Politicization of overseas Pakistanis: From spectators to participants


Politicization of overseas Pakistanis: From spectators to participants

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The scenes of protests by the Pakistani-British diaspora in front of the Sharif family-owned Avenfield House have become a routine occurrence and often leads to counter protests by Sharif-supporters in front of the residence of Jemima Goldsmith, ex-wife of Imran Khan, Pakistan’s former Prime Minister. This political mobilization has put overseas Pakistanis into the spotlight, highlighting their increased politicization.

Within South Asia, Pakistan remains an important exporter of manpower to various parts of the world. In various waves, Pakistanis have migrated to geographies ranging from the Arab Gulf States, European Union States, United Kingdom, and United States. Approximately 9 million Pakistanis live abroad, with a majority of this diaspora concentrated in the Arab Gulf States. 

It is noteworthy to mention that Overseas Pakistanis settled in the US, UK and Europe have over time become naturalized citizens of their respective host states unlike the ones working in Gulf States. The integration levels of these migrants, however, differ from place to place. In case of the UK, this level remains the highest and today the mayor of London is a person of Pakistani descent. However, within Europe only Pakistanis in Norway and Denmark have been able to enter the parliaments of these states. Similarly, in the case of the United States where the Pakistani physicians community has made a name for itself, no Pakistani-American has ever been elected to the US Congress. Within the Gulf States, although Pakistanis remain part and parcel of local communities, they cannot influence local politics in any major way. 

It would not be wrong to argue that in addition to their familial ties, these expats remain linked to Pakistan and its economy through their remittances. In the fiscal year of 2021-2022, overseas Pakistanis sent around $30 billion in remittances. It is interesting to note that the total exports of Pakistan in the same fiscal year stood at $31.8 billion. This shows that the remittances sent by Pakistani expats account for nearly half of the country’s foreign revenue and plays a critical part in keeping its economy afloat. 

Overseas Pakistanis are not only raising their voices regarding political developments, but are also lobbying and engaging with the political infrastructure of their home states to exact change within Pakistan. 

Umar Karim

In general, the political connectivity of these overseas Pakistani communities with Pakistan remained limited to hosting Pakistani politicians during their foreign trips and opening rather symbolic foreign chapters of different political outfits from Pakistan. Such political activism was also limited to more affluent sections of the Pakistani diaspora and most Pakistanis working abroad, while keenly interested in Pakistani politics, in practice remained apolitical. The only exception to this trend was the politics within the state of Jammu and Kashmir, where overseas Pakistanis (mainly those settled in the UK) showed a relatively higher degree of political involvement. 

This state of affairs changed as the Imran Khan led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party rose to prominence in Pakistani politics. Since Khan was a new force in politics, one pushing for political change and not tainted by allegations of financial corruption and misconduct, he managed to grab the attention of overseas Pakistanis who had become tired of traditional politics in the country. For them, this was a unique opportunity to change the political and governance culture within Pakistan and to remit back the political values and norms they had experienced in their overseas homes.

Overseas Pakistanis became a key plank of financial support for PTI and the networks that Khan had established during his time as a charity campaigner now became key funding avenues for his party’s political activities and mobilization. 

However, this active involvement of overseas Pakistanis in the Pakistani political fold was not welcomed by everyone. On one hand, the PTI government passed legislation giving overseas Pakistanis the right to vote, while PTI’s opponents constituting the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) once back in power, were quick to annul it. Moreover, the current ruling coalition accused PTI of taking illegal funding from foreign nationals and companies.

These developments have made it clear to overseas Pakistanis that their dream of getting the right to vote and being accepted as full citizens of the country may only be realized with Khan’s return to power. This has further politicized the Pakistani diaspora worldwide. This new dynamic was witnessed when alongside Pakistan, protests erupted across the globe against the ouster of Khan.

Furthermore, these overseas Pakistanis are not only raising their voices regarding political developments within Pakistan, but are also lobbying and engaging with the political infrastructure of their home states to exact change within Pakistan. 

The exhibition of this political performativity by overseas Pakistanis echoes a fundamental change in their political agency. They are no longer mere spectators but participants in Pakistani politics and in the future may evolve into a strong pressure group. Such an occurrence will alter the nature of the social contract between Pakistan’s government and the country’s institutions with these diaspora communities. 

- Umar Karim is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s strategic outlook, the Saudi-Iran tussle, conflict in Syria, and the geopolitics of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. Twitter: @UmarKarim89

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