Politics of dual nationality
Two parallel thought streams have been flowing in Pakistan regarding the public place of overseas Pakistanis and, more specifically, those who have acquired the nationality of a foreign country. The government has a standing arrangement with 19 countries, which allows Pakistanis to acquire and retain a foreign nationality without renouncing their Pakistani citizenship. This arrangement has led to the phenomenon of dual nationality.
Successive governments in Pakistan have profusely praised overseas Pakistanis — about 8 million people — for their patriotism, investment in the country’s cash-starved economy, transfer of cutting-edge technologies to Pakistan, and advocacy for Pakistan’s foreign policy positions in their countries of residence. Overseas Pakistanis have been also highly valued for substantially helping Pakistan’s balance of payment through their foreign exchange remittances which exceeded $23 billion during fiscal year 2019-20 and almost equaled the total value of Pakistan's exports.
Almost all governments in the past four decades have tried to facilitate overseas Pakistanis in different ways such as generous duty-free import of automobiles, appliances and, reservation of seats at colleges, special housing estates in various cities and towns of Pakistan, and the full-fledged Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis at the federal government level. Many governments in the past announced support and superior courts directed the Election Commission to facilitate overseas Pakistanis in casting votes from abroad during general elections. Prime Minister Imran Khan even went a step farther and supported guaranteeing seats for overseas Pakistanis in parliament.
Although only one dual national special assistant to the prime minister has resigned so far, the pressure generated by the politics of dual nationality has placed some further constraints on the use of executive authority by SAPMS.
Ahmed Bilal Mehboob
Parallel to this stream of goodwill, however, flows another stream of apprehensions. Whenever an overseas Pakistani, whether a dual national or not, is appointed to a high-profile political position in Pakistan, a host of objections are raised not only by the opposition but also from within the government. Moeen Qureshi was probably the first overseas Pakistani to be appointed to the highest executive position of the country as Caretaker Prime Minister in 1993. Shaukat Aziz, another eminent overseas Pakistani, joined Pervez Musharraf's military-led government as Finance Minister in 1999 and later served as Prime Minister in 2004-07. Both the appointments were severely criticized for different reasons but mainly on account of their status as non-resident Pakistanis. Even today, both are widely blamed for allegedly holding dual nationality, although no evidence supports this accusation.
The most recent storm of criticism erupted when Prime Minister Imran Khan asked his 18 non-elected advisErs and special assistants (SAPMs) to make public statements not only on their assets and liabilities but also their citizenship and permanent residence status. The premier took this step despite the fact that the law requires such declarations from elected representatives only and the non-elected aides were under no obligation to make the information public. When the declarations were uploaded to the Cabinet Division’s website, it transpired that four of the SAPMs were dual nationals and another three had acquired permanent foreign residential status.
Although the Constitution bars only elected representatives from acquiring or holding a foreign nationality, the opposition demanded the seven special aides resign. Their appointment was also challenged in the Islamabad High Court. One special assistant subsequently quit citing public criticism over her Canadian citizenship.
The court dropped the plea against the appointment of dual nationals as special assistants to the Prime Minister and recalled that the dual nationality restriction was for elected members of parliament. It can be inferred from the judgment that Cabinet members who are elected and barred from holding dual nationality are distinct from special assistants and, therefore, special assistants cannot be treated as ministers.
Even before the opposition raised its objections, some ministers in Imran Khan’s cabinet, including the Science and Technology Minister Fawad Chaudhry and Aviation Minister Sarwar Khan, were already publicly criticizing the practice of inducting dual nationals as SAPMs and treating special assistants as ministers.
What seems to have been the real issue, however, is not the ministerial status of special assistants but entrusting to them the portfolios of certain divisions or ministries and inviting them to regularly attend cabinet meetings. Since the constitution bars dual nationals from becoming ministers, their appointment as SAPMs and entrusting them with ministerial responsibilities was seen as hoodwinking the constitution.
It appears from the developments of the past few weeks that fissures within the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and the ever-intensifying confrontation between PTI and the opposition have successfully turned the appointment of dual national SAPMs into a hot political issue and pushed Imran Khan and his special assistants against the ropes. Although only one dual national special assistant to the prime minister has resigned so far, the pressure generated by the politics of dual nationality has placed some further constraints on the use of executive authority by SAPMS.
- Ahmed Bilal Mehboob is the president of Pakistan-based think tank PILDAT.