Pakistani leader details flood devastation

Prime Minister of Pakistan Shehbaz Sharif speaks during an interview with The Associated Press, at United Nations headquarters, on September 22, 2022. (AP)
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Updated 23 September 2022

Pakistani leader details flood devastation

  • PM Shehbaz Sharif exhorts world leaders to stand together and raise resources after deadly floods
  • Initial estimate of losses to Pakistan's economy as a result of three-month flooding is $30 billion

UNITED NATIONS: Flooding likely worsened by climate change has submerged one-third of Pakistan's territory and left 33 million of its people scrambling to survive, according to Pakistan's prime minister, who says he came to the United Nations this year to tell the world that “tomorrow, this tragedy can fall on some other country.”

In a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press, Shahbaz Sharif exhorted world leaders gathered for their annual meeting at the General Assembly to stand together and raise resources “to build resilient infrastructure, to build adaptation, so that our future generations are saved.”

The initial estimate of losses to the economy as a result of the three-month flooding disaster is $30 billion, Sharif said, and he asked U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Thursday to hold a donors' conference quickly. The U.N. chief agreed, Sharif said.

“Thousands of kilometers of roads have been smashed, washed away — railway bridges, railway track, communications, underpasses, transport. All this requires funds,” Sharif said. “We need funds to provide livelihood to our people."

Sharif, the brother of disgraced former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, took office in April after a week of turmoil in Pakistan. He replaced Imran Khan, a cricket star turned politician who was one of the country's highest-profile leaders of the past generation and retains broad influence. Khan was ousted in a no-confidence vote after 3½ years in office.

While climate change likely increased rainfall by up to 50% late last month in two southern Pakistan provinces, global warming wasn’t the biggest cause of the country’s catastrophic flooding, according to a new scientific analysis. Pakistan’s overall vulnerability, including people living in harm’s way, was the chief factor.

But human-caused climate change "also plays a really important role here,” study senior author Friederike Otto, a climate scientist at Imperial College of London. said earlier this month.

Whatever the case, Sharif said the impact on his country is immense. More than 1,600 people have died, including hundreds of children. Crops on 4 million acres have been washed away. Millions of houses have been damaged or completely destroyed, and life savings have disappeared in the devastating floods triggered by monsoon rains.

Framing Pakistan as a victim of climate change worsened by other nations’ actions, Sharif said Pakistan is responsible for less than 1% of the carbon emissions that cause global warming.

“We are," the prime minister said, “a victim of something we have nothing to do with."

MONEY AND FOOD

Even before the floods began in mid-June, Pakistan was facing serious challenges from grain shortages and skyrocketing crude oil prices sparked mainly by Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine and the war that has followed. Sharif said skyrocketing prices have put the import of oil “beyond our capacity,” and — with the damage and destruction from the massive flooding — solutions have become “extremely difficult.”

Pakistan may have to import about a million tons of wheat because of the destruction of farmland. He said it could come from Russia, but the country is open to other offers. The country also needs fertilizer because factories involved in their production are closed.

Sharif said the country has “a very robust, transparent mechanism already in place” to ensure that all aid items are delivered to people in need. In addition, he said, “I will ensure third-party audit of every penny through international well-reputed companies.”

The Pakistani leader said he met top officials from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank and appealed for a moratorium on loan repayments and deferment of other conditions until the flood situation improves.

“They sounded very supportive,” Sharif said, but he stressed that a delay “can spell huge consequences” — both for the economy and for the Pakistani people.

RELATIONS WITH NEIGHBORS

One dimension of grain purchases taps into one of Pakistan's most existential issues — its relationship with neighboring India.

Would Pakistan consider buying grain from India if needed? Sharif said that notion is impeded by “a legal bottleneck" — Kashmir, the Himalayan territory claimed by both countries but divided between them. It has been at the center of two of the four wars India has fought with Pakistan and China.

“India is a neighbor, and Pakistan would very much like to live like a peaceful neighbor with India,” Sharif said. “But that has certain prerequisites. India has to understand that unless and until the burning issue of Kashmir is resolved through peaceful talks ... like peaceful neighbors, with the sincerity of purpose, we will not be able to live in peace.”

