JOHI: One-fourth of the population of a remote desert district in southern Pakistan lives and works in Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, locals said, throwing a lifeline to the barren land and earning it the moniker Pakistan's "Mini-Gulf."
Like other areas surrounding the vast Kachho Desert, Johi in Dadu district too relies on rainwater for agriculture. But rains are rare and long spells of drought have often pushed local communities into hunger. Change, they say, came in the 1970s with a boom in the Middle East oil job market.
"Out of Johi subdistrict’s total estimated population of 300,000, there are around 60,000 to 80,000 people in the Gulf,” said Shahmeer Gadehi, who worked in the UAE for two decades and now manages a travel agency that specializes in sending people to the Middle East. "It is the local-expat population ratio that has made Kachho’s Johi region earn the 'Mini-Gulf' title by the public."
Every household in the region, Gadehi added, had one or two family members living and working in Gulf countries.
The travel agent’s business, located near Jeddah Bazaar in Johi, has quickly picked up since Saudi Arabia relaxed coronavirus-related travel restrictions last month, and he has already sent 400 workers to the Middle East since. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, Gadehi said he would send 50-60 workers abroad a day.
Most laborers from Johi who travel with Gadehi’s company go to Saudi Arabia, currently home to over three million Pakistanis expats.
One of them, a driver called Altaf Gadehi, said he had secured a work visa and would be leaving for the Kingdom this week.
“At home, my earnings from driving are not enough to make ends meet," the 30-year-old, who supports his own family and siblings, said. "I have decided to try my luck at Saudi Arabia like many other people from the area."
Many, like Shaukat Ali Gedehi, also opt to move to the UAE.
“As visas are open now, many of my Johi friends have already reached Dubai again after a break," said Gedehi who worked in Dubai as a caretaker of racing camels before he lost his job to the coronavirus outbreak.
He said he was sure he would find a new job in Dubai with the help of his ‘Mini-Gulf’ community there.
"After reaching Dubai I will hunt for a job, taking the help of my Johi family and friends already present there," Gedehi said.
Indeed, helping the community back home is a common story for Johi locals.
Haji Beero, 70, traveled to Saudi Arabia via ship in the early 1970s on an Umrah pilgrimage visa, which he later converted into a work visa. He did odd jobs, and even worked as a watchman, but once he was settled, he and 60 others from Johi helped others from their hometown find work abroad.
“Lack of water and prolonged droughts brought joblessness … our agriculture sector was not flourishing. It brought extreme poverty," Beero said. "I used my reference to bring around 2,800 Johi locals to Saudi Arabia for jobs."
There are also those who have returned home after years of working in the Gulf, wanting to give back to their parched hometown.
Sanaullah Lashari spent six years working as a driver in Jeddah and is now back in Johi where he oversees a government-owned groundwater pump in Peer Baksh Lashari village that he says he repaired using his own savings and donations from other locals.
"Government is not doing any help in this regard, so we have to manage ourselves,” Lashari said, standing next to the pump wearing a traditional Saudi thobe. "When I returned from Saudi Arabia, I saw the plant was dysfunctional. I spent eighty thousand rupees from my remittance savings and collected money from other area people to make this pump run."