Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
Pakistan is pushing ahead with a plan to sell or lease agriculture land to foreign investors even as opposition grows at home. A Saudi delegation is due in the country at the end of Ramadan this month for further talks on a plan to lease an area of land more than twice the size of Hong Kong, a Pakistani official told Reuters this month.
The Saudis are looking to boost their food security and Pakistan will presumably will reap monetary benefits in return. But what about Pakistan’s own food security in the longer term, All Things Pakistan asked in a recent post.
A stampede for food in Karachi on Monday, although not related, underscored Pakistan’s own vulnerabilities and the plight of some of the nation’s desperately poor. Eighteen women and children died iin the stampede that erupted when a local businessman was handing out wheat flour among hundreds of poor women gathered in a narrow lane.
Those were the destitute, but giving away rich land to foreigners to cultivate and take the produce to their homeland will ultimately hit the ordinary Pakistani, the small farmer and those who indirectly depend on farming for their livelihood, critics are warning.
If Pakistan is to dig itself out of its current crisis it needs two things to happen. It needs strong economic growth to tackle poverty and undercut the appeal of hardline Islamists; and it needs peace with India if it is to permanently cut its ties with militants it has traditionally seen as a reserve force to be used against its much bigger neighbour. Or so goes the prevailing view.
This week’s United Nations report on pollution in Asia — and the melting of glaciers which feed the rivers of India and Pakistan — suggest there are serious risks to that scenario of an ultimately prosperous Pakistan at peace with its neighbours. In other words, can it achieve the economic growth it needs without worsening pollution further? And can it make peace with India if the two countries end up at loggerheads over dwindling supplies of water?
A report in the Financial Times that Saudi Arabia has agreed in principle to defer payments for crude oil sales to Pakistan worth $5.9 billion has raised speculation about what it is looking for in return.
The Daily Times suggests that the Saudis are buying political stability in Pakistan, which may include throwing a lifeline to President Pervez Musharraf. “Apparently, the immediate impact will be on PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif’s politics of confrontation with Musharraf, which will have to be diluted significantly in line with ground realities,” it says. ”The Saudis, like the Americans, want a stable transition to civilian rule and no confrontation between the politicians and the military, including Musharraf.”
But the idea appears to be gaining momentum. Saudi Arabia is holding talks with officials in Pakistan, among other countries, to set up projects to grow wheat and other grains to protect itself from crises in world food supplies. Dubai-based private equity firm Abraaj Capital has already said it is looking at investing in agriculture in Pakistan and other Gulf countries are also showing an interest.
It would be hard to think of a more complex web of problems. Pakistan and Afghanistan face, in very different ways, severe domestic political crises which are being exacerbated by soaring prices and food shortages. Both blame each other for failing to crack down on the Taliban and al Qaeda. And now tensions are rising over attempts by Pakistan, the traditional supplier of food to Afghanistan, to curb its wheat exports to make sure it can feed its own hungry population.
For an idea of how significant this is in Afghanistan, it’s worth reading this piece in the Chicago Tribune. “Western officials – including officers with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force – say the food crisis is potentially more destabilizing to the U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai than the insurgency itself,” it says.