“And that is a great shame and embarrassment," he said. "Because in this day and age, we need our resources to feed our people, to educate them, to provide job opportunities, to provide health opportunities. India can’t afford to spend money on buying ammunition and defense equipment. Nor can Pakistan.”

On the other side of Pakistan, to the west, sits Afghanistan — a place that shares geography, strategic interests and much ethnic heritage with Sharif's nation. Sharif said its Taliban rulers, who have been in power for a year, have “a golden opportunity to ensure peace and progress” for the people by adhering to the Doha Agreement, which the nation's previous, more internationally minded government signed in February 2020 with former U.S. president Donald Trump’s administration.

The Taliban should provide equal opportunities including education through college for girls, job opportunities for women, respect for human rights, and for that Afghan assets should be unfrozen, the prime minister said.

The Doha Agreement called for the United States to withdraw its forces, which current President Joe Biden did in a chaotic pullout as the Taliban were taking over the country in August 2021. The pact stipulated commitments the Taliban were expected to make to prevent terrorism, including obligations to renounce al-Qaida and prevent Afghan soil from being used to plot attacks on the U.S. or its allies as it was before 9/11.

If the Taliban signed the agreement, Sharif said, “they must respect it.”

“This is what law-abiding, peace-loving international community, including myself, expect from them,” he said. “And let’s work together in that direction.”

US-PAKISTANI RELATIONS

Relations between Pakistan and the United States have vacillated between strong and tenuous for more than a generation. After 9/11, the two were allies against extremism even as, many asserted, elements within Pakistan's army and government were encouraging it.

Today, former prime minister Khan's anti-American rhetoric of recent years has fueled anger at the United States in Pakistan and created some setbacks in ties.

In the interview, Sharif said his government wants “good, warm relations” with the United States and wants to work with Biden to “remove any kind of misunderstanding and confusion.”

In careful language that reflected his efforts to balance international and domestic constituencies, he sought to distance himself from Khan's approach — and to reaffirm and restore the kind of ties that he said the people he represents would want.

“What the previous government did, in this behalf, was most uncalled for, was detrimental to Pakistan’s sovereign interests,” Sharif said. “It was definitely not in line with what ordinary Pakistanis would believe and expect.”


New Pakistani finance minister known for propping up rupee in earlier stints

Updated 7 sec ago

New Pakistani finance minister known for propping up rupee in earlier stints

  • Ishaq Dar most famous for strong-arming central bank to liberally inject foreign exchange into market to prop up rupee
  • Pakistan’s foreign reserves currently stand at a level that cover just over a month of imports, making intervention difficult

ISLAMABAD: Ishaq Dar, Pakistan’s new finance minister, has strongly favored intervention in currency markets in three previous stints in the job, but faces a nation in economic crisis this time and the conditions of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) program.

Dar, a seasoned politician and chartered accountant, was sworn in on Wednesday.

The 72-year-old faces the daunting task of stabilising an economy that has for months been in a tailspin facing multiple threats of high inflation, a widening current account deficit and falling reserves — and is now reeling from devastating floods.

Currently a senator, Dar comes with a strong reputation from previous stints as finance minister, most recently from 2013 to 2017.

“Dar is an interventionist,” economist and former Citigroup banker Yousuf Nazar told Reuters. The minister is most famous for strong-arming the central bank to liberally inject foreign exchange into the market to prop up the rupee.

“He would like to see lower interest rates and a stronger rupee,” Nazar said. But he added the current global environment and the running IMF program would not allow Dar to pursue his signature policies.

Pakistan’s foreign reserves currently stand at a level that cover just over a month of imports — which makes intervention difficult.

In addition, under the ongoing IMF program, Pakistan has agreed to a market-based currency exchange regime and earlier this year passed a law that gave the central bank more autonomy and insulated it from government pressure.

Dar’s predecessor, Miftah Ismail, was a proponent of following a painful IMF stabilization program, which included removing fuel and power subsidies, despite the political cost with inflation rising above 27 percent year-on-year and the rupee tumbling to historical lows.

