussels victims. Our government and army are in sync with the world and we will not tolerate terror. I have told many ambassadors they have to work with us instead of living behind the gates of embassies with information that is not accurate about these vital matters.
Pakistan has long history of collaboration with the US and other nations to fight terrorism.
Yes, Pakistan has a long history of helping the West. On the other hand we have been hurt again and again by the West, and particularly by our friend the USA. In Afghanistan we defeated the USSR with the support of the USA. All the fighting was done by us. But once we had won the war the US just dropped our people and forgot about them.
This kind of forgetfulness is not good because people asked themselves what kind of friendship is this? Pakistan has been a good friend of the West and particularly of the USA. The USA must be mobilized to help Pakistan.
Pashtun culture has a great sense of loyalty and there are two things that are very important. The first one is shaking hands. When you shake hands you don’t need to sign anything. It is binding. The second thing is that you never let a friend down. This is what the Americans need to understand. We have been let down far too many times.
There is a miscommunication in the Western world of how Pakistan has been fighting and helping the free world against terrorism. How do you think the government should brand the country and create more awareness about the good work done and all the opportunities the country has for investors?
I must tell you that Pakistan has fantastic opportunities for investors. You know I am the largest gemstone-mine owner in Pakistan. We work in gold, silver and copper, and now we are going into oil. This country has enormous natural resources, such as minerals, oil, gas, coal and gems, and they are not being utilized properly.
We have to understand that Pakistan is not made only for the rich.
At the moment we have the very rich. We have destroyed the middle class, and the poor are totally left helpless. I mentioned this on TV in my last interview. We need to fill this gap; we need to create jobs for the youth.
We need to transform society completely so the poor are given benefits to have at least something every month. We had over 3,000 suicides last year. Poverty drove them to death. This cannot go on. We have to change this.
So if we open the country for investment, especially in natural resources, we can be a nation who can start taking care of our own people, and even give money to other poor nations.
The resources are so large and they are neglected because they keep the mining lobby out. So the new class of politicians have their eyes on other sectors and that is why our sector has been denied our rights but I think this is going to change
We had a meeting with Dr Miftah Ismail, Chairman of the BOl, and he shared with us the vision is that by 2025 Pakistan should have 100 million people belonging to the middle class. How this would change the economy and influence the appetite of investors coming to Pakistan?
I think they should not wait until 2025; we have to start now and today. The time is now. There is not a day to waste. It is already too late, so if we can do it at the national level now and today, then why wait so long?
There are many people, who have graduated with Masters and who are working as waiters. Is this fair to our nation? Certainly not.
I would say to them don’t be a silent nation anymore if you are not getting your rights. Come out to the streets and ask for them so that we can together march on and change this beautiful country for the better.
That is what we should do. There is no waiting for tomorrow anymore and I think this is going to happen lnsha’AlIah.
You have suffered many challenges in your life, you developed certain industries, and now you are focused on the mining and also the solar industry. What is your current status as a businessman?
Now it’s very safe because people realized that I have a good relationship with the Pakistani Army so they don’t trouble me. But my largest project was a housing project and it was done with a Canadian Company called Pomerleau. It was a US10 billion project.
These were houses we were going to make across the country and it was ratified by the government and the National Housing Authority when Benazir came into power and the project was stuck.
I called a friend of mine who is a well-respected senator and he looked into it and called me back telling me that somebody wanted a cut. I received the representative and he asked me for 50% of the project without investment. He said Asif Ali Zardari (Benazir Bhutto’s husband) wanted this.
I told him he was talking to the wrong man He said that if I did not do so than I would lose the project.
But I stood firm and told him that I knew this. Zardari took it away because I didn’t pay.
I lost it, people remind me how I lost that huge project and I always say: “Look, money is not the only thing in the world.”
There are so many things that are available to you. I am a poet and I love poetry. I have taken part in social events that also help society. Why I should just think of money? I have enough money. I have an organization called the Poverty Alliance Welfare Trust that has been working to help the poorest of the poor.
At first I felt sad, I was shocked for a while, but then I decided to forget the whole thing. So yes, I have been through some experiences like that but fortunately Nawaz Sharif is not doing anything like that to me.
It is the army that is holding this country together. If they were to lose focus this country could disintegrate. The Pakistan Army ensures our safety as a nation and as a country. The Pakistan Army is highly trained with highly educated officers and they will not let corruption stay in Pakistan.
We have a huge amount of national land in Pakistan, and for those unemployed with MBAs and graduates, the government should give them a piece of land, say 10 acres for example, where they can make a home, grow vegetables and fruits, and become part of the national economy. We could recharge the economy of Pakistan and create jobs.
Let’s give the land to the poor so they can live respectably.
Do you think this administration is contributing in terms of legislation and legal framework to growth?
I think the government should take the fast track. They have made the women empowerment bill, which gives our women their rights.
But what I mean is the government has to move fast in terms of business. It’s a question of nation building; total nation building and to share with the people. When I came into solar energy in 1989, I was the first one and I called on at least 30 to 40 of my friends to invest in solar energy, and they said that we will be competitors. I said, “Let’s compete, our country will prosper.” And now there are more than 100 solar energy companies.
So is not about taking everything for yourself. You must share it with your country and with the people.
You are currently known as a symbol of hope in Pakistan. What is your message to the international community and the people of Pakistan when they look at you in order to succeed?
My message is simple. Learn to speak the truth and don’t be scared. The time has come now to march with the belief that we can all together, hand in hand, change the destiny of Pakistan.
We have enormous resources and a fantastic workforce and we must optimize this to improve our destiny.
How do you think Pakistan should work on improving its international perception?
To start, we must take down fanatics and make the madrassas [Islamic religious schools] secular, which is what the founder of our nation said about Pakistan. We have to change the world’s perception that we are all fanatics, all terrorists. We can only change this perception by changing our madrassas and also we all have to change openly our attitude against fanatics and destroy them in Pakistan.
We have some statements coming from key people in the West, in the US, top minds and references saying that Pakistan has done a fantastic job in fighting terrorism, and once this idea remains in the West, investment will come back.
There are so many companies that have come to me saying they want to invest in Pakistan but they are afraid. Once we eliminate that idea, the doors of investment will be completely open for Pakistan.
Pakistan is a great strategic country with enormous potential. We have massive natural and human resources.