PM hopes Makkah Route Initiative will be expanded to Pakistani cities beyond capital

Saudi Deputy Interior Minister Dr. Nasser bin Abdul Aziz Al-Dawood and Pakistan's Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah exchanging documents after signing the Memorandum of Understanding regarding the Road to Makkah project in Islamabad on May 17, 2023. (PID)
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Updated 19 May 2023

PM hopes Makkah Route Initiative will be expanded to Pakistani cities beyond capital

  • The initiative allows Hajj pilgrims to undergo immigration process in their home country before leaving for Saudi Arabia
  • It was formally launched at the Islamabad airport where to help facilitate more than 26,000 pilgrims this Hajj season

ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said on Friday he was optimistic that Saudi Arabia’s Makkah Route Initiative, which was recently launched in the federal capital to facilitate over 26,000 Pakistani pilgrims, would also be expanded to other cities next year.
The statement comes a day after Pakistan’s religious affairs minister Senator Talha Mahmood and Saudi ambassador Nawaf bin Said-Al Malki formally launched the project at the Islamabad International Airport.
The Makkah Route Initiative is part of Saudi Arabia’s Guests of God Service Program, which King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud inaugurated in 2019 under Vision 2030 to diversify the kingdom’s economy. Under the scheme, Hajj pilgrims go through immigration process at the airports of their own countries before departing for Saudi Arabia.
“Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on Friday briefed the members of his cabinet on the details of the Road to Makkah agreement signed with Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, which will benefit a large number of Pakistani pilgrims,” said a statement released by the PM Office.
“The prime minister has expressed the hope that after its launch at the Islamabad airport yesterday, this facility, with the support of the Saudi government, will also be provided to pilgrims going to the kingdom from Lahore and Karachi next year.”
Following the launch of the initiative, Pakistan’s religious affairs minister said the immigration of pilgrims would take place in their own country, adding they would be able to exit Saudi airports upon arrival without having to go through the same process again.
Mahmood added the Saudi deputy interior minister, Dr. Nasser Al-Dawood, who visited Pakistan this week to sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with officials in Islamabad, had promised to extend the Makkah Route Initiative to at least two to three more Pakistani cities.
“These include Lahore, Karachi, and Peshawar airports as they [Saudis] need time since a lot of preparation, including equipment and staff, is required for each airport,” he explained.
Mahmood also said the first Hajj flight would depart from Pakistan’s southern port city of Karachi at 4:50 pm on May 21 and land in Madinah.

Amid mounting economic challenges, Pakistan’s PM seeks export-oriented budget for next fiscal year

Updated 02 June 2023

Amid mounting economic challenges, Pakistan’s PM seeks export-oriented budget for next fiscal year

  • Pakistan recently experienced a decline in exports after commercial banks stopped opening LCs due to dollar crunch
  • The prime minister also wants special focus on the development of the country’s information technology sector

ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif issued instructions on Friday to increase the country’s exports during the next fiscal year while chairing a meeting to evaluate proposals related to the Public Sector Development Program (PSDP) ahead of the upcoming budget.

Pakistan has recently experienced a decline in exports after commercial banks refused to open letters of credit (LCs) due to a dollar liquidity crunch triggered by a massive financial crisis in the country.

Additionally, the government also limited imports due to rapidly declining forex reserves and a depreciating rupee, reducing the overall production potential of the industrial sector and further exacerbated the economic slowdown in Pakistan.

“The prime minister issued clear instructions to provide alternatives to domestic imports, increase exports and give priority to innovation projects of various sectors in the development projects of the Budget 2023-24,” said a statement issued by his office after the meeting.

During the gathering, participants were also informed about the progress of ongoing projects under the PSDP.

The prime minister emphasized that agriculture, renewable energy, higher education for youth, vocational training, and employment projects should remain central to the development budget.

It was also agreed that projects related to the development of the information technology sector would play a significant role in the country’s economic planning for the next fiscal year.

