Al Arabiya: Mr. Prime Minister, thank you for being with us.
Imran Khan: My pleasure.
Al Arabiya: Mr. Prime Minister, the Saudi Crown Prince’s first stop in his Asian tour was Islamabad and he will be treated as a leader, beginning with yourself receiving him in your own personal car and ending with being decorated with Pakistan’s highest medal. How do you see that?
Imran Khan: Let me first say that the people of Pakistan have always, always felt this special relationship with Saudi Arabia and that relationship has two dimensions to it. One is Mecca and Medina. So whatever happens, Mecca and Medina, you know, is in their hearts and Saudi Arabia is that country. So every Pakistani Muslim wants to go to Mecca and Medina. So therefore, that’s one relationship. So whatever happens, we will always have this relationship of the heart with Saudi Arabia. Secondly, Saudi Arabia has stood by Pakistan in some of our most difficult times. Most of the times we have created our bad times because of our bad policies but then there have been other times when devastation, war, earthquake, floods, you know, natural disasters that occur… always Saudi Arabia has been a friend. So we have this special relationship with Saudi Arabia. And to have the crown prince coming to Pakistan, I can assure you that he will get the best welcome, people are really looking forward to his visit.
Al Arabiya: Mr. Prime Minister, more than nine MoUs have been signed during the crown prince’s visit which is worth about $32 billion and investments everywhere in Pakistan. Where is the Saudi-Pakistani relationship going in the new era as the foreign minister described it?
Imran Khan: What we want to do, why we say it’s a new era and time for a new level of relationship is because we want to have and play to each other’s comparative advantage. Pakistan has a different type of advantage to Saudi Arabia. We have probably, even today, the most educated Muslims in the world are Pakistanis. Most of them – 8-9 million Pakistanis – are abroad, expatriate Pakistanis. But amongst them, are scientists, in every field Pakistanis excel working abroad. So we have human capital in every field, so Pakistan is the only Muslim country that had the capacity and ability to build a nuclear bomb, nuclear reactors, missile technology. So, in a lot of ways Pakistan is ahead of the other Muslim countries.
Saudi Arabia has capital, it has oil. Pakistan has entrepreneurship, businessmen in different areas. We have labor. So if we play on each other’s advantage, the different advantages both countries have, then both countries can benefit.
Al Arabiya: What level do you want to reach when you say you want to raise it to a higher-level?
Imran Khan: Higher level means trading and investing in each other, where both countries benefit. If you have strong trading partners then both countries can. I remember in the European Union, when I was in the university in England when the EU was formed, but all the member states the standard of living went up because they opened up the trade because the more they traded the more the standard of living went up. Similarly I think Saudi Arabia and Pakistan need to look beyond the relationship they had in the past we trade, we invest with each other, we do joint ventures and I think it will raise the standard of living in both countries.
Al Arabiya: Pakistan has invited Saudi Arabia to be a part, as a third-party, in the CPEC project. Why choose Saudi Arabia? What role do you want Saudi Arabia to play as a third-party?
Imran Khan: Well, what is CPEC? CPEC is basically a connectivity with China. China now is the fastest growing economy in the world. At the rate China is growing, in the next 10 years it will even take over the US. It’s the second biggest economy right now. It’s predicted to be the biggest economy. CPEC connects Pakistan with China. Along the CPEC, we are in the process of developing special economic zones, that’s where Saudi Arabia stands to benefit, by participating in these special economic zones. Because then it has this access to China, benefitting from these special economic zones with special benefits. So, that’s what Pakistan wants to do, wants to invite its friends from UAE and Saudi Arabia to invest here.
Al Arabiya: What kind of benefits are we talking about here? What will they gain?
Imran Khan: I think these special economic zones will have operations that are isolated from the bureaucratic red tapes, it’ll just be easier to invest. The facilities will be provided there. Concessions, maybe lower taxes, so all that framework is being developed. So the idea is that, here’s an opportunity for Saudi Arabia. And then they have the biggest market of China.
Al Arabiya: Basically one of the main concerns of any investors in entering any markets is the taxes. Are there any plans or promises to reduce the tax rates for Saudi investors who are willing to invest in Pakistan?
Imran Khan: Well, let me just give you my philosophy. How has Pakistan changed when you say Naya Pakistan, how has that changed? Unfortunately for Pakistan from the seventies onwards, a socialist mindset came in. The one aspect of socialism is great where you feel that growth should be equitable. It should not be rich getting richer and poor getting poorer but the wealth creation should be spread out so that you lift people from the bottom tier. But the other problem we had with the sort-of socialist government we had was in the seventies was that it nationalized everything. That nationalization affected our growth rate, it affected wealth creation, affected the way Pakistan was rising above. We had entrepreneurs, banking families, we were growing faster than any other country in the region. The thing that affected Pakistan the most of all was this mindset that making money was a sin. That it was a crime to make big profits. It’s a crime to make profits when you don’t pay your taxes and when a society doesn’t help in lifting its poor people up.
