KARACHI: In his book “When Tribesmen Came Calling”, then P&G country head for Pakistan Qaisar Shareef recalled an incident where some men, accompanied by their armed guards, visited his company factory in Lasbela, Balochistan.
They asked for a donation ostensibly to buy gold medals for students of the province graduating from a university in Quetta. Shareef refused but with trepidation what the consequences of such a move could be.
Such was the fear with which many businessmen and industrialists operated in Balochistan’s industrial zones. Despite boasting better infrastructure and incentives than the industrial estates in Karachi, most investors stayed away from the province in the 1990s because of the fear of shakedowns.
Balochistan has largely been ignored in terms of economic development over the years. For years, the biggest business activity in the province had been smuggling. Whether goods from Afghanistan and Iran or fuel or such items from one border to the cities, this was one of the only ways people would make a living.
But how long can a province run on fear and illegal business activity? It was in this atmosphere that in 1992, the Balochistan Economic Forum (BEF) came into being.
What started as a think tank slowly morphed into a business policy advocacy forum. The force behind the BEF was Sardar Shoukat Popalzai, a native of Balochistan and from the prominent tribe of the region originating in Afghanistan.
At the time the forum was founded, the idea was to build bridges between different stakeholders of the province. This was a time when the provincial government was actually unclear about its own policies.
There was a lack of cohesion and a free for all when it came to encouraging any form of legitimate business activity here.
A graduate of international relations who also had a course in hotel management as well as a degree, quite aptly, in anti-terrorism and private security, Popalzai started his journey by identifying those who would be willing to come to the province to better understand what it had to offer.
I recall attending a conference called “Business Balochistan” in the Quetta Serena, arguably the best hotel in Pakistan, where a galaxy of investors, businessmen and diplomats had been assembled. Nothing came of that conference because it was too early. But it was a start.
Over the years, with the help of supporters in the corporate sector, which included local as well as multinational companies, as well as friends in the development and diplomatic quarters, the BEF set out to change perceptions about Pakistan’s largest and most resource-rich province.
To do this, the first step was to inform investors and mould provincial policies to encourage trade and investment. The challenge was to have the confidence and trust of the powers that be in the province.
Here Popalzai’s edge was his family background. His grandfather Sardar Ashraf Khan served as governor in two provinces of pre-partition Pakistan while his father Sardar Abdul Aziz served in both the army as well as police services.
The second challenge before the BEF was to link the stakeholders. Time and again, the forum would invite businessmen, traders, diplomats, media persons and other influencers to Balochistan to meet the sitting governor and chief minister as well as senior members of the provincial bureaucracy.
And yet investors would not put money in a province where smuggling was rampant. It was a catch-22 situation. When there is smuggling, there will be no investment and vice versa. There were entities like the BEF that helped break the vicious cycle.
Links put in place by the BEF started to prove fruitful as a trickle of investment and trade started soon after. While Balochistan has much to offer in terms of resources and business opportunities, what is missing is the infrastructure, a conducive business environment and of course a safe environment to work in.
Today, as the BEF completes its 27 years, the investment climate in the province seems to have changed drastically thanks to proactive policies of successive governments.
Of course, the most important of all these investments is CPEC, the corridor that promises to change the lives and wellbeing of people of the province.
The writer is a former editor of The Express Tribune
Published in The Express Tribune, December 2nd, 2019.