Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

Shaukat Aziz clearly remembers the phone call that changed his life. It was 1999 and Aziz was working at a senior position in Citibank, New York. “One day, I was in a meeting in the conference room when my secretary came in with a slip [note],” he tells Weekend Review. “There was call from Rawalpindi — she couldn’t even pronounce it — and she asked if I could take the call.” Perplexed, Aziz did.

On the other end of the line was General Pervez Musharraf, who had orchestrated a military coup and overthrown the democratically elected government of Nawaz Sharif only a few days earlier. “He [Musharraf] said the economy is in serious trouble ... You and I have never met ... and I also understand you have never met any of my core command. I said, ‘No, sitting in New York I have no opportunity or reason to meet anybody’. He said my name had been given to him as a potential candidate for some position in the government. I told him I had never applied [for any post]. He said, ‘We have our own sources to find out where the good people are’.”

And so Aziz flew to Pakistan to meet Musharraf. “This was the first time I had stepped into the GHQ [General Headquarters of the Pakistan Army]. I was impressed by Musharraf’s candour and his desire to do something. I think I spent 45 minutes with him, and then a couple of hours with the rest of his team. Then he met me at his residence ... he told me that they were looking at other candidates, too, and would let me know.”

Aziz then returned to New York. “A few weeks later, there was a call from General Aziz [Khan]. He offered me the position of minister of finance and commerce. I told him that the two are different, and with the economy in dire straits, finance itself would require full-time attention. I requested them to give this to somebody else, which they did, several weeks later.”

The rest was political history. After serving as finance minister for the next few years, Aziz went on to become Pakistan’s Prime Minister in 2004.

All of this, and more, are the subject of Aziz’s new memoir, From Banking to the Thorny World of Politics. Sitting in an office in London for this interview, he tells me: “I have had a very interesting life and I thought I should share it with other people who have got ahead based on merit and integrity. These are my two core values.”

His career at Citibank spanned 30 years and gave Aziz the opportunity to interact with world leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and George H.W. Bush. And yet, as a youngster, he wasn’t keen on a career in banking.

“[At] our local branch at the university, to cash a cheque you first had to take a token, wait in a queue, and then the people at the counter manually made entries into the register, updated your account, and gave you the cash. If this was banking, it was really not very inspiring.”

When he was called for an interview for internship at Citibank, he wasn’t sure if he would go. “My finance professor said Citibank was a good company and I should go.” Aziz did and was selected.

After completing the internship, he was offered a permanent role at Citibank. “I never looked back.”

After three decades in international banking, the shift to politics was a dramatic change. Not only did he have to tackle Pakistan’s financial challenges, but also deal with security threats. In 2004, Aziz survived a suicide bomb attack on his car as he was campaigning to become an MP in Attock. “That was a traumatic experience. God saved my life; they missed me by a second or two.”

As Prime Minister, one of Aziz’s proudest moments was ridding Pakistan of the IMF burden. “I said to myself that we have mortgaged our economic sovereignty to the IMF. It’s not the IMF’s fault if we didn’t manage our economy right, and they come and take over, they will naturally impose their conditions.”

One of the happiest days of his tenure as prime minister, he says, was when he announced in parliament: “‘Today I instructed the Ministry of Finance to repay the entire chunk of IMF debt. And we are now not part of the IMF programme’, which meant that we had regained economic sovereignty and we could do what we thought was right for our country and not what was imposed on us.”

However, since Aziz stepped down, other governments have gone back to the IMF programme. “That can happen,” he says. “Maybe the economy did not perform, maybe there were external factors. But I think we showed the world that even a country such as Pakistan, with its challenges and demands on its income, can get out of it if you have the right policy framework. And the country will never progress to its true potential if it doesn’t have economic sovereignty.”

Aziz is concerned that Bretton Woods Institutions such as the IMF and World Bank are not a meritocracy. “You get a job in the IMF because of your passport. To me that is fundamentally flawed. We cannot have multilateral institutions where merit does not prevail.”

One of the most controversial measures adopted during President Musharraf’s term was the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO). It was brought about with the help of the US administration, granting amnesty from corruption charges to senior politicians, most notably Benazir Bhutto and her husband Asif Ali Zardari.

Was NRO a mistake? “No, I think there were many factors that brought this about. For a country to progress, it has to take the democratic path. Each country’s and each individual’s situation is different. I think this was the first time somebody actually — while everybody knew what was going on, but nobody discussed it as clearly as we did — tried to share with the world what happened, more importantly, with our own people. The purpose of this exercise was to put Pakistan on a path of sustainable growth and development. Today we have a democratic setup.

