In the wood-panelled cabinet room, flanked by two military officers wearing their camouflage uniforms, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, pledged to remake the economic image of his country. Speaking to a private audience of 60 chief executives and entrepreneurs who were in the capital for the “Leaders in Islamabad Forum”, the fabled cricket star used his experience on the pitch to address the limitations Pakistan has placed on itself for decades.
“Those who succeed in life are those who take risks. We usually don’t reach the heights we are capable of and during the bad times we compromise on our dreams,” said Khan.
These can be described as bad times. Coming off tit-for-tat military actions with India, a reputation for home-grown terrorism and endemic corruption, he is fully aware of the challenges ahead for this geographically well-placed, but volatile emerging market of more than 200 million consumers.
“Pakistan is opening up with a change of mindset in the country,” he said.
There is no shortage of sceptics who have heard this refrain from countless Pakistani governments that preceded Khan, swept into power by a populist surge seven months ago. I could sense the need for urgency while in the country for the first time in a dozen years.
The Prime Minister and his team were all on message when it comes to the need to improve relations with India, deliver economic reforms and attract foreign direct investment, which has been below $3 billion per annum for years due to domestic and regional instability.
At the business forum, key government officials, including the chairman of the military’s joint chiefs of staff, all laced their comments with the need to deliver results. In a 15-minute one-on-one interview I conducted with foreign minister M.S. Mahmood Qureshi, he did not hesitate to stray into the arena normally reserved for a country’s finance minister.
He talked about tackling corruption, even if it meant members of the ruling PTI party are caught in the act. “Sack him immediately and set an example for others that you mean business,” he said to a rapturous applause.
Pakistan has made progress on corruption even before this government came to power, ranking 117 out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, moving up 22 positions in six years.
As of the first week of March, foreign reserves stood at just over $8 billion, enough to suffice for about three months according to ratings agencies. With some breathing room to manoeuvre thanks to regional allies, Pakistan is hoping to secure more favourable terms from the International Monetary Fund in what would be the 14th bailout since the 1980s.
Cabinet members told me after Khan walked back from escalating military strikes against India, it was a clear indication that development not conflict remains his focus. “The message from Pakistan is very clear; we want peace because it is in our enlightened self-interest to have peace,” said Qureshi. “This can become a happening place and for that we need peace with our neighbours.”
Former military officials say tensions will remain high until India’s elections are concluded in May. They fear Prime Minister Narendra Modi will stoke nationalist fervour to counter the fallout from faltering job creation despite economic growth of better than 7 per cent.
Pakistan also needs to try and reboot relations with the US, which have soured under President Donald Trump who slashed military and economic assistance back in November claiming “they (Pakistanis) don’t do anything for us”.
While Islamabad has other financial options from countries along what is often defined as the new Silk Road stretching from the Middle East to Far East, cabinet members were frank about the geopolitical role Washington has despite threats by this administration to retreat even further from South Asia.
Officials said the US is not the most popular country in Pakistan today but it remains the sole superpower. It has always been a difficult balancing act for Pakistan in a region full of uncertainty but the country wants to ride a wave of Asian growth and commitment by Beijing to invest over $50 billion in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.
“People have attached hope to this government we cannot afford to disappoint them. If we disappoint them, history will not forgive us,” said Qureshi.
John Defterios is Emerging Markets Editor at CNNMoney.