Pakistani online travel platform raises $7.5 million, plans Saudi Arabia expansion

Employees of a local e-ticketing and travel platform, Bookme.pk, pose for a photograph in Lahore, Pakistan, on December 8, 2021. (Photo courtesy: Bookme.pk)
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Updated 09 December 2021

Pakistani online travel platform raises $7.5 million, plans Saudi Arabia expansion

  • The CEO of Bookme.pk says the company intends to utilize the money to digitize small vans in Pakistani cities
  • Venture capital companies believe Pakistan's first completely cashless travel and ticketing platform can emerge as a ‘unicorn’

KARACHI: A Lahore-based startup company that aims to provide a convenient travel and ticketing platform to millions of users said on Thursday it wanted to expand its outreach to Saudi Arabia and Myanmar after successfully closing a $7.5 million Series A funding round.

Bookme.pk plans to offer people online bookings for intercity buses, airlines, hotels and events in Pakistan.

The Series A round was co-led by Zayn Capital, Lakson Venture Capital and UAE-based Hayaat Global with the participation of BY Ventures and Jabbar Internet Group, New York-based Millville Opportunities and Silicon Valley-based Mentor’s Fund.

The Pakistani firm plans to utilize the funding to digitize buses in small cities and expand its outreach beyond the country’s borders.

“We are planning to expand our outreach to Saudi Arabia and Myanmar in the coming year,” Faizan Aslam, chief executive officer and founder of the company, told Arab News.

Established in 2014, Bookme.pk claims to be the first completely cashless platform in Pakistan with the highest number of day-to-day digital transactions from banks and payment gateways.

The startup has digitized Pakistan’s paper-based transport and travel sector to create a plug and play distribution system that interconnects reservation systems of intercity buses, domestic and international airlines along with hotels and events.

“So far we have digitized companies that are operating big buses in major cities,” Aslam said. “Now we are focusing on digitizing small vans that drive around without any specified time schedule in small cities.”

Bookme.pk has partnered with Pakistan’s leading mobile wallet platforms to offer its customers BNPL (book now, pay later) services, leveraging historical data and spending patterns for more than six million customers, a statement issued by the startup said.

The intercity bus segment has grown significantly in Pakistan as road infrastructure and connectivity has improved throughout the country due to massive infrastructure investments over the last five years.

In addition to that, major Pakistani urban centers have a large number of rural migrants, increasing demand for bus travel for their work-related commutes.

“We are thrilled to continue to invest in Bookme and firmly believe that the Series A funding will allow it to expand operations, increase market share and transform the travel and ticketing space in the country,” Babar Lakhani, managing partner of Lakson Venture Capital, said.

Zayn Capital, which co-led the funding round, maintained the Pakistani startup had the potential to become a “unicorn,” a term used for companies with a valuation of $1 billion or above.

“We have followed Bookme’s journey from the seed stage to see it scale into one of the leading platforms in Pakistan,” Faisal Aftab, co-founder and managing partner of Zayn Capital Frontier Fund, said, adding: “We are extremely proud to be a continued part of their journey as we believe this team is capable of building a unicorn.”

“BookMe has one of the most robust e-ticketing platforms because of its focused approach and customer centricity,” Mohammed Ikhlaq, director of Hayaat Global, was quoted as saying in the statement circulated by the startup. “We are delighted to play a role in their growth story and plans, and we fully expect them to continue scaling new peaks as the digital economy deepens in Pakistan.”

Pakistani startups have raised more than $300 million so far in 2021.

The country has witnessed an increase in the number of internet users from 20 million in 2015 to over 100 million in 2021.


Pakistan’s former PM arrives in Rawalpindi to address first protest rally since being shot

Updated 11 sec ago

Pakistan’s former PM arrives in Rawalpindi to address first protest rally since being shot

  • Imran Khan has been calling for early elections in the country since being ousted from power in April
  • Pakistan’s interior minister has asked him to return to parliament, discuss snap polls with government