Pakistan has witnessed the highest inflation rate of about 38 percent in recent weeks. Its finance minister is scheduled to announce the federal budget amid mounting economic challenges on June 9.

Pakistan to send additional Hajj assistants to Madinah to facilitate pilgrims — ministry

Updated 02 June 2023

Pakistan to send additional Hajj assistants to Madinah to facilitate pilgrims — ministry

  • Religious affairs ministry says any of its staff members who is not performing duties will be sent back to Pakistan
  • The ministry directs all officials to stay close to the pilgrims and go out of their way to resolve outstanding issues

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s religious affairs ministry has decided to send additional Hajj assistants to the holy city of Madinah to deal with the problems of pilgrims and facilitate them throughout their spiritual journey, said an official statement released on Friday.

The Saudi authorities reinstated Pakistan’s pre-pandemic Hajj quota of 179,210 pilgrims and scrapped the upper age limit of 65 in January. About 80,000 Pakistani pilgrims are expected to perform the annual Islamic pilgrimage under the official scheme while the rest will be facilitated by private tour operators.

The religious affairs ministry, which has been overseeing Hajj-related arrangements, held a meeting on Thursday to evaluate the performance of different departments helping the pilgrims.

“During the meeting, the performance of all departments involved in Hajj operations was discussed, while the problems faced by the pilgrims were carefully reviewed,” the statement said.

“It was decided that more experienced Hajj assistants should be sent from Makkah to Madinah to facilitate the pilgrims arriving there from Pakistan.”

The statement added the religious affairs minister had written a detailed letter to the director-general of Hajj in Saudi Arabia, informing him of the decisions made during the meeting.

The ministry also issued instructions to all the officials to stay close to the pilgrims and go out of their way while addressing their problems.

“On the other hand, a warning has been issued to assistants and the ministry staff, who are not showing interest in performing their duties, that they will be asked to immediately return to Pakistan,” the statement added.

Hajj is an obligatory religious ritual for adult Muslims who are physically and financially capable of carrying it out. It involves visiting the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah at least once in a lifetime to perform the annual Muslim pilgrimage that takes place in Dhu Al-Hijjah, the last month of the lunar Islamic calendar.

Pakistani rights activist Jibran Nasir returns home after ‘abduction’ by armed men in Karachi

Updated 02 June 2023

Pakistani rights activist Jibran Nasir returns home after ‘abduction’ by armed men in Karachi

  • Nasir became increasingly critical of Pakistan’s powerful army after it announced to try civilians under military law
  • His wife says he was forcibly taken away by over a dozen armed individuals from a road leading to their residence

KARACHI/ISLAMABAD: Family of a prominent Pakistani human rights activist, Jibran Nasir, confirmed his safe return to his family on Friday after he was forcibly taken away by over a dozen unidentified men in southern Karachi city a day before.

Nasir, a well-known lawyer, has a reputation for criticizing Pakistan’s leading political parties, rightwing religious factions, and the country’s powerful military. He contested the 2013 and 2018 general elections as an independent candidate but only managed to secure a few hundred votes each time.

He became increasingly critical of the army on social media after it announced to try the supporters of former prime minister Imran Khan under military laws for attacking its installations and torching government buildings on May 9.

Nasir’s wife, actress Mansha Pasha, said on Thursday her husband was “picked up” by about 15 men, dressed in plain clothes, from a road leading to their residence after their car was intercepted by a white Vigo vehicle.

“Jibran Nasir has returned home,” Talha Rehman, his cousin, told Arab News without divulging further details. “Currently, he is with his family and will contact the media on his own.”

Earlier in day, Nasir’s family and friends held a demonstration in the city, seeking his immediate release and requesting the government to find the culprits behind his disappearance.

“We are here at the Karachi Press Club today demanding his release, demanding the government to find the culprits, whoever they may be, we do not know who these people are, we would like clarity on that, we would like clarity on where his whereabouts are,” his cousin said.