Recently, however, the government said the IMF has indicated it would soften program conditions because of the devastating floods that are estimated to have caused around $30 billion in losses, and will slow growth this year to below 3 percent from an earlier estimate of 5 percent.

Ahead of Dar’s formal appointment, the rupee has risen for the last three sessions this week — either an indication that the market was inflated because of a lack of control or because it was pricing in intervention.

’NO ROOKIE’

“Mr Dar’s main challenge is to stabilize the exchange rate in order to put the genie of massive inflation back in the bottle,” Aqdas Afzal, an economics professor at Karachi’s Habib University, told Reuters, adding the government wanted to use Dar’s previous experience of taming inflation, which it desperately needs ahead of the next elections.

“Dar is no rookie when it comes to handling the economy,” he said.

But Dar’s policies have a lot of critics, who say he ensured the rupee remained over-valued and hurt the balance of trade. It was this policy, critics say, that inflated the current account deficit to record levels of nearly $20 billion in the 2017-18 financial year.

The South Asian nation of 220 million had to return to the IMF for support months later in 2019.

An advantage for Dar is that he enjoys the complete trust of former premier Nawaz Sharif, who is the head of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). Nawaz’s younger brother Shehbaz is currently the prime minister of the country because Nawaz himself is in exile in London.

Dar is also related to the Sharif family by marriage. His son is married to the elder Sharif’s daughter, giving him a seat in the inner-most circle of the party and the freedom to make quick decisions and cut through bureaucratic red tape that bedevils governance in Pakistan.

Managing the economy will not be his only challenge: He returns to Pakistan after five years of self-imposed exile, during which time he has been declared a fugitive by a Pakistani court because of his failure to appear in anti-graft proceedings against him.

Dar says the case is politically motivated.

His arrest warrants were suspended last week by the court, clearing him to travel to Pakistan without fear of arrest until Oct. 7, government prosecutors at the law ministry said. He was almost immediately handed the finance minister’s role following the development.

Dar attended chartered accountant institutes in London and Wales after studying commerce and accounting in the eastern city of Lahore, a hometown he shares with the Sharifs. He entered politics in the 1980s and has multiple stints as a parliamentarian.

He has previously been finance minister in 1998-99, 2008 and 2013-17 — besides holding portfolios of commerce, trade, industry and investment.


UN says disease outbreaks remain ‘growing concern’ in flood-hit Pakistan

Updated 57 min 46 sec ago

UN says disease outbreaks remain ‘growing concern’ in flood-hit Pakistan

  • Deaths from infections, malaria, dengue have caused more than 300 deaths since July in worst-hit province of Sindh
  • Flood-ravaged regions have become infested with diseases including malaria, dengue fever, diarrhea and skin problems

ISLAMABAD: The United Nations has said outbreaks of mosquito-borne and water-borne diseases in flooded Pakistan were a “growing concern,” as deaths from infections, malaria and dengue fever have caused more than 300 deaths since July in the worst-hit province of Sindh, according to health officials.

The death toll from the deluge itself has reached 1,663, including 614 children and 333 women, a figure that does not include deaths from fast-spreading diseases, according to data from the National Disaster Management Authority.

“Outbreaks of vector-borne and water-borne diseases are a growing concern in Sindh and Balochistan provinces, where many districts remain inundated by floodwaters,” Stephane Dujarric, a spokesperson for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said on Tuesday.

He said floods had damaged nearly 1,500 health facilities across the country, including more than 300 refrigerators and solar power systems, which was disrupting vaccine cold chains.

“Assessments are continuing, but an estimated 7.9 million people remain displaced by the catastrophic floods.  Nearly 600,000 people are living in relief camps, and more than 7,000 schools across Pakistan are being used as temporary relief camps,” the spokesperson said, adding that the UN and its humanitarian partners were continuing to scale up response and had reached more than 1.6 million people impacted by the floods.

“Nearly 600,000 people are living in relief camps, and more than 7,000 schools across Pakistan are being used as temporary relief camps … More than two million houses have been damaged by the heavy rains and floods. More than 25,000 schools and 13,000 km of roads have also reportedly been damaged.”