RAWALPINDI: Pakistan’s former minister Imran Khan arrived in the garrison city of Rawalpindi in a helicopter on Saturday to address thousands of people at his first public appearance since being shot during an anti-government march earlier this month near Wazirabad city.
Khan, who was ousted from power in a parliamentary no-trust vote in April, has held several protest rallies across Pakistan in a bid to pressure the government to announce snap polls. The government has refused his demand in the past while saying the general elections will be held as per schedule toward the end of next year.
Last month, the former prime minister kicked off his “long march” from the eastern city of Lahore to Pakistan’s federal capital to mount further pressure on the ruling administration, though his motorized caravan had to discontinue its journey after a gun attack that killed one person and injured Khan along with his ten other supporters.
Khan invited workers and supporters of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party to reach Rawalpindi in a video message in which he said he was going to come to the venue himself despite bring injured.
“PTI Chairman Imran Khan has arrived in Rawalpindi via helicopter,” Dawn newspaper reported in its live updates.
Earlier, Pakistan’s interior minister Rana Sanaullah asked the former prime minister to return to parliament and hold a dialogue with the government and its allies for early elections.
“Don’t be obstinate,” he said in a Twitter post. “If you want a date for the election, then act like a politician, sit with other politicians [and] have a dialogue.”
“Come back and become part of parliament,” he continued. “Let the political and democratic process go forward.”
Sanaullah also asked the former prime minister to postpone his anti-government rally during a news conference on Friday, saying intelligence agencies had warned that a militant attack could target the gathering.
Prior to that, the provincial government in Punjab, which Rawalpindi is a part of, said it had made arrangements to provide “foolproof” security to Khan and his protest rally.


‘Once in a lifetime’: Pakistani volunteers relish FIFA World Cup experience in Qatar

Updated 34 min 2 sec ago

‘Once in a lifetime’: Pakistani volunteers relish FIFA World Cup experience in Qatar

  • Qatar spent over $300 billion in 10 years to build hotels and stadiums for World Cup
  • Pakistani interns, volunteers share views about diversity, inclusion of women, in Qatar

ISLAMABAD: With the FIFA World Cup 2022 in full swing, authorities in Qatar have their hands full with organizing the event. Pakistan has contributed plenty to the tournament from its ‘Made in Pakistan’ footballs to security personnel and even volunteers, who are relishing the experience of helping ensure the tournament, arguably the biggest sports event in the world, goes smoothly.

Since being awarded the right to host the tournament in 2010, the tiny gas-rich country has splurged billions to build luxury hotels and stadiums across Qatar to welcome over a million fans in the country.

To host the World Cup in the Gulf country, FIFA needed interns and volunteers to help organize such a huge event. Many Pakistanis signed up for the opportunity.

Syed Hasan Danish, 26, was working in Pakistan till July this year when his organization, Airlift, shut down. With his family in Qatar, Danish moved to the country and was hired as an operations analyst by ‘Mowasalat,’ which operates public transport in Qatar.

“I have always been a huge football fan and have been following club football since childhood,” Danish told Arab News over the phone this week. “Being in Qatar you need to be part of something to give back to Qatar and football,” Danish told Arab News this week.

“So many nationalities gathering at one place, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

In this undated photo, Pakistani volunteer Syed Hasan Danish poses for a picture at the Al Thumama Stadium in Qatar. (Photo courtesy: Syed Hasan Danish)

Posted at Qatar’s Al-Thumama Stadium, Danish helps out spectators by guiding them to their seats, helping them find the prayer areas and similar places in the venue and helps them with other issues.

His selection came after a “rigorous” process, according to the volunteer.

“Firstly, you fill a detailed, four-page online form from an app if you want to register as an international volunteer,” Danish said.

“Then, you are asked to appear for an online test in which they analyze your skills via multiple games and judge your decision-making and stress-handling skills.”

Once selected, FIFA handles transport, accommodation and food for international volunteers. They just have to arrange for the air fare.

Rimsha Khalid, 25, a student of Islamic Arts at Qatar’s Hamad Bin Khalifa University, described her experience as an assistant commentary intern as an “exhilarating one.”

This undated photo shows the Commentary Control Room of Education City Stadium in Doha, Qatar. (Photo courtesy: Rimsha Khalid)

“The work environment is professional,” Khalid said.

“We work hard but also have breaks in between and the chemistry between the team members also helps lift up the mood.”

As a woman, Khalid said, she never felt she was being discriminated against: “I would like to say that the general work environment in Qatar for women is quite safe and women are treated with the utmost respect that they deserve.”

Khalid said her team comprise interns from South Korea, Vietnam, Kazakhstan, Zambia, Sudan, India, UK, Belgium and Pakistan.

“[The diversity provides an excellent opportunity for cultural exchange, growth, exposure and helps you to learn better things about other nations and their work ethics which can prove to be helpful in the future,” she added.

Maryam Khalid, 27, a commentary assistant intern at Qatar’s Education City Stadium in Al-Rayyan, told Arab News the work experience was “excellent.”

“There is a lot of responsibility here as there is no room for error,” she told Arab News.

“However, you also get a lot of support from people here as well.”

