Pakistan, GCC expected to hold technical talks for free trade agreement by July-end — official

Flags of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries fly in the streets before the 40th GCC summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on 9 December 2019. (REUTRES/File)
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Updated 06 July 2022

Pakistan, GCC expected to hold technical talks for free trade agreement by July-end — official

  • Last year, Pakistani and GCC officials resumed talks on a delayed FTA after a gap of almost 12 years
  • The South Asian country currently has free trade agreements with China, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka

KARACHI: Pakistan and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are expected to hold the second round of technical-level talks for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in the last week of July, a senior Pakistani diplomat said, with local traders saying a deal would help boost exports to the six-country bloc comprising the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait. 

Last year, Pakistani and GCC officials resumed talks on a delayed FTA after a gap of almost 12 years. The South Asian country currently has free trade agreements with China, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka.

“First technical round is completed, tariff lines lists have been shared between Pakistan and GCC, and the private sector and FBR [Federal Board of Revenue] are analyzing these tariff lists,” Azhar Ali Dahar, Minister Trade and Investment at the Embassy of Pakistan in Riyadh, told Arab News on Tuesday.

“GCC has asked for a second technical meeting and the commerce ministry is waiting for a response from private sector. It is expected that in the last week of July this second meeting may take place.”

Pakistani industrialists and traders said the FTA was very important for the country to increase multilateral trade volumes, and the apex body of the private sector, the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FPCCI), was “fully involved” in pushing forward the process.

“Our Research and Development is working on it and we want to take it forward in a better way that is good for Pakistan,” FPCCI president Irfan Iqbal Sheikh told Arab News on Saturday. 

“FTA is very important if you need to enhance your trade, but we have to keep in view all aspects, including economic value and our economic conditions, before signing the agreement so that we [Pakistan] could benefit.” 

The FPCCI president said the FTA was important to tap markets other than the traditional EU, United States and United Kingdom, where Pakistan exports around 80 percent of its goods. 

“We have not yet tapped the other markets.. and we want to tap the other markets.. we want to work with GCC,” Sheikh added. “New markets and products that would increase Pakistan’s exports … that is what we need.”

The FTA with the GCC has remained in the cold storage since the signing of the Framework Agreement (FA) on August 26, 2004 in Islamabad. Only two rounds were held between 2006 and 2008. 

The first round of negations took place in Riyadh in March 2006 where both sides agreed to jointly declare the establishment of a Trade Negotiating Team (TNT). The parties also agreed to concessions in services under the World Trade Organization’s framework. 

The second round of negotiations was also held in Riyadh from September 7-8, 2008, where both sides agreed to a broader outline in the areas of Market Access in Goods & Services, Rules of Origin and some General Provisions, according to the Dahar in Riyadh.

“The FTA with GCC should have been signed much earlier because these are major economies, especially the UAE is our major trading partner, as our high-end imports are mostly coming from UAE,” Dr. Vaqar Ahmed, a joint executive director at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), told Arab News.

“We have been engaged with GCC countries since 2008 and still after a lapse of around 15 years this [FTA] has not materialized … we discuss with them security and other issues but FTA remains off the agenda.

“Now it must be on top of the agenda and the joint working group needs to set the deadline to finalize the FTA as we did in case of FTA with China,” he added. “Our exports, mainly services, are being processed from UAE where companies, especially the IT companies, have set up backend offices. We have a big advantage with the FTA so this needs to be taken very seriously.”

Pakistani investors in GCC countries have also called on their home government to aggressively pursue GCC authorities for the FTA.

“Pakistan has very special relations with GCC countries and they have been supportive. The FTA will largely benefit Pakistani traders through ease of tariff and non-tariffs measures,” Muhammad Iqbal Dawood, a director at the Pakistan Business Council Dubai, told Arab News via phone from Dubai. 

“Currently, India is going on the top of the countries signing FTAs ... We need to aggressively move on and sign these kinds of agreements.” 

Pakistani experts said the country had a limited list of products to offer the GCC bloc but the government should demand zero or reduced import duties on certain goods from Pakistan.

“We should demand zero or reduced customs duty from GCC for textile and garments, on processed food, rice, leather, sports and surgical goods,” SDPI’s Ahmed said. “In the services sector, we want incorporation fee waiver for example for our IT companies that set up back-end offices in Dubai, Doha, and Bahrain.”

“In return we should be very open about what we can offer them, we would not be in a position to restrict flow of goods coming from there as recently we have done to restrict imports,” he added, referring to recent ban on the import of luxury items to save foreign reserves. “We should be prepared that this would be reciprocal.” 

