Award-winning Pakistani filmmaker hails Saudi Arabia for revolutionizing cinema

The picture taken on May 9, 2023, shows Pakistani filmmaker Ahsan Minhas (right) at the 9th Saudi Film Festival in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Photo courtesy: Ahsan Minhas)
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Updated 04 June 2023

Award-winning Pakistani filmmaker hails Saudi Arabia for revolutionizing cinema

  • Ahsan Minhas's Arabic short-film 'Sukoon: Addiction of Silence' was screened at the Saudi Film Festival last month
  • Pakistani filmmakers can pitch ideas as Saudi film industry is accepting people experimenting with films, he says

ISLAMABAD: For many aspiring filmmakers like Pakistan’s Ahsan Minhas, Saudi Arabia’s expansion into cinema was a distant thought until a few years ago. But in 2018, he witnessed the renaissance begin in the Kingdom with the screening of Hollywood flick ‘Black Panther,’ a first in over 35 years that relaunched the local market for films.  

The move to reopen cinemas in the Kingdom was part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030, an ambitious plan to diversify the Saudi economy, outside of its core business of oil production, for economic growth and national development through more entertainment options.  

Minhas, whose Arabic short film ‘Sukoon: Addiction of Silence’ was screened at the Saudi Film Festival last month, says he is a witness to the “revolution” in the Kingdom.  

“I have seen this country (Saudi Arabia) being more closed in to now suddenly opening up to such scale as per its Vision 2030 which is the pride of this country,” he told Arab News over the phone this week.  

“They have not been just investing in foreign projects, but they are taking themselves to a whole new level.” 

Minhas has been living in the Kingdom with his family since he was eight years old. The 29-year-old, New York Film Academy qualified, wrote, produced and co-directed Sukoon with a Syrian filmmaker, Marwan Bakri.  

The 32-minute fiction-drama, backed by a Riyadh-based production house Manthour Productions, revolves around a couple that experiences “all the doubts and heartbreak that exist, bringing in a violent, tragic and imaginary incident,” according to the synopsis of the short-film.  

The film has won several awards for its story and screenplay at the Independent Short Awards and the Anatolian Awards in the United States and Turkiye, respectively. The short-film is also an official selection of the Hollywood Boulevard Film Festival in Los Angeles, slated for November this year.  

Bakri, who co-directed Sukoon, shared that he focused on Hollywood-style filming to give the audience the change they were looking for.  

“This film opened our eyes in the industry, how it works and what the future is about,” he told Arab News.  

The Syrian filmmaker said working with people from different backgrounds added “creative depth” to the film and their collaboration with Minhas encouraged them to look forward to talent from Pakistan.  

Asked about his plans for the screening of Sukoon in Pakistan, Minhas said he was “dreaming” of a platform where he could show his work to his home audience and hoping for the Pakistani film industry to be more “adaptive” toward the filmmakers’ vision.  

“The art of filmmaking is not clearly accessible [in Pakistan],” he lamented. “I want to be able to know about the kind of a platform [like Red Sea and Ithra] where film festivals happen in Pakistan but it’s a dream right now.”  

Minhas is currently working on a dark comedy both in English and Urdu languages, and intends to submit it for the Red Sea International Film Festival this year. His upcoming venture narrates the story of a Pakistani girl in Riyadh who goes through a midlife crisis.  

“I’m planning a short film right now which is my passion project and will be submitting for Red Sea 2023,” he maintained. “Though the film is still on my laptop and I’m working on the music sequences now.”  

About finding his way into the Saudi film industry being a non-native, the award-winning director said the industry was “accepting people who like to experiment with films,” with support from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund and its Neom initiative.  

The Neom project offers funding to attract filmmakers to promote the domestic movie industry in the Kingdom. Its latest offerings included Johnny Depp’s ‘Jeanne du Barry’ and five other movies that made it to the latest edition of the Cannes Film Festival.  

“The Saudi film industry is inching toward a balanced mix which is bringing people together, creating a diverse and inclusive space,” Minhas said.  

He said Pakistani filmmakers could come up with ideas and pitch them under the Red Sea Labs program, which aims to help filmmakers, writers and industry professionals realize their vision and projects from “inception to production.” 