Dozens of people joined Nasir’s family and gathered outside the press club to protest his disappearance.

“If he has committed a crime, is there a charge,” Rehman asked. “When do they plan to charge him? Is there a maleficent group, a gang, or a mafia behind it? The police should come into action and help us.”

He added Nasir’s family and supporters were looking toward the police, the provincial authorities, the federal government, and different state institutions to secure his release.

Nasir’s wife also reiterated that her husband was forcibly taken by unidentified armed men against his will and her appeals while speaking to Arab News on phone.

“I would like to send this message out to [everyone] to demand his release,” she said.

Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party sought Nasir’s release, saying his “abduction” was against the country’s constitution.

“Law of the jungle must not prevail in Pakistan,” PTI’s official Twitter account wrote in a post.

Feminist rights movement, Aurat March, also called for Nasir’s release, condemning the incident.

“We strongly condemn his abduction (which is a clear violation of citizen rights) & urge the govt & LEAs [law enforcement agencies] to ensure his immediate + unconditional safe release,” it announced on the social media platform.

As a rights activist, Nasir raised alarm over the crackdown against PTI and incarceration of its leaders and supporters, which resulted in several of Khan’s aides leaving the party and distancing themselves from him since May 9.

The government denied reports it was illegally abducting dissenters while maintaining only those who partook in violence and vandalism on May 9 were dealt with under the law.

The continuing political turmoil has exacerbated Pakistan’s economic crisis, with inflation at record highs and fears of default looming large, as the South Asian country has so far failed to revive a stalled $6.5 billion loan program signed with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Despite crackdown, Pakistan’s former PM Imran Khan’s popularity, vote bank intact — analysts

Updated 02 June 2023

Despite crackdown, Pakistan’s former PM Imran Khan’s popularity, vote bank intact — analysts

  • Experts say Khan’s vote bank is still intact despite recent crackdown on party workers, exodus of leaders
  • They say Khan should review anti-establishment policy to galvanize public support, win upcoming elections

ISLAMABAD: Former prime minister Imran Khan still enjoys wide public support, especially in the country’s populous Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces, despite a massive crackdown against his supporters and defections of his senior party leaders since the violent protests of May 9.

About a hundred senior party leaders, including Khan’s close aides and former cabinet ministers, announced to quit the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party while condemning the May 9 protests that spread across the country following the ex-premier’s arrest from the Islamabad High Court in a graft case.

Security forces sprang into action against “arsonists and rioters” after protesters carrying the PTI flags stormed and vandalized public buildings and military installations, including the official residence of a top general and the army headquarters in Rawalpindi. Hundreds of Khan’s supporters and senior party leaders were rounded up on charges of inciting violence. Many of them later announced to quit the party and some even said they were going to take a break from politics.

Despite the current hardships of Khan and his party, political analysts said the ex-premier was still “among the most popular leaders” in the country, thought he needed to review his policies to win the next election.

“At the moment, Khan has a direct confrontation with the establishment and no political leader, irrespective of his popularity, can form a government in Pakistan without the establishment,” Sohail Warraich, a senior journalist and political analyst, told Arab News on Friday.

The establishment is a euphemism for the country’s powerful military in Pakistan. Historically, the army has ruled the country for more than half of its 76-year existence and continues to wield considerable power in the matters related to its security and foreign affairs.

The general elections in Pakistan are scheduled to be held in October after the expiry of the five-year term of the national and provincial legislative bodies.

“The electable are leaving the party and many more will quit,” he continued. “But Khan’s vote bank is still intact.”

Warraich said the ex-premier should “review his anti-establishment policy” to galvanize the public in his favor to secure a victory in the upcoming elections.

Since his ouster from power in April last year in a parliamentary no-confidence vote, Khan has been striving to make a political comeback by riding the wave of popularity. Pakistan is a parliamentary democracy where political parties field candidates in constituencies to win a majority to form the government.