Flag sales drop as Pakistan celebrates independence amid soaring inflation 

Updated 9 min 14 sec ago

Flag sales drop as Pakistan celebrates independence amid soaring inflation 

  • Flag sellers say increasing prices, rupee depreciation have hurt people’s buying power 
  • National flags, other items being sold despite high prices but at low volumes, say traders 

KARACHI: Each year in August, Pakistan’s national flag sees a boom in sales as the nation celebrates its independence from British colonial India on August 14. However, this time around, traders say flag sales have declined in the face of soaring inflation and torrential rains. 
As Pakistan celebrates its Diamond Jubilee this year, the government’s recent hike in prices of energy products, such as petrol and diesel, has also caused inflation to surge. Pakistan’s Consumer Price Index (CPI) increased to 24.9 percent in July this year, compared to 8.4 percent last year. 
A few days before Independence Day each year, one comes across many stalls in Pakistan’s southern port city of Karachi, selling the country’s national flags and green-and-white themed buntings, bangles and T-shirts. 
Other items that also sell a lot are badges, caps, lockets, stickers, bracelets, headbands and various other decorative items. 

 Women and children buy bangles, hair clips and other accessories from a roadside vendor ahead of Pakistan's Independence Day celebrations on August 13, 2022. (AN Photo/S.A. Babar) 

While the enthusiasm to celebrate Pakistan’s Diamond Jubilee remains the same, sellers say rising inflation has decreased people’s purchasing power while the recent torrential rains across Pakistan have also put a damper on the festivities. 
 “Cost of inputs are increasing, including electricity, petrol and labor charges so the impact is on everything,” Sheikh Nisar Ahmed Perchamwala, CEO of VIP Flags, a manufacturer of national flags, told Arab News. 
He added that the business of selling flags was also not immune to inflation. 

A vendor displays a green hat with the star and crescent on it, at a roadside stall in Karachi on August 13, 2022. (AN Photo/S.A. Babar) 

“Prices of many items have increased by over 20-25 percent when we compare them to last year,” he lamented. “For instance, last year, the flag that was available for Rs 100 is being sold now for Rs 125-150.” 
Independence Day festivities also offer earning opportunities for hundreds of low-wage earners, irrespective of their age and gender, as they set up stalls in markets and on Karachi’s roads to cope with the rising inflationary pressure. 
“For the last 12 years, I have been coming here to sell flags, buntings, badges and other things that are used for Pakistan’s Independence Day celebrations,” Noor Jehan, an 85-year-old vendor at Hassan Ali Effendi Road in Karachi, told Arab News. 

A child gets into the Independence Day festivities by wearing a mask representing Pakistan's national flag at a stall in Karachi on August 13, 2022. (AN Photo/S.A. Babar) 

The octogenarian, who migrated from India at the time of migration in 1947, said rising inflation had compelled her to earn so that she could support her family. 
“In recent years, the prices of essential goods have increased manifold. A 10-kilogram bag of flour was available for Rs 300 in the past,” she said. “Now,flour is being sold for Rs100 per kilogram,” Jehan said. 
She said in the past, the entire household could live off the earnings of a single person in a family. However, nowadays, all members of a household earn yet their combined income isn’t enough to meet rising expenses. 
Another vendor, Muhammad Imran, told Arab News that low trading activities and the recent spell of rains in Karachi disrupted his business this year. 
“We have been setting up a stall from August 1, every year for the last nine years but this year, it was set up on the second week of August due to rains and slow trading activities,” Imran said. 
“Business is moving on now, though sales are not as high as compared to the previous years because [people’s] purchasing power is falling due to high prices,” Imran said. 

Green and white clothes and Pakistan's national flags are the center of attention at a roadside stall in Karachi ahead of the Independence Day celebrations on August 13, 2022. (AN Photo/S.A. Babar) 

He said people are visiting stalls but selecting only a few items necessary for celebrations. 
Shaheer Khan, another vendor, said the rising prices of flags have reduced his turnover as the declining value of the rupee against the US dollar is making things costlier. 
“The price of a flag that was sold last year for Rs 200 has now increased [in selling price] to over Rs 400 because the cost of everything has increased in the market due to the dollar’s appreciation and other factors,” he added. 