Pakistan open to welcoming Mohammad Amir to World Cup squad — chief selector

Updated 22 September 2023

Pakistan open to welcoming Mohammad Amir to World Cup squad — chief selector

  • Fast bowler retired from international cricket in 2020 citing discrimination, ‘mental torture’
  • Chief selector says if Amir to be considered for World Cup is willing to play domestic cricket

ISLAMABAD: Chief selector Inzamam-ul-Haq said on Friday Pakistan was ‘open’ to the possibility of welcoming former fast bowler Mohammad Amir back into the squad ahead of the World Cup if he consistently performed well in domestic competitions.
Amir announced his retirement from international cricket at the age of 28 in December 2020, claiming he could no longer play in an atmosphere where he did not feel welcome in the national team.
Amir, who was jailed in 2011 for his part in a spot-fixing scandal, served three months in prison and a five-year ban from all forms of cricket before returning to the Pakistan squad in January 2016.
The left-arm bowler excelled in limited-overs cricket after that, helping Pakistan to the Champions Trophy title in 2017, but was dropped from the squad to tour New Zealand in 2020.
Questioned about the chance of Amir returning to the squad for the upcoming cricket World Cup starting next month in India, the chief selector said “the doors are open for everyone, including Amir.”
“Aamir is a great cricketer and he had decided to retire,” the official said.
“If he wants to play for Pakistan, the doors are open for everyone. If he comes back and plays first-class cricket and performs well, he will definitely be considered … I have said this before, neither the PCB (Pakistan Cricket Board) nor the selection committee closes the door [of opportunity] for anyone.”

In an interview with a local news channel when he retired, Amir said he had been “mentally tortured by the team management, subjected to frequent taunts, and felt deliberately sidelined.” 
Asked if he was leaving the sport altogether he said: “No, I’m not going away from cricket. If you have seen the atmosphere here and the way I’ve been sidelined, I got a wake-up call when I was not selected in the 35-man squad,” Amir had told Samaa TV.
“I don’t think I can play cricket under this management. I think I should leave cricket this time. I am being tortured mentally. I don’t think I can tolerate any more torture now.
“I’ve experienced a lot of torture from 2010 to 2015. I was away from the game and sentenced for my mistake. I’m being tortured again and again...”
Amir, who has 259 wickets across all formats, had retired from test cricket in 2019 to focus on the white-ball game.
He was the pick of the Pakistan bowlers in the 2019 50-overs World Cup in England with 17 wickets as they missed out on a semifinal spot.

248% surge in US visa applications from Pakistan between 2021-2022 — Gallup

Updated 22 September 2023

248% surge in US visa applications from Pakistan between 2021-2022 — Gallup

  • ‘Overwhelming increase’ in 2022 could be attributable to lifting of coronavirus travel restrictions
  • US consulate said this week it had expedited visa application process amid ‘unprecedented’ demand