In Pakistan, she said, the biggest hurdles that women faced were harassment and reservations from families.

“However, here it is so safe that you don’t even think about any such problems here. Qatar is one of the safest countries in the world for women,” Maryam said.

“We venture out here often at very late times in the night, for cinemas and at beaches or to attend festivals. Never once does anyone touch people or harass anyone or even stare at them.”

Danish rubbished international media’s “wrong reporting” on Qatar and its treatment of women as well.

“There is a lot of diversity here, minor issues are being [deliberately] played up,” he said. “There is a 60-40 ratio of men and women here in Qatar.”

He said “every type of woman” could be found working in Qatar.

“From full abaya-wearing women to women dressed in European clothing. It’s all a nice, mixed-up environment here,” he said.

“There is a lot of openness and you get to learn other people’s culture here.”


Pakistan 'nowhere near default,' will fulfill international obligations — finance minister

Updated 26 November 2022

Pakistan 'nowhere near default,' will fulfill international obligations — finance minister

  • Citing Bloomberg data, Ishaq Dar says Pakistan’s one-year probability of default was at 10% as against Khan’s claims
  • Central bank chief says Pakistan will be repaying $1 billion international bond three days in advance on Dec 2

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan's Finance Minister Ishaq Dar on Friday said the South Asian country was “nowhere near default” and would fulfill its international financing obligations on time, denying former prime minister Imran Khan’s claim that the country was on the verge of a default. 

Khan, who was ousted in a parliamentary no-trust vote in April, last week said he had already predicted six months ago that his ouster would adversely impact the country’s economy and destroy its ability to service its debts. Khan's comment came amid Pakistan's rising credit default swap (CDS) rating that serves as a form of insurance against default. 

But the Pakistani central bank chief said a day earlier that the country would be repaying a $1 billion international bond on December 2 — three days before its due date. The statement set aside growing uncertainty about Pakistan’s ability to meet external financing obligations amid an economic crisis further aggravated by this year's devastating floods. 

Citing data from Bloomberg, Dar told a Pakistani news channel that Pakistan’s one-year probability of default was at a low of 10 percent as against Khan’s claims. 

"I assure you — and by the grace of God, whatever I say always proves to be true — that Pakistan is nowhere near default and it will fulfill all of its liabilities," the finance minister told the 24 news channel Friday night. 

“I was disappointed to see Khan tweeting that the country was about to default. Whatever he said was not in the country’s interests as he was joining negative forces who want to damage Pakistan’s economy." 

Dar’s claim was backed by financial analysts and experts earlier this week, who downplayed historic growth of the Pakistani five-year bond’s credit default swap. 

CDS is a financial derivative that lets an investor offset their credit risk with that of another investor. To swap the risk of default, the lender buys a CDS from another investor, who agrees to reimburse them the amount in case the borrower defaults. 

Pakistan’s CDS had been steadily rising in the last few days, mainly due to lower foreign exchange reserves and political turmoil in the South Asian country.  

The higher CDS rate was equated with the country’s default on payments of its five-year bonds, including $1 billion of the Third Pakistan International Sukuk bonds maturing on December 05, $1 billion of the Pakistan Government International Bond maturing in 2024, and $500 million of the Pakistan Government International Bond maturing in 2025.


Pakistan signs €150 million loan agreement with ECO Trade and Development Bank in Turkey

Updated 50 min 49 sec ago

Pakistan signs €150 million loan agreement with ECO Trade and Development Bank in Turkey

  • The agreement was signed during PM Sharif’s meeting with the bank president in Istanbul
  • The prime minister also urged Turkish investors to help enhance bilateral trade to $5 billion

ISLAMABAD: The Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) Trade and Development Bank on Saturday signed an agreement with Pakistan in Istanbul to provide a soft loan of €150 million for flood relief efforts and support import of fuel by the South Asian country.

Pakistan’s prime minister Shehbaz Sharif arrived in Turkey on Friday on a two-day visit that he said would unpack the “untapped potential” of bilateral ties between the two countries.

He held a bilateral meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and also inaugurated one of the four MILGEM corvette ships for the Pakistan Navy at the Istanbul shipyard.

The agreement with the bank was signed during a meeting between the Pakistani delegation led by Sharif and the ECO Trade and Development Bank delegation led by its president Yalçın Yüksel.

“The ECO Trade and Development Bank will provide a soft term loan of Euro 150 million to the Government of Pakistan,” the Prime Minister’s Office announced in a statement. “The financial package will contribute to flood relief efforts as well as provide financial support for import of fuel.”

