x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Expatriates back Pakistani political parties - for little return

None of the political parties of Pakistan has clear agendas for the welfare and development of the country's expatriate community in the UAE.

Even after a hard day, Ahmed Ali, a Pakistani construction worker in Dubai, frequently enjoys dinner with friends at a Pakistani restaurant.

They aren't there just for kebabs and biryani. They also enjoy sharing political programmes on television.

Mr Ali and his pals are not alone. Many of the UAE's 1.2 million Pakistanis - the second-largest expatriate group in the UAE - catch the broadcasts. Proximity to the homeland and access to Pakistani media have created an intensely politically-conscious community.

That is one reason Dubai is a popular destination for Pakistani politicians. The late Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif and Pervez Musharraf are among those who have made Dubai home at one stage or another.

Now, with a general election set for May 11 and with the embassy setting up overseas voting booths in the UAE, the expatriate community here is taking on added political importance at home. UAE law prohibits political activity, but one UAE supporter, feeding many relatives back home through cash earned in the Emirates, can sway the votes of his entire family.

Local well-wishers "are the bridge between the Pakistani community and political parties they support," as the late Dubai journalist Mohammed Abdul Qudoos once put it.

But is the relationship just one way? Certainly it shouldn't be. Yet it is difficult to identify anything Pakistani politicians do for their countrymen in the UAE.

Mian Munir Hans, president of the Pakistan Peoples Party (UAE), tells me: "We have … spent millions of dirhams for the welfare of the people of Pakistan. We have facilitated the release of many prisoners from jail and arranged their air tickets. We pay the school fees of children whose parents are unable to finance their education."

Pakistani politicians understand the influence that the country's expatriate community has. Unfortunately, while the government of Pakistan has an independent ministry for overseas Pakistanis, most ordinary Pakistanis do not usually benefit from it. None of the political parties they support have clear agendas for the welfare and development of overseas Pakistanis.

Put simply, people like me expect more from our leaders to develop a social and financial infrastructure so that when we return home, we have something to bank upon.

In general, Pakistanis in the UAE support the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the Pakistan Peoples' Party (PPP) or the Awami National Party (ANP).

The ANP used to enjoy strong support among Pathans, the largest group among blue-collar Pakistani expatriates. But today skilled workers here are, broadly, divided between Mr Musharraf's All Pakistan Muslim League (APML) and Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehrik Insaf (PTI). Mr Musharraf, who recently left Dubai for Pakistan, could run in next month's poll, though he now faces charges of treason.

On the other hand, PTI is also gaining popularity among both skilled and blue-collar workers, and seems to be supplanting the ANP among Pathans.

"Most of us are diehard fans of Imran Khan," says Nayab Khan, a taxi driver from Pakistan's tribal belt. "We have asked our family members … to prepare their voting identity papers so that not a single vote is missed this time."

But does this sincere support for leaders and parties return anything substantial? Some politicians "visit Dubai, have fun, shop around, make their business deals, eat lavish food with their hosts and then return and forget everything," says Tahir Munir Tahir, Dubai bureau chief of the Pakistani daily Nawa-i-Waqt. "They never contribute anything to support the Pakistani community here. They listen to our concerns but never forward them to the authorities."

As the countdown to Pakistan's elections begins, leaders have been travelling to the UAE more often. The question now is whether the Pakistani community in the Emirates will be taken for granted again, or whether these leaders will work, at long last, for the interests of this critical expatriate community.


Amna Ehtesham Khaishgi, born in Karachi, is an Abu Dhabi-based filmmaker and journalist

On Twitter: @AmnaKhaishgi