I grew up in Pakistan, a country that was then peaceful and progressive. After high school I had the good fortune to get admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. So in the fall of 1974 on a rainy August evening I arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was a strange new world for me. But the people were very friendly and extremely welcoming. And in no time at all I felt right at home.
In 1978 I was awarded two degrees – a Bachelors and Masters in Civil Engineering. These were the best four years of my life. The only fault I can find with the time I spent in Cambridge is that it ended too quickly. But as fate would have it this would not be the end of my association with Massachusetts.
From some of the coldest winters on the planet my destiny next took me to a place with some of the hottest summers. Saudi Arabia was to be my home for the next two years – 1978 to 1980. Here I worked at a large construction company as an engineer building air bases and other strategic facilities. It was an exciting time to be in Saudi Arabia. The country was going through a rapid transition to modernity.
Some of the largest civil engineering projects on Earth were being built there. Included among them was a network of pipelines and plants to collect associated gas from oil wells and use it to produce petrochemicals. This gas was previously being flared because there was no use for it. The Master Gas System, as this project was known, was valued at $ 15 billion in 1978 Dollars. Also being built from scratch were the twin industrial cities of Jubail and Yanbu that would house plants to produce Petrochemicals. This project was valued at $ 20 billion. The country – Saudi Arabia – was a veritable paradise for Civil Engineers.
The fall of 1980 found me back in Massachusetts. But this time on the other side of the Charles River at the Boston campus of the Harvard Business School. It was a delight to be back and I spent another wonderful two years working on getting my MBA degree.
I had always known that ultimately I wanted to be working for myself. As it turned, out I ended up setting up my own business trading and distributing chemicals in Saudi Arabia – a country that I had come to know and appreciate during my earlier stay there. I spent the best part of 25 years building the business from a small single room office to one of the dominant chemicals traders in the Middle East. And then one day I left it all and went home… to Pakistan.
While I had been away for many years from the country of my birth and childhood it had never left my heart. I had watched it from afar slowly sink into chaos and decline. And as things went from bad to worse my conscience would not let me alone. A voice in my head, or maybe it was my heart, told me that there were more important things for me to do with my life than sit comfortably in a corner office and run a successful business. And so I came back.
Pakistan had one major problem. And if somehow we could solve this single problem we could put the nation back on the road to progress. The problem was, and is, that the people who run our country – our politicians – are singularly unqualified to do so. In my opinion, they are corrupt, incompetent, and ill-intentioned despots. They need to be sent packing. And the only way to do this, in my mind, was to set up a political party and take them on directly in their own battleground.
And so, working with a group of similarly thinking friends, I set up a political party in 2010. The party is called Mustaqbil Pakistan – Future Pakistan in English. Our objective is to bring the best people of Pakistan into politics and, in doing so, displace the worst.
Pakistan has a parliamentary system of government modeled after the British system. We have a national assembly and four provincial assemblies – one for each of our four provinces. In order to change things Mustaqbil Pakistan must get footholds in all five of these assemblies. We realize that this is not easy. But then anything worth fighting for never is. One has to be ready for setbacks and understand that the secret to success lies in never giving up.
A case in point is our participation in the last general election held in 2013. We had candidates running for seats in both the national and provincial assemblies. In the elections we did not win. And while we were disappointed we were not discouraged. The experience gave us insight into the political process and paradoxically gave us confidence that someday we would win.
In taking up the cause of Mustaqbil Pakistan I’ve found support and sympathy from unexpected sources. Rich Wilson, who was my section mate at HBS, learned of what I was doing. He reached out to me and invited me to the US. This was just before our MBA class of 1982 was about to have its 30th reunion in 2012. He suggested, or rather insisted, that I attend. And so for the first time since I graduated from HBS I found myself back in Boston.
My classmates were very supportive and offered to assist in any way they could. Rich was especially helpful. He thought that since I had travelled halfway across the world from Pakistan to Boston it would be useful for me to meet policy makers in Washington D.C.
Pakistan and the US have been allies since Pakistan was created by the breakup of India in 1947. So it did make a lot of sense to travel to DC. Rich took it upon himself to arrange meetings for me with the State Department and several think tanks. And then he took the time to travel with me to DC and attend all of these meetings with me. I remain forever grateful to him. And as I write, I know that he is alone on a sailboat, somewhere on the Southern Ocean, doing what he loves best. Godspeed, Rich.
Compared to my previous career as a business person politics is hard work: A typical ‘work week’ will see me arrive at a small airport in a remote region of the country. A schedule for the whole week would have been worked out before my arrival by party workers. Usually this will involve anywhere from 5 to 7 public meetings a day, each at a different village. It tends to be a long and exhausting day with the last meeting held well after the Sun has set.
Traveling the country day in and day out on dusty, sometimes unpaved roads, from one village to another and addressing multiple public gatherings is not easy. It is also dangerous. Because politics in Pakistan is beset by life threatening risks.
People ask, me pointing to the risks involved: Why do you this? The answer is that I cannot tolerate the idea that crooked and incompetent politicians run our country. And in doing so they inflict huge suffering on tens of millions of people by condemning them to lives of poverty and hopelessness. As far as risk is concerned, if you believe in what you are doing, you have to take risks. Even if, sometimes, that means putting your life on the line.
I’m also asked: Why do you have to do this? Why not let someone else do it? The answer is that no one else seems to be doing it. And if all of us wait around for someone else to do it no one ever will. So I do it.