Record monsoon rains in south and southwest Pakistan and glacial melt in northern areas triggered the flooding that has affected nearly 33 million people in the South Asian nation of 220 million, sweeping away homes, crops, bridges, roads and livestock and causing an estimated $30 billion of damage.

Hundreds of thousands of displaced people are in dire need of food, shelter, clean drinking water, toilets and medicines. Many have been sleeping in the open by the side of elevated highways.

The economic losses from the flooding will slash the country’s GDP growth to around 3 percent from the estimated target of 5 percent set out in the budget when it had narrowly escaped defaulting on its debt in a balance of payment crisis.

Pakistan was already reeling from economic blows when the floods hit, with its foreign reserves falling as low as one month’s worth of imports and its current account deficit widening.


PM Sharif, army chief congratulate Saudi crown prince on becoming prime minister

Updated 28 September 2022

PM Sharif, army chief congratulate Saudi crown prince on becoming prime minister

  • Saudi King Salman ordered the cabinet reshuffle on Tuesday
  • King’s son Khalid bin Salman becomes defense minister

ISLAMABAD: Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa on Wednesday congratulated Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on becoming the kingdom’s prime minister.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz announced the cabinet reshuffle that also saw his second son Prince Khalid as defense minister, and another son, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, as energy minister, a royal decree, carried by state news agency SPA, said on Tuesday.

“I congratulate my brother Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman,” Sharif said, praying for Saudi Arabia’s continued progress and prosperity.

The Pakistani army chief also shared his congrats with the crown prince, saying Pakistan valued its “historic and brotherly” relations with Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan and Investment Minister Khalid Al-Falih remained unchanged, the decree showed.

The crown prince had previously been the defense minister of Saudi Arabia. Prince Khalid bin Salman, his younger brother, previously served as deputy defense minister.

King Salman will still preside the cabinet meetings that he attends, the decree said.

The 86-year-old king, the custodian of Islam’s holiest sites, became ruler in 2015 after spending more than 2-1/2 years as the crown prince. He has been hospitalized several times over the last two years.

Prince Mohammed has changed Saudi Arabia radically since 2017, leading efforts to diversify the economy from dependence on oil, allowed women to drive and curbed the clerics’ power over society.


Blinken defends Pakistan arms sales against Indian criticism

Updated 28 September 2022

Blinken defends Pakistan arms sales against Indian criticism

  • Top US diplomat defends $450 million F-16 deal for Pakistan approved in September, says package for maintenance of existing fleet
  • Pakistan’s military relies heavily on US equipment but the relationship soured during the two-decade-long US war in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday defended military sales to Pakistan after withering criticism from growing US partner India, which considers itself the target of Islamabad’s F-16 planes.

Blinken met in the US capital with India’s foreign minister a day after separate talks with his counterpart from Pakistan.

The US-Pakistan alliance, born out of the Cold War, has frayed over Islamabad’s relationship with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

The top US diplomat defended a $450 million F-16 deal for Pakistan approved earlier in September, saying the package was for maintenance of Pakistan’s existing fleet.

“These are not new planes, new systems, new weapons. It’s sustaining what they have,” Blinken told a news conference with his Indian counterpart, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.

“Pakistan’s program bolsters its capability to deal with terrorist threats emanating from Pakistan or from the region. It’s in no one’s interests that those threats be able to go forward with impunity,” Blinken said.

Jaishankar did not criticize Blinken in public. But on Sunday, speaking at a reception for the Indian community in the United States, Jaishankar said of the US position, “You’re not fooling anybody.”

“For someone to say, I’m doing this because it’s for counter-terrorism, when you’re talking of an aircraft like the capability of the F-16, everybody knows where they are deployed,” he said, referring to the fleet’s positioning against India.

“Very honestly, it’s a relationship that has neither ended up serving Pakistan well nor serving American interests well,” he said.

Pakistan’s military relies on US equipment but the relationship soured during the two-decade US war in Afghanistan, with Washington believing that elements in Islamabad never severed support for the Taliban, who seized back power last year.

India historically has bought military equipment from Moscow and has pressed the United States to waive sanctions required under a 2017 law for any nation that buys “significant” military hardware from Russia.