 A woman and a child stand nearby a rickshaw, which serves as a makeshift stall for dresses representing Pakistan's national colors, on August 13, 2022. (AN Photo/S.A. Babar)

However, flag manufacturers and sellers acknowledged that though in limited numbers, people are still buying items from their stalls according to their purchasing power to partake in the celebrations. 
“Buying [flags and other items] to celebrate ‘Freedom Day’ is a welcoming gesture, especially from the younger generation, who express their love for the country,” Perchamwala said. 
A buyer at a stall expressed his resolve to keep the spirit of Independence Day alive. 
 “I have bought a flag and a bugle for the August 14 celebrations,” Muhammad Assadullah, a teenager, told Arab News. “We celebrate Independence Day by cutting a cake and expressing our happiness. We will continue to celebrate,” he added. 

PM proposes ‘national dialogue’ to reform Pakistan’s state of affairs 

Updated 55 min 59 sec ago

PM proposes ‘national dialogue’ to reform Pakistan’s state of affairs 

  • PM Shehbaz Sharif warns against ‘internal division’, calls for unity 
  • Starting point for national dialogue can be ‘charter of economy’— Sharif 

ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on Sunday urged all stakeholders in the country to move toward a “national dialogue” to resolve Pakistan’s complex issues, on the occasion of Pakistan’s 76th Independence Day. 

Pakistan is celebrating 75 years of freedom from British rule in the subcontinent. On August 14, 1947, British India was divided into the two states of India and Pakistan. 

The political temperature in Pakistan is on the rise, with former prime minister Imran Khan levelling allegations against Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and the coalition government of being part of a US-backed conspiracy to oust him from power earlier this year. 

“We need to have a national dialogue so that the mistakes of the past can be clearly identified,” Sharif said during a flag hoisting ceremony in Islamabad. “We need to start a sincere struggle to reform [Pakistan’s] state of affairs,” Sharif said. 

He said that starting point for national dialogue can be the “charter of economy.” 

“If we [Pakistan] can become a nuclear power, why can’t we become an economic power,” he asked. 

In his written message earlier, the prime minister said Pakistan’s creation was an outcome of its founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s single-minded devotion, unflinching resolve and unwavering struggle. 

“Nothing is more dangerous for a nation than internal division; disruption and chaos, for such negative forces undermine the solidarity and integrity of the country and rob societies of their national purpose,” he stated. 

“We can push back the divisive and nihilistic forces with the power of the people and protect our freedom and identity. I have my full faith in their capabilities to chart a way forward,” Sharif stated. 

At Mastung school, pine tree and handwritten note keep memory of Pakistani founding father alive 

Updated 5 sec ago

At Mastung school, pine tree and handwritten note keep memory of Pakistani founding father alive 

  • Muhammad Ali Jinnah visited the Government Pilot Secondary School in Mastung in 1945
  • During visit, Jinnah wrote handwritten note. planted sapling that has grown into a huge tree

QUETTA: Students, clad in crisp white shalwar kameez, ambled into classrooms as the school bell rang, passing by a huge pine tree, its sprawling branches casting a shade over the children. Just a few feet away, prominently displayed on a wall in the principal’s office is a framed handwritten note.

Both the tree and the note owe their existence to Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. And both are housed in the Government Pilot Secondary School in Mastung, famous for a visit by Jinnah 76 years ago.

The school was the first in the princely state of Kalat in British colonial India, constructed in 1903 on the orders of Mir Ahmed Yar Khan, the last Khan of Kalat, who also funded it. It was initially a primary school and in 1963 among 20 schools across Pakistan promoted to the status of high school after it started courses in technical skills, welding, car painting and electrical engineering. 

In October 1945, Jinnah, who was then leading a political campaign for a separate homeland for the Indian subcontinent’s Muslims, accepted the Khan’s invitation to visit the school. Inspired by the school’s curriculum and the stellar results of its students, Jinnah wrote his praise for the institution on a piece of paper and planted a tree inside the premises. 

Today, both the note and the tree help the 1,600 students at the school, as well as its staff, keep alive the memory of the visit by the country’s founding father.

“Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s visit increased the popularity of this school when Pakistan emerged as an independent state,” Saleem Sarpara, the school’s principal, told Arab News. “The majority of people in Mastung and nearby cities and villages have enrolled their children in this school.”

Sarpara, who has been supervising the school for the past two years, said Jinnah planted a sapling during his visit to the city, which over the course of seven decades, had blossomed into a full-grown pine tree that gave the school’s current student and alumni a reason to keep remembering the founding father.

Among notable alumni of the school are former Balochistan chief ministers Mir Ghous Buksh Bizenjo and Dr. Abdul Malik Baloch as well as chief secretary Ahmed Buksh Lehri and the University of Gwadar Vice Chancellor, Abdul Razzaq Sabir.