ISLAMABAD: Gallup Pakistan said in a report published this week visa applications from Pakistan for the United States increased by 248 percent percent between 2021 and 2022, likely owed to the lifting of travel restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic.
The analysis draws data from the United States Department of State and covers a substantial timeframe, starting from 1998 and extending up to 2022. A primary focus of the analysis was to assess the overall volume of visa applications from Pakistanis for the United States, including a detailed examination of the numerical figures, highlighting both high and low points over the years.
The United States consulate in Karachi said this week it had expedited the US visa application process for Pakistanis and was working to reduce wait times amid “unprecedented” demand.
“Applications increased in the past decade compared to the previous one, with a notable 248 percent surge in 2022,” Gallup said in its report.
“The overwhelming increase in applications in 2022 could be attributable, among other things, to those who could not travel in the 2019-2021 period due to Covid19. The average applications decreased from 65,385 in 2015-2015 to 37,913 in 2019-2021. Once the pandemic restrictions were lifted, it would be plausible to assume that those who were intending to go to the US for business or education purposes over the past three years, applied for visas at their earliest.”
Looking at data 1998 onwards, the highest applications were received in the years 2000 (88,791), after which they saw a steep decline until the 2010s. The second highest point in application frequency was reached in 2016 (76,637), followed closely by 2022 (72,082). The average over the past 20 years, represented by the trendline, remained 47,566 applications.
“The steep decline in 2020 and 2021 may be attributed to the travel restrictions and lockdowns that were imposed due to Covid-19,” the Gallup report said. “Other than this period, Pakistan’s visa applications to the US were lowest in 2003 (24,092), followed by 2004 (24,934).”
Among different visa types, in immigrant visas, K-visa applications spiked between 2003 and 2010 while E-visa applications remained consistently low.
In non-Immigrant Visas, B-1/B-2 visas had the most applications, with a dip in 2021 followed by a rebound to 58,152 in 2022. F1 visa applications showed a rising trend, reaching 3,540 in 2022. H-visa applications fluctuated over the years, with the highest in 2001 (5,555) and the lowest in 2020 (704). A-category visa applications increased from 2008 to 2020, surpassing H-visa applications during this period.
The US consulate in Karachi said on Tuesday the demand for US visas was the highest it had ever been in the South Asian country and it was “working hard” to bring down visa appointment wait times.
“We have expedited thousands of non-immigrant visa appointments. More than ten thousand Pakistani visa applicants originally scheduled for 2024 at the US Consulate General in Karachi are receiving notice that their appointments have been rescheduled in 2023, some as early as next week,” the consulate said in a statement.
“To create added flexibility for Pakistani travelers, visa applicants can rebook appointments at either the Consulate General in Karachi or US Embassy in Islamabad.”
Starting September 25, the US consulate said, it would also start accepting new interview waiver applications for some applicants who had previously been issued US visas.
“These steps demonstrate how deeply the United States values the relationship between our two countries,” it added.

Pakistan PM uses New York visit to pitch new investment council to the world

Updated 22 September 2023

Pakistan PM uses New York visit to pitch new investment council to the world

  • Pakistan in June set up Special Investment Facilitation Council, a civil-military forum, to attract foreign funding
  • SIFC has identified five sectors as priority namely IT, agriculture, defense, minerals and mining and energy

ISLAMABAD: Caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar is using his visit to New York this week to attend the UN General Assembly to meet business and thought leaders and stakeholders and make the case for improved business climate in Pakistan and its potential for foreign direct investment in a range of sectors.
Pakistan in June set up a Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC) — a civil-military hybrid forum — to fast-track decision making and promote investment from foreign nations, particularly Gulf countries.
The council has identified five sectors as priority, namely agriculture, mining, information technology, defense production and energy, as the South Asian country deals with a balance of payments crisis and requires billions of dollars in foreign exchange to finance its trade deficit and repay its international debts in the current financial year.
“Attracting foreign investments in all sectors of Pakistan’s economy is the government’s top priority,” Kakar was quoting as saying in a statement released after he met a delegation of the US Pakistan Business Council (USPBC), on the sidelines of the annual session of United Nations General Assembly in New York on Thursday evening.

Pakistan's Caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar addresses the SDG Summit Leaders Dialogue on the sidelines of the 78th UN General Assembly session at the United Nations Headquarters in New York on September 20, 2023. (Photo courtesy: PMO)

He told the group his government was focused on creating a business-friendly environment and would welcome all suggestions.
 “The government believes in no-holds-barred foreign investment regime, and has constituted the Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC) to facilitate foreign investors, bolster their confidence and expedite project implementation in priority areas of agriculture, IT, energy and minerals and mining,” a statement from Kakar’s office said.
He said the US corporate sector “must look at ways and means” to enhance its “very long and productive” relationship with Pakistan, identifying agriculture, IT, pharmaceuticals, health and digital banking as sectors where US companies could enhance investments in Pakistan.
Esperanza Jelalian, USPBC President, told Kakar the body would “continue to engage with the government of Pakistan to seek mutually beneficial ways of enhancing cooperation.”
Speaking earlier in the day at the Council on Foreign Relations, Kakar welcomed the revival of the Pakistan-US Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) after a gap of eight years, saying the forum should pave the way for enhanced investment in Pakistan.