Like China, China lifted 700 million people out of poverty in 30 years. They made money but that money was shared to lift the bottom people up. Unfortunately in Pakistan, this mindset came that it was, you know, it was a crime to make a lot of money. So that affected the whole way, how the bureaucracy functioned, the political class functioned, and the whole atmosphere was against profit making. What we want to do know is to allow investors to make money. We would want them to make profits. Because if they made profits, more people will come and invest. I mean, you don’t do business for charity, you do business to make money. So we will allow and create the conditions so people can make money.
Al Arabiya: Sorry to take you back to taxes again. How about for the Saudi goods, they’re also high. Sometimes reaching from 20-50 percent high. Are there any plans to change the rates?
Imran Khan: So I’m still… I come back to it. Clearly we want them to make money. They won’t be able to make money if the taxes are too high. So that will be part of it and other ways where we will facilitate them. The whole idea is to facilitate our investors. And when the investors do well, other people will flock to invest in your country.
Al Arabiya: There are some voices who say that Prime Minister Imran Khan chose Saudi Arabia to be his first international because he was, or Pakistan was, desperate for loans. How do you challenge that?
Imran Khan: No, that’s true. I mean, the Pakistan we inherited, what the previous government left behind was bankrupt. We had a really bad balance-of-payments situation. We would have defaulted. We didn’t have enough money to pay or service our debts or for our imports. And when one is in that situation, one goes to one’s friends. So Saudi Arabia, UAE and China, they were three countries, and I must say that none of those three countries let us down. They helped us. That’s what friends are for. Of course you don’t want to keep going back to friends for loans. What we hope now is that the reform process which we have set in will gradually enable us get out of this debt-trap and Pakistan will, Inshallah, make such growth rate, wealth creation that we will never have to go and borrow money.
Al Arabiya: How does Pakistan, both government and the people, how did they react towards countries that reject Pakistan for loans and financial support?
Imran Khan: Actually, we only went for three countries. We only decided to go to China, because China has stood with us through all our bad times. Both UAE and Saudi Arabia, there are a lot of Pakistanis working in both UAE and Saudi Arabia who have in the past… maybe not in the UAE in the past 10 years, but in the old times have always been good to us. So we only went to these three countries. All three countries, I must say, must thank them because they didn’t let us down.
Al Arabiya: Did you go with confidence that you wouldn’t be let down?
Imran Khan: Well, you never know. I’ve only been in this chair for six months. So I can’t say what others would have thought. But we worked out which other countries over difficult times would help us. Our cabinet all felt that these are the three countries we should ask for and all three countries gave us loans and also we are in future investment projects with them.
Al Arabiya: Back again to what you mentioned about the missiles and the military field, as Saudi crown prince is coming to Islamabad, will there be more, military-wise, relations or MoUs between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia?
Imran Khan: Saudi Arabia, with Mecca and Medina there, I can assure you that- forget our military- the people of Pakistan would want to defend Saudi Arabia if anything happens to them. That you can rest assured. But you see for Pakistan, the role we want to play now is that we want to play the role of a country that brings other countries together.
This whole division in the Muslim world, Muslims fighting Muslims. You just look back in the last 15 years, the devastation that has taken place in the Muslim world. The last thing we want is more conflicts. Pakistan wants to play the role, and Pakistan can play the role because Pakistan has probably one of the best militaries. We are a nuclear armed country, we have a military that just won us a very difficult war on terror where almost 70,000 Pakistanis lost their lives. Great intelligence agencies and a strong military, but we want to play the role of bringing countries together. We would like to play a role with Saudi Arabia of putting out fires in the Muslim world, getting countries together. It’s unfortunate, the bad blood between Saudi Arabia and Iran, we would like to play a role there. Yemen, definitely, it’s a conflict that is consuming resources. It could go on and on and a lot of human suffering.
Just like now, Pakistan is playing its role in bringing an end, or trying to bring this reconciliation in Afghanistan with helping the US and the Taliban get on the dialogue table, getting a peace process going and getting a government somehow of political reconciliation to end this conflict of 17 years. I think that is the role which we want to play.
Al Arabiya: Will we be seeing JF-17 in the Saudi airports, maybe?
Imran Khan: Well let’s see... we are quite proud that we manufactured this jet and yes let us see it depends on the crown prince and the Saudi government.
Al Arabiya: Now Mr. Prime Minister, in an early statement you said reforms are painful. What pain Pakistanis will face in your version of reforms?