“I remember our principal and other teachers used to share the story of Quaid e Azam’s visit and his speech to a local jirga in Mastung city during our regular classes in order to boost our morale and confidence,” Sabir told Arab News, saying Jinnah’s visit had for decades inspires people to travel from remote villages to study at the Government Pilot Secondary School. 

Hafiz Munir Ahmed, 58, an English and General Science teacher at the school for the past 23 years, said students begin their day under the shade of the tree planted by Jinnah, reciting verses of the holy Qur’an. Senior students often visited the principal’s office to read Jinnah’s note, Munir said, and education department officials also frequently visited the school to review the note.

But though Jinnah’s name is often whispered in the storied halls of the school, it has not been enough to get the school’s maintenance the attention it deserves.

Today, the building is in bad shape. The doors paint a weary and battered look and the walls are covered in chalkings. 

“The school is plagued by several issues, including the shortage of teachers and limited classrooms for students,” Rauf Baloch, the secretary of education in Balochistan, said. “I am aware of the issues pestering the school and staff and students. Their problems will be addressed on a priority.”

The official added that it was a shame that a school that was a heritage site and which had played an important role in the country’s education for over a century now was in a dilapidated state.

And yet, many students still wish to enroll at the school simply because of its connection to Jinnah.

One such student was Fazal ur Rehman, 19, who graduated from the school in 2018 and is now a student at Lasbela Agriculture University, the only boy in his family who completed his matriculation and intermediate qualifications and went on to attend university.

“After passing grade eight, I enrolled myself in the Government Pilot Secondary School,” Rehman said, “because I came to know through friends that Quaid e Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah once visited the school and praised its education system.”

Saudi king, crown prince congratulate Pakistan on Independence Day 

Updated 14 August 2022

Saudi king, crown prince congratulate Pakistan on Independence Day 

  • Saudi leadership wishes “steady progress and prosperity” for Pakistanis 
  • Islamabad, Riyadh enjoy deep-rooted, cordial ties with one another 

ISLAMABAD: Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman congratulated President Arif Alvi on Saturday on the occasion of Pakistan’s 76th Independence Day, the Saudi State News Agency (SPA) said. 
On August 14, 1947, British India was divided into two countries, India and Pakistan. Every year, Pakistanis celebrate their independence from British rule with fanfare and festivities throughout the day. 
Islamabad and Riyadh have always cherished close diplomatic relations and are collaborating in various sectors. 
In their messages, the Saudi leadership wished President Alvi health and happiness and hoped Pakistan’s masses enjoy steady progress and prosperity. 
“The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has sent a cable of congratulation to President Dr. Arif Alvi, President of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, on the anniversary of his country’s Independence Day,” the SPA said. 
In his message, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “wished the President constant good health and happiness and the government and friendly people of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan steady progress and prosperity.” 
Saudi Arabia is home to more than two million Pakistanis and has been the top source of workers’ remittances to the South Asian nation. 

Military says reports of TTP's large presence in northwestern Pakistan ‘grossly exaggerated’ 

Updated 14 August 2022

Military says reports of TTP's large presence in northwestern Pakistan ‘grossly exaggerated’ 

  • Militants will be dealt with full use of force if required, says Pakistan Army 
  • Thousands protested in Swat on Friday over reports of TTP militants’ presence in area 

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s military said on Saturday that reports of a large presence of Pakistani Taliban or the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militants in Pakistan’s northwestern Swat Valley are “exaggerated and misleading.” 

Thousands protested in two main towns of Pakistan’s Swat valley in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on Friday. Protestors took to the streets to denounce violence after reports that said Pakistani militants had increased their presence in the area. 

The TTP have carried out some of the bloodiest attacks inside Pakistan since 2007, including a 2014 assault on a school in which 134 students were killed. The group is not directly affiliated with the Afghan Taliban, but pledges allegiance to them. 

Pakistan military’s media wing, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) said in a statement that a misperception about the alleged presence of a large number of TTP’s armed members has been created on social media over the past couple of days.  

“After confirmation on ground, these reports have been found as grossly exaggerated and misleading,” the ISPR said. “Presence of a small number of armed men on a few mountain tops between Swat and Dir has been observed, located far away from the population,” it added.  

The military said that these individuals “sneaked in” from Afghanistan to resettle in their native areas, adding that security forces are keeping a close watch on their limited presence and movement in mountains.  

“Required measures are in place by all LEAs (law enforcement agencies) for the safety and security of the people of the adjoining areas,” it said.  

“Presence of militants anywhere will not be tolerated and they will be dealt with full use of force if required.” 

Swat Valley used to be a TTP bastion in 2009 before a military operation by Pakistan’s army drove them out, causing thousands of families in the region to be displaced.