“The United States is our largest export destination. Over the past year, Pakistan’s total exports to the US reached an impressive $ 8.4 billion,” Kakar said. “We need to work on US investment in Pakistan.”
As caretaker prime minister, Kakar said, he was making it a “priority” to improve Pakistan’s business climate and attract US capital and expertise.
“More than 80 US enterprises are already operating and thriving in Pakistan, contributing to our mutual prosperity. This constitutes a good infrastructure for investment on which we can build further investment partnership,” the PM added.
On Thursday, Kakar also met the CEO of Rio Tinto Group, a global leader in mining and minerals, and discussed investment opportunities in Pakistan.
He briefed Jakob Stausholm about the country’s vast untapped mineral reserves, valued at over $6 trillion, which include substantial deposits of gold, copper, and rare earth metals.
“The prime minister outlined Pakistan’s robust economic vision, emphasizing the government’s commitment to sustainable growth through efficiency enhancement, reduced business costs, regulatory improvements, increased productivity, and higher investments,” a statement from the PM’s office said.

In this handout photo, taken and released by the Prime Minister's Office, Pakistan Caretaker Prime Minister Anwar-ul-Haq Kakar (left) gestures during a meeting with Rio Tinto Group head, Jakob Stausholm, on the sidelines of the 78th UNGA Summit in New York on September 21, 2023. (Photo courtesy: PMO)

“He underscored the role of the Special Investment Facilitation Council, which acted as a single-window platform, simplifying procedures and fostering an investor-friendly environment.”
The prime minister invited Stausholm and his team to visit Pakistan and explore investment opportunities further.
“CEO of Rio Tinto Group thanked the prime minister for the invitation and assured that his team would liaise with the relevant authorities to explore investment opportunities in Pakistan’s mineral and mining sector,” the statement said.

Naseem Shah is ruled out of the Cricket World Cup in a big injury blow for Pakistan

Updated 22 September 2023

Naseem Shah is ruled out of the Cricket World Cup in a big injury blow for Pakistan

  • Naseem sustained shoulder injury during Asia Cup in Sri Lanka
  • Shah was replaced by Hasan Ali in a 15-member squad

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan sustained a big blow after its ace pace bowler Naseem Shah was ruled out of the Cricket World Cup on Friday due to a right shoulder injury.
Naseem sustained the injury during the Asia Cup in Sri Lanka. He was replaced by Hasan Ali in a 15-member squad announced on Friday. The World Cup starts on Oct. 5 in India.
Hasan played his last ODI in June last year against the West Indies but was dropped due to his indifferent form in 50-overs cricket.
“Hasan is an experienced bowler and has performed well in mega events in the past,” chief selector Inzamam-ul-Haq said in Lahore while announcing the squad.
“We were forced to make one change because of an unfortunate injury to Naseem Shah. We needed someone who could bowl with the new ball. He (Hasan) bowls well with both old and new ball, and is a team man. His presence lends energy to the team.”
The Pakistan Cricket Board said Naseem has been advised to undergo surgery, following a thorough medical examination and consultations with leading medical experts and is expected to recover in three to four months. It means the mercurial fast bowler is certain to miss a test series against Australia after the World Cup.
There were doubts over the fitness of fast bowler Haris Rauf, who missed out the last Super 4 game against Sri Lanka after sustaining an injury during the game against India.
“We had a few injury scares in the recent Asia Cup, but I am glad to share that all the players are fully fit and are eager to perform for their country in the all-important tournament,” Inzamam said.
“I have received encouraging reports from our medical panel about Haris Rauf. He has started to (shadow) bowl at the National Cricket Academy and will be available for selection.”
The core of the Pakistan team is the same which competed in the recent Asia Cup under captain Babar Azam, but couldn’t qualify for the final after losing to archrival India and Sri Lanka in the Super 4 portion of the tournament.
Spin all-rounders Shadab Khan and Mohammad Nawaz both retained their places in the side with leg-spinner Usama Mir as the other spin option for Pakistan. Pakistan didn’t tinker with its batting lineup with left-hander test specialist Saud Shakeel as the only surprise inclusion in the 15-member side.
Pakistan is scheduled to play two warm-up games against New Zealand and Australia before it takes on the Netherlands in its opening World Cup game on Oct. 6 at Hyderabad.
Pakistan squad: Babar Azam (captain), Imam-ul-Haq, Fakhar Zaman, Abdullah Shafique, Saud Shakeel, Salman Ali Agha, Iftikhar Ahmed, Mohammad Rizwan, Shadab Khan, Mohammad Nawaz, Hasan Ali, Mohammad Wasim, Shaheen Shah Afridi, Haris Rauf, Usama Mir. Reserves: Zaman Khan, Abrar Ahmed, Mohammad Haris.