The statement added the overall financial assistance to Pakistan since the inception of the bank would reach about $1 billion after the disbursement of the committed amount.

In a separate meeting with the Pakistan-Turkey Business Council, the prime minister invited Turkish companies to invest in Pakistan as the two countries signed a memorandum of agreement to enhance bilateral trade volume to $5 billion in the next three years.

“We have signed a memorandum of agreement to enhance our trade volume from a very small amount of less than $1.5 billion to $5 billion in the next three years,” Sharif said, adding that Turkey’s international trade was somewhere around $250 billion and its bilateral trade with Pakistan was just a fraction of it.

“It’s not a big task at all and let’s resolve and commit today that we will do everything to achieve this target in three years – rather double it in three years,” he continued.

He vowed that his government would fully provide a hassle- and red tape-free environment to them: “My government would no longer tolerate any snags and impediments in the way of investment from foreign investors, including the Turkish brothers and sisters.”

To further promote bilateral trade and business ties, the prime minister said, the Turkish president had assured him that work on a “trade and goods agreement” between the two brotherly countries would be expedited.

“President Erdogan has instructed his minister to expedite its approval from the Turkish parliament,” he said.

Sharif said his government had resolved to cut down on the expensive oil and petroleum imports.

“Last year we had to spend $27 billion to finance imports of our petroleum [products] which we simply cannot afford,” he said.

“Therefore, we have rolled out our vision of 10,000 megawatts solar investment projects before local and international investors about one and a half months ago.”

He expressed his commitment to complete this scheme in letter and spirit, through investments from Saudi Arabia, Turkiye, China, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

“So please be ready with your coffers open and come to Pakistan as I am going to hold a special conference for Turkish investors,” he added.

The premier said the Pakistani government would also ensure payments to investors within 60 days without, in a transparent manner and without the involvement of a third party.


Pakistan’s army bid farewell to Gen Nadeem Raza in transition of military leadership 

Updated 26 November 2022

Pakistan’s army bid farewell to Gen Nadeem Raza in transition of military leadership 

  • Raza will be succeeded by Lt Gen Sahir Shamshad Mirza as new head of Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee 
  • Mirza, who comes from Sindh Regiment, has had illustrious career and served in multiple leadership roles 

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s army on Friday bade farewell to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC) General Nadeem Raza, the Pakistani military said, in a transition of military leadership which put to rest widespread speculation earlier this week. 
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on Thursday picked Lt Gen Sahir Shamshad Mirza as the CJCSC and Lt Gen Asim Munir as the new chief of the country’s all-powerful army, ending uncertainty surrounding the high-profile appointment that caused months of political instability in Pakistan. 
The office of the army chief is arguably the most influential position in Pakistan, given the country’s turbulent history of civil-military relations. Pakistan’s military has ruled the country for around half of its 75-year history and enjoys extensive powers even under civilian administrations. 
To bid farewell to the outgoing CJCSC, a special ceremony was held at the Pakistani military’s Joint Staff Headquarters, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the military’s media wing, said in a statement. The ceremony was attended by former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee and senior officials of the tri-services. 
In his farewell address, General Raza thanked the Almighty for enabling him to discharge his duties to the best of his abilities and applauded the sacrifices rendered by the armed forces in the defense of Pakistan. 
“[The] defense of the country is impregnable and gallant soldiers will not hesitate in making it even more formidable,” he was quoted as saying by the ISPR. 
The outgoing CJCSC was also presented a ‘Guard of Honour’ by a smartly turned out tri-services contingent at the venue. 
The Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee works for coordination among the three branches of the military, while its chairman also serves as the principal military adviser to the prime minister. 
CJCSC-designate Mirza will be taking over the office after the retirement of Gen Raza following his 41 years of military service. Mirza, who comes from the army’s Sindh Regiment, has had an illustrious career and has served in multiple leadership roles in the army. 
He came into the spotlight after he became the director-general of military operations in the last two years of former army chief Raheel Sharif’s tenure. 
Since his elevation to the rank of a three-star general, Mirza has served as the chief of general staff — the second-most powerful position in the army after the chief himself — and then the commander of the army’s 10th Corps. 
In accordance with the constitutional procedures, President Arif Alvi ratified the appointments of the CJCSC and the army chief Thursday evening, with some experts expressing concerns Alvi might not immediately ratify the prime minister’s summary to prolong the process. 
The fears were raised in the backdrop of ex-prime minister Imran Khan, a chief rival of Sharif, saying in an interview on Wednesday the president, a close aide and member of Khan’s party, was in contact with him and would consult him on the appointments on the top slots.