Imran Khan: Always reforms are painful. A problem Pakistan faces is that we have huge deficits which we inherited from the previous government. Record fiscal deficit, record current account deficit. And when you have that sort of deficits, and to correct that imbalance, you have to make reforms in cutting down your fiscal deficit. You have to reform your tax machinery, you have to be able to raise your revenue and cut down you expenditure to balance your budget and that is painful. You know you cannot have reforms without pain. Hoping to have reforms without pain is like, as someone said, someone wanting to go to heaven without dying.
You have to have pain when things are out of balance. But you know, if people feel that they will for a while go through this pain and the pain is shared and that’s it’s not just that the poor people are hurting and a small elite is enjoying life, if everyone sacrifices during the bad times and they feel if they make these painful reforms then life will get better, then people will accept the pain.
Al Arabiya: A ren’t you afraid to face rejection from old mindsets, people who are afraid of what is new coming?
Imran Khan: Yes there is a possibility you know when you have pain people, especially the status quo the main resistance we will face is from the status quo which means the people who have been benefitting from the corrupt system. They are already making a lot of noise right now. It is a small class but it is powerful and they will try everything to sabotage the reforms. But you see I feel that the people of Pakistan are ready, they have seen what is happening in Pakistan in the last ten years where corruption has destroyed state institution, when we have gradually gone deeper and deeper into debt. Pakistan debt is unprecedented. So to correct that every country which wants to correct that situation has to go through a painful period of reforms. When you go through this pain you can make it easier by people sharing the pain. The only challenge you take on the status quo is that you do not allow them to cash in on this situation where people are going through pain and then normally they would reverse the process. So then, you know, you have a revolution people get tired of the system, they revolt. But sometimes there is a counter-revolution and the status quo comes back. What we have to be careful with is the people that brought Pakistan to this state should never ever be able to come back and again to what they did to our country.
Al Arabiya: How clear is the vision to the new generation, the majority of the Pakistani people? How are they understanding it, how are they taking it?
Imran Khan: I think this is the strength of Pakistan. We have the second youngest generation in the world. When you have 60 percent of Pakistanis under the age of 30 that means that you have an idealistic population. The youth is what made me win the elections against the status quo. And it is the youth which we will inspire and mobilize to help us in this reform program. I think that already they are behind us and that once we start a reform program we will communicate to the public exactly what steps we are doing. And if you have the young people with you… the forefront of change, anywhere in the world, are the young people.
Al Arabiya: Since Mohammed bin Salman is in Pakistan, how similar is Pakistan to the Saudi Vision of 2030?
Imran Khan: So we are on the same page as far as corruption goes. Prince Mohammed bin Salman is trying to modernize Saudi Arabia much needed reforms and I have shared some of the things we are doing, and what he is doing. I think it is very impressive we wish him all the luck because we want Saudi Arabia to get stronger, and a reformed Saudi Arabia with universities and colleges and young people who can compete with the world in the 21st century.
Al Arabiya: Are there any mutual understandings on both reform plans for both countries?
Imran Khan: You see we are different in the sense that Saudi Arabia is a rich country. They have this oil wealth. Pakistan is actually a very rich country but at the moment, having a very huge population we are two hundred and ten million people. Saudi Arabia is a much smaller country but with this huge population we have different challenges. Our biggest challenge is to develop our human beings. Saudi Arabia has different challenges. I think what they need is to make people wean off just living off oil, and that is what I think is happening by what Prince Mohammed is doing in Saudi Arabia.
What we have as a different challenge is that we have to develop our human resources, spend money on education, on health, on skills, skill development so that young people can be employed. We want employment for our young people. Then we want to develop our resources, tourism being one. We have vast mineral resources, but we haven’t had the investment in excavating these mineral resources so we have different challenges but the idea is the same to reform the countries.
Al Arabiya: So actually the corruption is really giving you a hard time?
Imran Khan: No corruption, the reason why countries lag behind other countries is corruption. Because what corruption does is it destroys the state institutions. If I am in power, I cannot be corrupt unless I destroy the institutions below me. So in destroying state institutions, that is the only way I can make money. But not only do I make money, but everyone else makes money. People get robbed. And so the money that is supposed to be spent on human beings, gets siphoned off into foreign bank accounts and offshore accounts.
So that is how countries fall behind and then merit disappears. There is no meritocracy because if I want to rob a country, I need weak institutions. I can only have weak institutions, if I put corrupt and inefficient people on top of these institutions. So as the Chinese say, the fish rots from the top. Once you have a corrupt elite, then they corrupt the whole system and that destroys the potential of a nation.
Al Arabiya: Islamabad, the city I have seen is so beautiful the streets are so beautiful, they are so clean it has great weather as we were talking earlier. What does Pakistan need to attract tourists? To this beautiful country?
