Over 21,000 Pakistani expats from Gulf region laid off amid COVID-19 – Zulfi Bukhari

Special Assistant to Prime Minister on Overseas Pakistanis Sayed Zulfikar Abbas Bukhari gives an exclusive interview to Arab News in Islamabad on April 24, 2020. (AN photo)
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Updated 25 April 2020
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Over 21,000 Pakistani expats from Gulf region laid off amid COVID-19 – Zulfi Bukhari

  • Hails Saudi Arabia for asking companies not to sack Pakistani expats and pay full salaries for three months
  • Denies involvement in Taftan border mismanagement, saying only PM can order authorities to open border

ISLAMABAD: Over 21,000 Pakistani expatriates in the Gulf states have so far lost their jobs amid the coronavirus pandemic, Special Assistant to Prime Minister (SAPM) on Overseas Pakistanis Sayed Zulfikar Abbas Bukhari told Arab News in an exclusive interview on Friday.
“There were media reports that the United Arab Emirates alone had laid off more than 40,000 Pakistani workers after the COVID-19 outbreak which is completely wrong. In reality, 17,743 Pakistanis were laid off amid the coronavirus crisis in the UAE,” he said, adding that 1,245 Pakistani nationals in Saudi Arabia, 691 in Qatar, 600 in Oman, 500 in Kuwait, 387 in Bahrain and 200 in Iraq had been downsized until this week.
Bukhari hailed Saudi Arabia for ensuring job security for Pakistani nationals since the Kingdom issued a directive preventing companies from sacking Pakistani employees for three months during this difficult period.
“Unlike the UAE, where companies are laying off workers and sending them on forced and unpaid leave, Saudi Arabia is not doing that. Instead, it is giving them full salary,” he said.
The PM’s adviser continued that he had requested measures to support Pakistani workers in the Kingdom during his video call with Saudi Deputy Minister of Labor and Social Development Dr. Abdullah bin Nasser this week, adding that a lot of special measures were also being processed.
“Dr. Nasser informed me that Saudi Arabia had issued a decree through which Saudi companies will not lay off laborers for the next three months and all employees will continue to receive their full salary during the three-month period. The Kingdom also decided to extend the duration of entry and exit visas for Pakistani workers and Pakistani labor force will enjoy free of cost visa extension until December,” he said.
Asked about the repatriation of stranded Pakistanis, Bukhari said the government was moving toward regularizing flights to ensure the repatriation of all those people who wanted to come back to Pakistan.
“Majority of those who want to come back to Pakistan are from the Gulf region. Their number is about 90,000 so far. That is the reason we gave 17 flights to the UAE last week, and next week we are expanding flight operation for repatriation from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar along with the UAE where over 71,000 Pakistanis are waiting to come back home,” he said.
Bukhari informed that the government would increase the repatriation capacity from 2,000 people a week to 6,500 people a week before increasing it further to 8,000 in a few weeks.
On the issue of expensive air tickets by Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), he said that PIA had reduced the fare of its special flights by 20 to 30 percent in an effort to extend maximum relief to the country’s citizens stranded in the UAE.
“People have uploaded videos on social media, claiming that our embassy in the UAE is giving tickets in black with overcharged rates which is absolutely wrong. No Pakistani embassy is involved in such an activity. However, there can be travel agents who may be overcharging to exploit people who want to return to Pakistan.”
When asked about his role in mismanaging the return of pilgrims from Iran, Bukhari reiterated his stance that he had no role in allowing them back into the country.
“One should simply think about it a little: Do I have the power to open the country’s border which requires five or six different departments to coordinate? Only a prime minister can exercise such authority and order the opening of border,” he clarified.
“I have sued the people who wrongly blamed me and now the case is in court. They played political gimmickry and will now pay the price,” he added.
Asked about a World Health Organization (WHO) report claiming that about 46 percent of Pakistan’s COVID-19 cases had travel history to Iran, Bukhari said: “Zaireen [or pilgrims] who have become the reason for local spread of the virus are those who came back from Iran by air and not those who entered Pakistan through the Taftan border.”
On the number of overseas Pakistanis who lost their lives to the pandemic, he said that his ministry was collecting information but did not have the exact figures.
“Many Pakistanis have died due to the coronavirus but we do not have the exact numbers. We are trying to collect the data but different countries are not providing us the breakdown of the nationalities of COVID-19 victims,” he said, adding that PIA had brought back 17 dead bodies from the UAE during the last few weeks.
“Next week, we will bring back dead bodies from Saudi Arabia as more than 10 bodies are stuck there. We have requests from Italy and other European countries as well, and we will respond to them whenever possible. All of these individuals may not have died due to the coronavirus, but PIA will bring maximum number of dead bodies back without seeking charges,” Bukhari added.