‘Officer of the Year’: Pakistani gets top cop award for fighting crimes against women

Updated 22 September 2023

‘Officer of the Year’: Pakistani gets top cop award for fighting crimes against women

  • Sonia Shamroz Khan bags prestigeous award from International Association of Women Police in New Zealand
  • Khan serving as district police officer in Battagram, recognized for setting up women protection and complaint cells

PESHAWAR: A senior Pakistani woman police officer who recently received the Officer of the Year award from the International Association of Women Police (IAWP) in New Zealand has been recognized for her work on gender-based violence and for increasing the number of women reporting crimes as well as encouraging female participation in community policing.

The award was given in Auckland earlier this week to Sonia Shamroz Khan, currently posted as District Police Officer (DPO) in Battagram in Pakistan’s deeply conservative Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

Before her current assignment, she had served in the picturesque tourist resort of Chitral for two years where she took the initiative of setting up complaint cells to deal with gender-based crimes and forced marriages.

In a telephone interview from New Zealand, Khan said she was given the award at a ceremony attended by diplomats and nearly 350 women from 75 countries.

District Police Officer (DPO) Battagram, Sonia Shamroz Khan, center, poses for a photo along with other women officials in Auckland, New Zealand on September 17, 2023. (Photo courtesy: Police Public Relations Office Battagram)

“I am the first Asian and second Muslim woman to receive this Officer of the Year award for my policing and services to the community,” she said. “My presence encouraged female complainants to speak up and share their problems which led to enhanced reporting of women related issues at local police stations.”

Khan has dedicated her award to her parents, the police force and survivors of gender-based violence.

“We succeeded in resolving the grievances of women in Chitral,” Khan said. “An increase in women reporting [crimes], fighting against gender-based violence and female participation in community policing were main reasons behind why I got this award.”

Khan said suicides among women were on the rise In Chitral when she served there due to gender-based violence and underage marriages. The cop had to fight on “various fronts” to get women protection cells activated, which saw more and more women coming forward to report their problems to the police.

“While serving in Chitral, I played a lead role in passing a resolution in the local government to streamline marriages of local women with non-local men,” Khan said. “I established a formal procedure which required non-locals to undergo a verification procedure which considerably reduced marriage-related complaints and the problem of underage weddings.”

The award received by Sonia Shamroz Khan, District Police Officer (DPO) Battagram, in Auckland, New Zealand on September 17, 2023. (Photo courtesy: Police Public Relations Office Battagram)

Khan said has been able to achieve so much despite initial resistance from family.

“My family is conservative and my relatives did not want me to join the police initially in 2013,” she said. “But gradually these challenges turned into opportunities when I started getting positive feedback and the output of my work was recognized.”

Khan has also been praised by her colleagues for fostering stronger connections between law enforcement and community members.

Speaking to Arab News, Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Saeed Akhtar Khan said his colleague had played a major role in dealing with women’s issues and family disputes.

“The performance of Sonia Shamroz Khan is in front of you,” he said. “She has played an unparalleled role in bridging the gap between police and local communities.”

Her presence in the law enforcement agency had also “inspired” other women to join the police force as well as play their part to fight crime within their communities, the SSP said.

Naila Altaf, a women rights activist and member of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Commission on the Status of Women for Kurram district, said Khan’s award was a “matter of pride for us all.”

“We have another woman police officer deputed in Kurram tribal district,” she said. “Bringing in more women police officers into the force is a source of inspiration for women to step forward and report cases of violence without hesitation.”