Imran Khan: Pakistan is going to attract tourists because the world has been changed by social media. Pakistan already has in the last three years, our tourism has doubled, tripled although it is not much from world standards. But compared to what it was three years ago, it has gone up three times and it is because of social media. What happens is people come here and we have probably the best mountain scenery in the world. You cannot compare Switzerland to Pakistan. Pakistan’s mountain scenery is unpatrolled. What happens is, and these places were not known to the tourists. So when people go to these places they have these mobile phones which have changed the world and social media, they post these pictures on the Facebook and then people see these northern areas and other places and that is what have sparked off tourism, we haven’t promoted tourism in Pakistan. It is just that Facebook and social media, because of that tourism has tripled.
But what now we are going to do is have proper tourism, organized tourism, where we will be able to display on our websites all the tourist sites. We have religious tourism in Pakistan, we have Buddhism, Buddhist sites, Sikh, probably the most sacred sites of the Sikh religion, of Hinduism, of Sufism, and their ancient sites of these religions.
We have the best mountain scenery, coastal tourism, a thousand kilometers of coastal untouched coastal tourism. And then we have historical tourism like Pakistan has one of the oldest civilizations. The indus valley civilization is five thousand years old. We have cities like Lahore and Karachi, not Karachi, but Lahore, Multan, and Peshawar are some of the oldest cities. It offers different things to different tourists but we have never promoted it before. But now we are organizing it and will promote it properly through our website to be able to book places where they want to go. They will know exactly… whoever is interested in a particular type of tourism, we will be able to provide them guides.
Al Arabiya: Minister Chaudry, the minister of information, gave a very interesting statement when he said: Pakistan is changing from the haven of terrorists, to the haven of tourists. How far do you think you can succeed in implementing that slogan?
Imran Khan: With things changing in Afghanistan, this area will become as peaceful as it always was before the Afghan jihad started. Until the soviets came into Afghanistan and then the Mujahideen went and trained and went and fought in Pakistan in the 80s. Before that Pakistan was one of the most peaceful countries in the world we never had terrorism in Pakistan we never had this sort of extremism which came after the 80s but specifically after 9/11 but that was because what had happened in Afghanistan. As Afghanistan moved towards peace, I think this area will settle down and become how it was before the 80s.
Al Arabiya: Mr. Prime minister, going across quickly the Pakistani media, there is a lot of harsh criticism, self- criticism of the Pakistani government. Don’t you think that the Pakistani media plays a great role in giving the wrong impression about Pakistan?
Imran Khan: It is unfortunate but what has happened in Pakistan is that we had this big split in Pakistan. Since 2014 public opinion became divided into two camps – one was this reformed camp which wanted change, led by our political party, and the other one was what the old status quo, what the old political parties and their supporters.
So this divide took place. In the last few years, it has been a big struggle. Very rarely is there a democratic change like there was in Pakistan. Normally if you have an entrenched status quo, you cannot remove it through democratic means: it is either a bloody revolution, or a military coup. This is the only time that the political struggle removed the status quo. So we still have the remnants of the other camp, as I said counter-revolution, they want the power back. So you see this acrimony in the media but that won’t last long. I give it maybe six months, a year, a year and half and then things will settle down.
Al Arabiya: And probably they will be busy with something more useful for the country?
Imran Khan: It will settle down because you know as Pakistan moves ahead. Pakistan is now moving ahead, investors are coming in here visa regime has opened up, 60 countries can get visa on arrival, which never happened before.
Al Arabiya: Including Saudis?
Imran Khan: Including Saudi of course, of course Saudi. And so things are changing here now. So these remnants of the status quo will be left far behind.
Al Arabiya: Mr. Prime minster, my favorite question is for the last of course. You were a sportsmen, you were captain of the Pakistani cricket team. You were a sports legend. I attended one of your games when I was a small kid. Now from a sports legend to a political leader, is politics a fast run or an accurate strike?
Imran Khan: Politics is a struggle. There are two types of politics- One you can do is the normal type of politics which happens in England, you know, very civilized politics, you go there and say nice things and so on….you know … it is a civilized politics where you have conservatives.. You know one point of few and then you have another point of view then they debate and then they go home. Pakistan is a struggle between …you Pakistan is a state where an elite, a corrupt status quo had captured Pakistan which is why a rich country like Pakistan is in this economic situation. So therefore, here it poses struggle, I struggled for 22 years, and I would not have been able to struggle had I not learnt how to struggle on the sporting field. Sports teaches you how to fight, it teaches you how to struggle, it teaches you how to win, and then it teaches you how to take a loss… how to lose with dignity and how to learn from defeat. So, no other…none of my opponents were equipped like I was to fight, to struggle. Because I learned it the hard way: international sports is ruthless, you are up against the best in the world. So I had that struggle behind me otherwise I would not have been able to struggle in politics like I did for 22 years.
Al Arabiya: Mr. Prime minister thank you so much for this great interview.
Imran khan: Thank you.