Pakistan’s finance ministry outlines fiscal challenges in annual risk report

Updated 12 sec ago
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Pakistan’s finance ministry outlines fiscal challenges in annual risk report

  • Inflation, climate change and increasing debt burden are some of the challenges to the country’s fiscal position
  • The ministry says moderation in international commodity prices is likely to contribute to a reduction in inflation

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s finance ministry released the Fiscal Risk Statement FY2023-24 on Wednesday, providing an overview of potential risks and uncertainties that could impact the country’s fiscal outlook in the coming years.
The ministry is legally bound to prepare the statement under the Public Finance Management Act, 2019, which requires the annual budget to mention fiscal risks.
Pakistan’s economy has faced multiple challenges in recent years, affecting the economic growth and fiscal deficit.
The government has implemented several economic reforms to contain fiscal deficit and make the key sectors more efficient to attract more investment in the country.
However, this has also increased the inflationary pressure in the economy, with food prices touching record high levels in recent months.
“The inflation outlook has deteriorated, and there is heightened risk to external stability,” the ministry while specifying a key macroeconomic challenge. “The uncertainty surrounding the future adjustment path in energy prices is the main upside risk to the inflation outlook.”
However, the ministry said a potential moderation in international commodity prices was expected to contribute to a reduction in inflation in the country.
It also mentioned Pakistan’s debt problem as yet another risk factor.
“External debt constitutes 40.8 percent of total public debt, which may make the Government’s fiscal position vulnerable in the face of high current account deficits, low foreign exchange reserves, and a weakening exchange rate,” it said.
“Ongoing fiscal deficits require refinancing of the Government’s maturing debt while raising additional debt to fulfill the fiscal shortfall. A high level of short-term debt creates potentially significant refinancing challenges during periods of slower economic growth, higher fiscal deficits, and/or lower investor confidence,” it added.
The report warned that climate and natural hazard events could pose challenges to the government’s fiscal risk position.
The ministry recommended a restrictive monetary policy through higher interest rates, both to reduce inflation and help address external imbalances.
It also advocated for measures to improve the business environment by creating a fair and level playing field for the organizations to increase investment and trade.


Arab Monetary Fund, Pakistan central bank in talks to integrate cross-border remittance platforms

Updated 45 min 9 sec ago
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Arab Monetary Fund, Pakistan central bank in talks to integrate cross-border remittance platforms

  • Buna is a cross-border payment system supported by Arab central banks and fully owned by Arab Monetary Fund
  • AMF and Pakistan’s central bank signed agreement last year to integrate Buna and Pakistani platform Raast

