50 years of memories: Pakistani economist who helped build Saudi banking system

Economist Muhammad Umer Chapra. (Supplied photo)
Updated 19 February 2019

50 years of memories: Pakistani economist who helped build Saudi banking system

  • Muhammad Umer Chapra won the King Faisal International Prize for Islamic Studies in 1990
  • Chapra arrived in the Kingdom during the reign of King Faisal and initially worked with Finance Minister Sheikh Mohammed Abalkhail.

JEDDAH: Of the many Pakistanis who have contributed to the growth and development of Saudi Arabia, economist Muhammad Umer Chapra is undoubtedly one of the most significant.

Born in 1933, he arrived in the Kingdom in 1965 — one of the first Pakistani nationals to move there — and helped transform the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (SAMA) during its early stages. 

He is now an adviser to the Islamic Research and Training Institute of the Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah. Chapra won the King Faisal International Prize for Islamic Studies in 1990. In recognition of his services to the Kingdom, he was granted Saudi citizenship.

Chapra vividly remembers the day he was offered a job at SAMA, which was in its formative stages at the time.




The cover of Chapra's prize-winning book.

Talking to Arab News during an exclusive interview, he said: “They needed competent people from Pakistan and other countries, and I was in the United States at that time (teaching) economics as an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin, and then the University of Kentucky.”

“My wife and I were going from Kentucky to see the New York World’s Fair and we stopped in Washington because my wife wished to visit the city. I called a friend of mine (who was working) for the International Monetary Fund and he said that the governor of SAMA was there and he would be happy to see you.”

The governor was visiting Washington to find an economic adviser.

“I went there and we talked for quite a while about different things, economic problems and what could be done to help it,” said Chapra. At the end of their conversation, he was offered the chance to join SAMA.

“I said, ‘I have no objection. If you can make me an offer I will be happy to come.’ He said, ‘When I go back, I will talk to the board of directors and send you a cable.’ Then we went ahead to New York for the purpose we had come, to see the World’s Fair.”

After the trip, Chapra returned to work at the University of Kentucky, where the summer term was about to begin.

“I was in my office and I received a cable,” he said. “It was an offer (from SAMA), but the condition was that I must join immediately. How can this be? The summer session is starting tomorrow and I’m going to teach during it — how can I go immediately? I went to the chairman of the department and talked to him.

“He said, ‘If you want, we would like to have you even next year, not only this summer but also next year. But the problem is the summer session is starting tomorrow and you’re going to teach in it. If you can get us a substitute, we will let you go.’

“So I came out of his office and God arranges things. I met a professor who was teaching the same subjects as I was. In economics, there are a lot of things: Money and banking, public finance, economic development, all these different things. So I talked to him about it and he said, ‘Well, I kept myself free this summer for research but if you want to go, I will take over.’

“I escorted him to the chairman’s office and the whole thing was arranged. They sent us the visas and we came to Jeddah. And gradually, the problems started getting solved. This was in 1965. Now it’s 53 years we’ve been in Saudi Arabia.”

Chapra arrived in the Kingdom during the reign of King Faisal and initially worked with Finance Minister Sheikh Mohammed Abalkhail.

“He was very good,” he said. “I saw him a number of times during the preparation of the monetary policy of Saudi Arabia and economic development and so on. He was very nice and he would listen very patiently.

“Sheikh Abalkhail was prepared to listen to advice, and even King Faisal was very good in this respect. He was willing to listen to advice and also act upon it.”

Chapra is modest in describing the important role he played in the development of the finance system in the Kingdom.

“It’s not only one person who can play a really clear role,” he said. 

“Sheikh Abalkhail was very competent and very good, so I helped him in developing the banking system in this country and the financial system and the government’s monetary policy and so on. These things went around very well.”

Relations between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are consistently friendly, Chapra said.

“They have always been good, from the time when Pakistan was established in 1947,” he said. “Pakistan gets help from Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabia gets help from Pakistan.

“Saudi Arabia was very helpful from the very beginning and it has continued to be so. And Pakistan has been able to send manpower to this country. Military manpower plus economics — there has never been any problem between the two countries,” he added.


Princess Haifa and other influential regional figures share experiences and advice during Misk Global Forum

Updated 13 November 2019

Princess Haifa and other influential regional figures share experiences and advice during Misk Global Forum

  • Inspirational women reflect on future of jobs in Saudi Arabia and beyond

RIYADH: The evolving nature of the workplace and the challenge the new generation faced was in the spotlight on Tuesday during a panel discussion on Day 1 of the annual meeting of the Misk Global Forum in Riyadh.

The panel of influential and inspirational women from the region included: Princess Haifa M. Al-Saud, the vice president of strategy at the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage; Sim Ann, senior minister of state at the Ministry of Communications and Information and the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth in Singapore; Sheikha Al-Sabah, chairwoman and CEO of National Creative Industries Group in Kuwait; and Shamma Al-Mazrui, minister of state for youth affairs and chairwoman of the UAE’s federal youth authority. 

The discussion was moderated by Faisal J. Abbas, the editor-in-chief of Arab News.

Princess Haifa reflected on what she had learned during her career journey, from the early days working for HSBC Bank, when she felt she was treated as a bit of an oddity, to her current prominent role in the growing Saudi tourism sector. Like most workers, she said, she had to work her way up.

“As a woman, it was very challenging,” she said. “Women today don’t realize how much they have as employees. The government is pro-youth.

“My advice to you is seek opportunity, expand your mind, work in different industries. There are no more barriers.”

Princess Haifa M. Al-Saud reflected on what she had learned during her career journey, from the early days working for HSBC Bank to her current role in the growing Saudi tourism sector. (AN photo/Ziyad Al-Arfaj)

She felt blessed, she said, to have grown up with many women in her family and life that were good role models. Still, she added, when she started out in banking she never imagined she would reach the position she is in now.

Sim Ann told how Southeast Asia is the fastest-growing region in the world for start-ups. “We are very excited about the opportunities that the future holds in Southeast Asia,” she said. “There are 318 million youths, below the age of 35.”

A study by the World Economic Forum found that young people in Southeast Asia are optimistic about the effect of technology on the job market, she added. “Many youths also have a strong entrepreneurial drive, with 25 percent wanting to start their own business,” said Sim Ann. “Technology will provide our youths with more opportunities in the future.”

Al-Mazrui said that career success must help to support success in life, and that she believes people need to focus on embracing the human factors of their work. “The best way of explaining the importance of humanizing our work is to say that asking a worker to work without the human factors is like asking them to read without oxygen,” she said. “We are human beings, not human doings.”

Al-Sabah said it is important to tap into one of the things that make us human, the ability to push the envelope. In this era of globalization and rapidly changing technologies, she added, “we need to challenge ourselves to stay ahead of the curve. Step up and step outside your comfort zone.”

To close the session, Abbas asked the panelists to pick a skill that new graduates should consider developing.

Princess Haifa said that an important skill in the modern world is adaptability, while Sim Ann chose active listening. Al-Mazrui highlighted the need for compassion overconfidence, and Al-Sabah chose curiosity and resilience.

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