Speaking next to Blinken, Jaishankar noted that India has in recent years also made major purchases from the United States, France and Israel.

India assesses quality and purchase terms and “we exercise a choice which we believe is in our national interest,” he said, rejecting any change due to “geopolitical tensions.”

The United States since the late 1990s has made warm relations with India a top goal, seeing common cause between the world’s two largest democracies on issues from China’s rise to the threat of Islamist extremism.

The United States has largely turned a blind eye to India’s continued relationship with Russia since the Ukraine invasion but was pleased when Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently told President Vladimir Putin that it was “not a time for war.”

Jaishankar indicated that India was working behind the scenes, saying it had “weighed in” with Russia during UN- and Turkish-led negotiations that opened up grain shipments from the blockaded Black Sea.

India “is widening its international footprint,” Jaishankar said.

“There are many more regions where we will be intersecting with American interests. It is to our mutual benefit that this be a complementary process,” Jaishankar said.

But once rock-solid support for India in the US Congress has seen gaps amid concern over rights under Modi, a Hindu nationalist whose government has been accused of marginalizing Muslims and other religious minorities and pressuring activists through legal action and financial scrutiny.

Blinken addressed the issue delicately, saying the two nations should commit to “core values including respect for universal human rights, like freedom of religion and belief and freedom of expression, which makes our democracies stronger.”

Jaishankar responded indirectly that both nations were committed to democracy but “from their history, tradition and societal context.”

“India does not believe that the efficacy or indeed the quality of democracy should be decided by vote banks,” he said.


Dar takes oath as minister today before becoming new Pakistan finance chief

Updated 28 September 2022

Dar takes oath as minister today before becoming new Pakistan finance chief

  • Dar on Tuesday took oath as senator, a day after returning from self-imposed exile in London
  • Dubbed Daronomics, his approach kept rupee stable between Rs98 and Rs105 against greenback in last tenure

ISLAMABAD: Ruling party Senator Ishaq Dar took oath as a federal minister today, Wednesday, paving the way to becoming the finance minister of Pakistan five years after he was ousted from the role by a court in a corruption case.

President Dr Arif Alvi administered the oath to Dar at the Presidency at 10am.

Dar on Tuesday took oath as a senator, a day after he had landed in Pakistan from London where he has lived in self-imposed exile for five years.

Dar is a member of PM Shehbaz Sharif’s ruling PMLN party and has already been finance minister four times. Dubbed Daronomics, his approach kept the rupee stable between Rs98 and Rs105 against the greenback during his last stint in office from 2013-2017 but he was also widely criticized for deliberately undervaluing the rupee by pumping dollars in the market.

“The arrival of Dar has changed the sentiments in the currency market and many people think that he would take punitive actions against the speculators,” Zafar Paracha, General Secretary of the Exchange Companies Association of Pakistan (ECAP), told Arab News on Tuesday as the rupee recouped Rs5.74 or 2.3 percent during the last two consecutive trading sessions following the nomination of Dar, known to favor a strong currency, as finance minister.

Pakistan’s currency has lost its value by 6.48 percent during the current month and has depreciated by 24.54 percent since January this year as demand for imports exerted pressure on the rupee.

A Pakistani anti-corruption court declared Dar an absconder after the veteran politician, who is a close aide to three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, failed to turn up for several court hearings in 2017.

Dar, who has pleaded not guilty to charges he amassed wealth beyond known sources of income, said he was receiving medical treatment in London and unable to return to Pakistan.

The charges against Dar followed an investigation into the finances of former PM Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted in July 2017 after the Supreme Court disqualified him for not declaring a small salary from his son’s off-shore company.

Both Dar and Nawaz say the cases against them are politically motivated.

During his stint as finance minister from 2013-2017, Dar was initially lauded for steering Pakistan out of a balance of payments crisis in 2013 and returning the nuclear-armed country toward a higher growth trajectory.

But by 2017 when he stepped down as finance minister after Pakistan’s Supreme Court disqualified him from office, Dar faced widespread criticism for his refusal to allow the rupee to weaken to ease macroeconomic pressures. He was also accused of eroding the central bank’s independence.