KARACHI: The Arab Monetary Fund (AMF) and the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) are engaged in technical level talks to integrate their payment systems and facilitate cross-border remittances between the Arab region and Pakistan, the deputy governor of the SBP said.
The chairman of AMF and the governor of Pakistan’s central bank signed an agreement last year to establish a framework of cooperation between Buna, a cross-border payment system operated by Arab Regional Payments Clearing and Settlement Organization (ARPCSO) and owned by AMF, and Raast, a Pakistani instant payment system for real-time settlement of small-value retail payments, including inter-bank peer-to-peer and person-to-merchant transactions.
Technical talks are now on to integrate the two systems and facilitate millions of Pakistanis living in the Gulf region by enabling them to send remittances in real time at a lower cost. The integration will also benefit businesses through instant, safe and cost-effective cross border payments and aims to strengthen economic, financial, and investment ties between Arab countries and Pakistan.
“After signing the MoU, the negotiations are on with the technical teams, and at the technical level, the modalities and the developments needed at the end of Buna and at the end of Raast, they are being worked out,” Saleem Ullah, the deputy governor of the State Bank of Pakistan, told Arab News on Wednesday.
After the completion of the technical level talks, details would be shared with the vendor for execution, he added.
“Fortunately, the vendor is same for Buna and Raast. Once we are able to finalize the requirements, then those would be shared with the vendor, and then the vendor would be able to give us the timeline within which that development would be possible,” he added.
He said the execution of the project would take at least a year “but it would depend on the vendor estimates with respect to the developments that are to be developed for the purpose of developing this interface.”
Financial experts believe the initiative would benefit about five million Pakistanis living in the Gulf region and help Pakistan boost its remittance inflows through legal channels.
“The benefit for 5 million plus Pakistanis living in the Gulf would be lesser hassle in remitting money to Pakistan because the dependency on other international similar platforms see longer transaction turnaround time as these platforms either exist in the US or other markets,” Danish Kazi, financial and political analyst based in UAE, told Arab News.
Kazi said both affordability and access for common Pakistanis to encourage remitting through legal channels would increase with the new initiative.
“This would also help business transactions which means more export opportunities for Pakistani goods and services in the region,” he added.
 The aim was to regulate remittances through SBP instead of them moving via non documented sectors.
“Further, these remittances through Buna to Pakistan may also assist SBP to raise funds from Gulf markets using these as collateral or toward payments of such financing via commercial or government banks,” Kazi said.


Pakistan constitutes team to investigate social media campaign against officials post-election rigging claims

Updated 22 February 2024
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Pakistan constitutes team to investigate social media campaign against officials post-election rigging claims

  • The JIT has been formed after PM Kakar announced to defend civil servants against ‘violent trolls’ this week
  • The investigation team has been asked to identify and prosecute people behind the social media campaign

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s outgoing caretaker administration has set up a joint investigation team (JIT) to identify and prosecute individuals behind a social media campaign targeting government functionaries and election officials following widespread rigging allegations in the wake of the February 8 polls.
Earlier this week, Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar announced his interim administration would defend civil servants against “violent trolls” in the wake of the political contest marred by delays in vote count that led to the speculation of election manipulation.
The interior ministry announced the formation of the JIT in a notification on Wednesday, saying it had been established under Section 30 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016.
Discussing its terms of reference, the notification said it would “investigate the malicious social media campaign attempting to malign the image of Civil Servants/Government Officials in connection with elections 2024.”
It added the JIT would also “identify and prosecute the culprits in accordance with applicable laws.” Additionally, it will propose measures to prevent such campaigns from occurring in the future.
The team comprises seven members from the Federal Investigation Agency, Intelligence Bureau, Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan Telecommunications Authority and National Database Registration Authority.
It will submit its preliminary report to the ministry within two weeks.
Prior to this development, a senior Pakistani bureaucrat made a public confession of changing the election outcome in 13 national and 26 provincial constituencies.
This led to a heated social media debate and subsequent closure of platform X in Pakistan.
Kakar said in his statement this week some people were trying to blackmail and pressurize civil servants to switch their loyalties from the state.
“The State of Pakistan shall defend the civil servants in discharging their constitutional duties, act against these violent trolls and ensure exemplary punishment to them,” he said. “There should be no doubt about our commitment to these noble civil servants serving the State and the people of Pakistan.”


