Pakistan Ambassador Hopes to Increase Trade, Urges More Regional Cooperation on Afghanistan

ASTANA – Ambassador of Pakistan to Kazakhstan Shaukat Ali Mukadam wants to make the trade and economic cooperation between the two countries more indicative of their warm and long-standing political relationship.

Pakistani ambassador

Ambassador of Pakistan to Kazakhstan Shaukat Ali Mukadam (l) with the Astana City Akim (Mayor) Imangali Tasmagambetov

As he pointed out in an interview with The Astana Times on Sept. 25, Pakistan was one of the first countries to establish an embassy in independent Kazakhstan, and high-level meetings are regularly held – yet trade between the two countries was only $44.3 million in 2013.

“Trade is, unfortunately, not commensurate with our good political relations. … I want to take it to $150 million, at least, in the next three years,” Mukadam said. The potential is there, he says: Pakistan’s agricultural sector means it has agricultural expertise to offer, as well as agricultural products; its surgical instruments and pharmaceuticals will be useful in a developing health sector.

The ambassador also wants to see more manpower exports. “Our workforce is very good. We can participate in the infrastructure development of Kazakhstan, particularly in Astana, as a new city coming up; there is huge potential. Our workers are very good, very hard working. They have been tested in the hot summers of 50 C, so I am sure that they will do it in -50 C also,” he laughed.

Education is another promising field, Mukadam said. Pakistan’s national language is Urdu, but its official language is English. “In the education sector we can cooperate in language training; we have excellent language institutes. I’d like more Kazakh students to go learn English in Pakistan.”

Work is underway to increase trade between Kazakhstan, Pakistan and the rest of the countries in their neighbourhood. A 2011 agreement between the countries’ chambers of commerce helped bump trade by 22 percent between 2012 and 2013, Mukadam noted.

Events like the Central Asian Business Opportunities Conference (CABOC), organised by the government of Pakistan, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Rawalpindi Chamber of Commerce and Industry, bring together investors and representatives of business and government from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to find ways to increase regional trade.

At this year’s CABOC in Islamabad in April, “Out of 55 businessmen from the whole of Central Asia, 35 were from Kazakhstan,” Mukadam said. Ahead of the conference, in March, a group of 12 Pakistani businesspeople visited Kazakhstan to meet potential partners. “This has created a lot of interest in Kazakh and Pakistani businessmen. We hope this will foster greater economic activities,” the ambassador said.

“We see a lot of potential. On the investment side, there are Pakistani companies investing in oil exploration, they are looking for new oil areas. Some are interested in the mining sector. So there is interest on the trade side and also on the investment side,” he said. Representatives from Pakistan’s business community will be taking part in exhibitions in Almaty and Astana in October, he added.

Of course, increasing trade with landlocked Kazakhstan must coincide with improved transit infrastructure and increased regional connectivity – all of which lead to the issue of Afghanistan.

“Trade is low, and one of the reasons is the connectivity issue,” said Mukadam. “The trade route through Afghanistan is risky. So that is the issue – it takes time and it is risky, coming through uncertain conditions. … But having said that, we understand that the potential is there. We are looking at the new railroad between Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran – that could open new avenues for us and for them.”

Pakistan is developing its road infrastructure to be prepared for a more connected region, one day. They also offer significant access to the sea for Kazakhstan, the ambassador said. “There’s a new port that has come up at Gwadar, at the mouth of the gulf – that could be of great interest to them, as it’s a deep-water port and the shortest route to warm-water ports.”

Stabilising Afghanistan, however, is crucial. Today, the two countries are working concurrently in the country, contributing to training, education and infrastructure projects, among others, but there is no coordination to their assistance, though they do share information.

“It’s in our interests to have a stable Afghanistan, a prosperous Afghanistan,” the ambassador said, “because instability in Afghanistan has a serious impact on Pakistan first.” Afghanistan’s problems manifest themselves in Pakistan’s economy; in the increased possibility of violence. His country does its best to contain those issues, particularly the potential for terrorism, and keep them from spreading throughout the region, he said. But Pakistan has suffered greatly over the decades of Afghanistan’s upheaval – the country still hosts some 2 million Afghan refugees, he noted – and a change is needed.

The key to peace and stability, according to Mukadam, is generating economic activities within Afghanistan – and events that connect regional businesses foster that. “Pakistan and Kazakhstan can play a vital role in developing economic activities and initiatives such as the CABOC under the umbrella of USAID and [the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation Forum] CAREC could be helpful.”

As international forces withdraw from Afghanistan this year, Mukadam said, more active engagement by all Central Asian countries is needed, especially because of their long and porous borders. Though he expressed hopes for Afghanistan’s new government, he is wary of the vacuum departing international forces could leave. “We don’t want Afghanistan to go back to square one. This, Pakistan cannot afford or sustain any more. And the Afghan people have suffered a lot – we hope there is stability and progress coming to them. So we feel that the regional countries should have more cooperation, especially in the post-withdrawal period.”

Efforts like the Istanbul Process regarding, a platform for regional discussion and enhancing cooperation, are good, but need to be intensified, he said. “We feel that the Istanbul Process, the migration of refugees, the protection of refugees – that is not going on a fast track. More impetus should be given to the Istanbul Process and it should be more energised … we hope that in the near future we’ll have more conferences, more understanding and it’ll go on a faster track.” Military training for Afghanistan should also be intensified, he said.

On international issues, Pakistan and Kazakhstan see eye-to-eye, Mukadam noted. Pakistan supports Kazakhstan’s bid for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council and is keenly observing the evolution of the Eurasian Economic Union, he said.

There are lots of new things happening in Kazakhstan, said Mukadam, who first visited Astana 14 years ago. “I was deputy for protocol, I came with the President at the time. … The Astana you see today is a very modern and vibrant city, and this is the fruit of the vision of President Nursultan Nazarbayev and the hard work of the people of Kazakhstan.”