For strategic reasons, countries around the world often declare their special affection for each other. References are made to cultural, religious, geopolitical, and other ties, to show why two peoples are bound together, and leaders make speeches as well as bestow each other with gifts. Unfortunately, in some cases, despite this declaration, events happen that cool affections. When sentiments heal, the cooling-off disappears. This “see-saw” of relationships between countries is difficult for many, especially investors who need predictability in plans. How can policymakers create greater stability in relations? How can they make relationships more durable? How can they broaden and deepen inter-country affection?
Entrepreneurs could provide an answer.
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia
In the case of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, relations have generally been rather steady. The close and extremely friendly relationship between the two countries is built on interests. But despite the long and successful history of a “special relationship,” the core of the Pakistani-Saudi relationship has remained narrow and need-based. It has focused on geopolitical security, complemented by expatriate labor and religious tourism in the form of Umrah and Hajj pilgrims from one side, and financial aid from the other.
History shows that state relationships are more resilient if they are built on full potential and add “surplus value.” This means they harness the full potential in each other’s countries, and turn “1+1” into more than just two. To accomplish this, multiple elements must do the hard work to deepen ties. A critical element is commercial bonds that can be developed between entrepreneurs, businesspeople and other private sector members of both countries. These bonds should be strengthened in strategic interests wherever possible.
Between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, various commissions, councils, trade bodies, etc. have been created for this purpose but they have mostly not been successful. The reasons are many, but include efforts that are not focused on the “bottom line” and depend on the whims of who is in power. True entrepreneurial thinking was also not brought to the task. In some cases, well-meaning diplomats and bureaucrats talk about promoting private sector involvement. But many of these officials are not entrepreneurs. In some cases, they are even skeptical of the profit motive. At best, they can create enabling conditions but they cannot drive actual commerce.
Times are changing in both countries. There is a renewed vigor to revisit the core foundation of the relationship between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and to broaden it. This is exemplified by the upcoming visit of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Pakistan, following earlier visits of Prime Minister Imran Khan to Saudi Arabia. Both leaders have championed transformative visions for their country’s future under the “Naya Pakistan” and “Vision 2030” initiatives respectively. The talk between the leaders is now more about investment than aid; albeit still state-to-state investment, and one-way. To build on this momentum, it is time to think about “out of the box” ideas that fully leverage the potential of both our people.
The engagement of entrepreneurs
As noted earlier, much of the interaction between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia has hovered around security, low cost labor, pilgrims, and aid. But there is sophisticated professional interaction between Pakistani and Saudi citizens. This has occurred in the fields of finance, technology, engineering, consulting and medicine, etc. This professional interaction is even more common among the younger demographic in both countries, and has happened between Pakistanis and Saudis, both in the Gulf and in the West – where many of the next generation have studied. There is untapped potential in this interaction that needs to be translated into a common framework for collaboration. It should draw on the outlook of a new generation exposed to global standards and the highest expectations of excellence.
A more deal-oriented approach is needed that focuses on opportunities for private sector cooperation between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to go along with the official investment activity. A new generation of entrepreneurs from both sides need to be brought to the table. This includes men and women with global standing and a world class professional outlook – most likely those Pakistanis and Saudis who have already studied, traveled or done business outside their respective home countries.
People that profit together, stay together. One innovative approach is to “toss” together a generation of Pakistani and Saudi men and women into a 2-3 day “entrepreneurial hackathon.” Such events are used the world over to catalyze new ideas. The entrepreneurial hackathon could even be supported by a venture/start-up capital fund, in the form of a “Pakistan Saudi Entrepreneurs Fund.” The fund would look for bankable opportunities with a focus on both impact and return. Such a fund would require Pakistani and Saudi entrepreneurs to look for partners from the other country to pair up as they propose ideas. Even the pitching could be part of a “Shark Tank” type of reality TV show, where investors evaluate pitches, and then invest in the best ideas. The goal is to establish opportunities for entrepreneurs of both countries to profit together – in each other’s countries, or even in third countries. Such an approach harnesses the potential of entrepreneurs to broaden and deepen stability in relations between both countries. And it also supports both “Naya Pakistan” and “Vision 2030.”
The upcoming visit of HRH Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman should be the dawn of a new era between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Through the rewards of entrepreneurship, we can move our relationship from the limitation of need to the openness of potential. The time to act has arrived.
Adnan Hassan is an investor, advisor, author and entrepreneur, who has served on the Board of Directors of The World Bank/IFC in Washington, and is Founder & Chairman of Mecasa Advisors Europe, B.V., a global investment and advisory boutique.