Pakistan’s central bank confident of rapid transition to Islamic economy, says will meet 2027 deadline

Updated 22 February 2024
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Pakistan’s central bank confident of rapid transition to Islamic economy, says will meet 2027 deadline

  • The deadline for the transformation of national economy was given by the Federal Shariat Court in a 2022 verdict
  • Mufti Munib asks the authorities to directly set up Islamic banks instead of transforming conventional ones

KARACHI: Pakistan’s central bank on Wednesday expressed confidence in meeting the Federal Shariat Court (FSC)’s deadline to transition the country’s economy, including its banking sector, to an interest-free model, with a top official saying efforts were rapidly advancing in this area.
In April 2022, the FSC ruled that “riba” (interest) was prohibited in all forms, mandating Pakistan’s shift to an interest-free economy by December 2027.
The court’s decision requires the removal of the term “interest” from all applicable legal clauses and necessitates amendments to all relevant laws in accordance with the judgment.
“The decision given by the Federal Shariat Court is being implemented and we are working with the full spread so that the date given by the court is implemented,” Saleem Ullah, Deputy Governor of the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP), told Arab News on the sidelines of the 2nd National Islamic Economic Forum in Karachi. “We have developed and constituted various committees [for the purpose].”
The SBP official informed a high-level steering committee headed by the finance minister and the central bank governor had been constituted to oversees the strategy to implement the verdict.
“And then there is a committee headed by the two deputy governors, and that committee oversees the overall transformation process,” he continued, adding: “There are various work streams that have been constituted for that purpose and those work streams are actively performing their role.”
The SBP deputy governor informed work was being carried out to review the legal and regulatory frameworks along with the development of new financial products that were required to convert the public debt into sharia-compliant debt.
“We are very hopeful that by the will of God, with the collaborative efforts and kind of structure that we have created, we will be able to meet the deadline,” he added.
Addressing the forum, the central bank official said interest created an unjust system. He expressed optimism about expediting the journey of Islamic banking in Pakistan.
The market share of assets and deposits of Islamic Banking Industry (IBI) in the overall financial sector stood at 19.6 and 22.5 percent, respectively, by the end of September. However, the central bank has set the target to increase the share of Islamic banking system to 35 percent by 2025.
Speaking at the event Maulana Bashir Farooqi, founder chairman of Saylani Trust and convener of the forum, called for efforts “to wage a war against the interest-based banking system.”
Mufti Munib-ur-Rehman, a religious scholar, expressed concern over the “slow progress” of transformation toward Islamic banking in Pakistan.
He urged comprehensive economic planning by political leaders and economists for the next five to 20 years while calling for direct establishment of Islamic banks instead of opening the Shariah-compliant branches of conventional banks.


US and international organizations demand Pakistan lift social media restrictions amid democracy fears

Updated 22 February 2024
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US and international organizations demand Pakistan lift social media restrictions amid democracy fears

  • US says it communicated its concerns through official channels after platform X became inaccessible in Pakistan
  • Global media and Internet watchdogs point out such developments hinder exercise of democracy, free expression

ISLAMABAD: The world reacted to sporadic Internet shutdowns and social media disruptions in Pakistan on Wednesday, with the US State Department confirming that Washington had officially urged the Pakistani administration to lift digital restrictions, while other international organizations raised concerns for democracy and media freedom.
Pakistani social media users have only managed to access platform X intermittently since Saturday when a senior government official made a public admission of vote manipulation in the February 8 general elections which triggered a politically charged debate in the country.
The electoral contest was marred by a nationwide outage of cellphone networks and delays in results by election officials, raising widespread speculation of rigging and leading to protests by several political parties in different parts of the country.
“We are concerned by any reports of restrictions on the exercise of the freedom of expression and association in Pakistan, including the partial or complete government-imposed Internet shutdowns, which includes, of course, on social media platforms,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told a media briefing.
He informed that Washington had asked Pakistan to respect freedom of expression and “restore access to any social media that has been restricted, including Twitter, I think now known as X.”
Asked if these concerned had been communicated through official channels, Miller responded in the affirmative.
Prior to that, Netblocks, a London-based Internet monitor, also took notice of the social media disruption and commented on its implications in a post.
“Metrics show that X/Twitter remains largely restricted in #Pakistan past the four-day mark; imposed on Saturday as disclosures relating to election fraud circulated on the platform, the measure significantly hinders the exercise of democracy and media freedom,” it said.
Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ), a press freedom organization, also reacted to the development, urging the Pakistan government to ensure “free flow of information to facilitate media reporting about post-election issues in Pakistan.”
The Sindh High Court also took up a case against the ongoing blockade of X on Wednesday, instructing the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority to restore the social media platform.