Asked about the crackdown against Khan’s party, Zebunnisa Burki, a political analyst, said the recent developments seemed to be an attempt to make the former prime minister irrelevant.

“Apparently, the whole move appears to be suggesting a minus Imran Khan in the upcoming elections,” she said, adding the “powerful circles” in Pakistan seemed to be dismantling PTI into different factions to divide Khan’s public support.

She maintained if the PTI got divided into different groups before the elections, the future of Khan-led party would be bleak since “the electable still enjoy a significant support in their constituencies even without Imran Khan.”

“The PTI defectors may also form a forward bloc to win over the party supporters, but then again the voter still remains loyal to Khan only,” she continued. “There seems to be interesting times ahead in Pakistani politics, but it will be extremely difficult to take Khan out of it.”

PTI leaders and loyalists describe the prevailing circumstances as a “temporary” phase in their party’s history, saying they will not make much difference to their support base.

“The party is still intact, and these defections won’t make any difference to Imran Khan’s popularity,” Sayed Zulfi Bukhari, the ex-premier’s close aide, told Arab News. “This is all very temporary.”

However, Bukhari acknowledged the crackdown was aimed at dismantling the party, though he added these attempts would not succeed as long as the people were supporting Khan.

“Khan still enjoys overwhelming public support across Pakistan and it is even more than before as every arrest is making PTI stronger and resilient,” he said.

Bukhari predicted “70 percent” turnout in the upcoming elections since people were angry to see what was happening to the former prime minister and would do everything to bring him back to power.

“Imran Khan is a symbol of hope for majority of Pakistanis since they believe only he can steer the country out of the current political and economic mess,” he said.

The political parties in Pakistan have suffered defections and desertions in the past when their leaders fell apart from the military establishment, but they still remained part of parliamentary politics with varying strength.

“All surveys and polls suggest one thing: Imran Khan is the most popular leader in Pakistan, especially in Punjab and KP provinces, and his PTI party would sweep the upcoming polls,” Habib Akram, a senior journalist and political commentator, told Arab News.

He said there was no future of any forward bloc or electable without Khan, adding the recent by-elections in the country had “clearly demonstrated that people’s vote is only for Khan.”

“In this age of digital and social media, importance of political parties has increased manifold as people prefer parties over electable while voting,” he said. “As long as Imran Khan is alive and doing active politics, people will vote for him.”

Direct Hajj flights from Pakistan to Makkah to commence from June 5

Updated 02 June 2023

Direct Hajj flights from Pakistan to Makkah to commence from June 5

  • Pakistan has so far only transported pilgrims performing Hajj under the official scheme to Madinah
  • People traveling straight to Makkah will have an eight-day stay in Madinah after finishing their Hajj

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan is prepared to initiate direct Hajj flights to the holy city of Makkah from Monday, confirmed an official statement released by the religious affairs ministry this week.

The government started transporting pilgrims to Saudi Arabia under the official Hajj scheme on May 21. However, these flights from the country have only landed in Madinah so far.

Many of the Pakistani pilgrims in the kingdom have also started moving to Makkah, as the annual Islamic pilgrimage draws closer.

“The first direct flights from Pakistan to Jeddah Airport are scheduled to begin on June 5,” the ministry said in a recent statement.

According to the state-owned Associated Press of Pakistan (APP) news agency, the flights to Makkah will be operated from 10 cities in the country, including Rahim Yar Khan and Sukkur.

The pilgrims, who will directly travel to Makkah, will have an eight-day stay in Madinah after finishing Hajj.

Pakistan will launch the post-hajj flight operation to bring back its nationals from Saudi Arabia on July 4.

The kingdom restored Pakistan’s pre-pandemic Hajj quota of 179,210 pilgrims in January and removed the upper age limit of 65.

The country plans to send 80,000 people to perform pilgrimage under the government scheme while the rest of them will be facilitated by private tour operators.