“When Benazir [Bhutto] came back, she was part of that change to come but unfortunately that couldn’t be realised. But the grounds were created to have a democratic process in Pakistan. Democracy doesn’t guarantee that everything will work out right. That is where policies, external-internal factors, and leadership come in. If you don’t have democracy then you can’t do it.”

During Aziz’s tenure, he famously tried to privatise the national steel mills. But court intervention thwarted his efforts. However, he remains in favour of privatisation. “It is more than [being in] favour. My view was that if we can liberalise, deregulate and privatise, we can unleash forces within the country and allow them to take the economy forward.”

But privatisation remains a thorny issue in Pakistan. Earlier this year there were major travel disruptions when strikes were called over efforts to privatise Pakistan International Airlines (PIA). “PIA should be privatised,” he says. “Airlines are now corporatised first of all, with professional management and board of directors. Privatisation is not like taking PIA and giving it to anybody tomorrow, to the highest bidder. It is a very complex process.”

Aziz talks about other international airlines, such as British Airways, that are privately owned. “Heathrow Airport, one of the largest in the world, is owned and operated by a Spanish company. Is the sovereignty of Britain affected because Heathrow is not run by the Department of Civil Aviation? Civil aviation should exist as a policymaker. The problem in many countries is that they combine policymaking with running the utility.”

Interestingly, as a student in the 1960s, Aziz was an admirer of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the firebrand leftwing leader and father of Benazir Bhutto. He, along with a friend, even went to meet the charismatic politician. “As any young Pakistani at the time, we admired a leader like him. He was very articulate.”

Bhutto was also big on nationalisation, I tell Aziz. “He was, but we were kids. At that time, we didn’t know what nationalisation meant.”

Later while working at Citibank, Aziz met Benazir Bhutto, who sought his advice on her dealings with the IMF. While Aziz was the prime minister, were there clear lines between his role and that of President Musharraf? “We had a very good relationship. He never interfered in what I was doing. He was focusing on diplomacy, the external side, the military, and partly the intelligence services. He had his strengths, I had mine. There was so much work to be done. That is why it worked.”

Did he ever have to say “no” to Musharraf? “Yes. If there are things which shouldn’t be done, you would make your views [heard]. And he is a good listener, has an open mind. He is a quick learner, a very smart and intuitive person.”

Any example of when he had to say no to, or didn’t agree with Musharraf? “There were many things. The cheque book was with me so that gave me the clout,” he says, laughing. “But we never had any serious disagreement. Whenever we told him, ‘We didn’t have the money, we can’t do this’, he would say OK. He knew that my agenda was Pakistan. I had no personal agenda.”

I press for a specific example. “Musharraf was like the chairman in Citibank. He never interfered. Once you are in charge, you run with it. You can monitor but you cannot interfere. And the things that we disagreed on is privileged information.”

Did he ever ask how his name was shortlisted to be part of the government? “I have no idea. They probably asked somebody to make a list of senior Pakistani bankers, or financiers, in the country and outside. I never met anybody. Somebody might have given my name. [I] never expressed any desire to work for the government.” He never asked them? “No. Why should I? In the corporate world, it is very common — headhunters keep calling you.”

Pakistan has a close relationship with the UAE, he says. “When I joined the government, I went with Musharraf to Abu Dhabi and met Shaikh Zayed — God bless him. He was wisdom personified. He gave us the right advice.”

Aziz sees Dubai as the hub, or the melting pot, of the region. “Look at Emirates airline. Under the chairmanship of Shaikh Ahmad Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, President of Dubai Civil Aviation and Chairman and CEO of Emirates airline and Group, it has gone from the time they leased one Airbus 300 from PIA to being one of the largest airlines in the world today.”

How long did it take to write the book? “I think writing took about a year, but thinking about it took two years.”

On Nawaz Sharif, the current prime minister of Pakistan, he says: “He has been the prime minister twice before. He is a nationalist. He is trying to do the best he can for the country. He means well, and I think that is what we need.”

Would Aziz like to go back to politics? “No, I have done my bit. I am too old.”

And would Imran Khan, the contender from opposition, be a good leader for Pakistan? “I think time will tell,” says Aziz.

Although he travels a lot, Aziz has his home now in Dubai, and is a champion of Pakistan’s relationship with the UAE. “The relationship between Pakistan and the UAE has been very special,” he says. “We have interacted very well at the people-to-people, at the government-to-government level ... It is a place where Pakistanis don’t feel alien,” he says.

Syed Hamad Ali is a writer based in London.