As Pakistani residents in the UAE mark their country’s Independence Day it will be in the context of unprecedented challenges where the nation has worked alongside the UAE to confront the global threat of the coronavirus pandemic.
Pakistan and the UAE have a long and historic relationship but during Covid-19, the leaderships from both countries have been in regular contact and the UAE has sent medical supplies to Pakistan. The two nations also collaborated on repatriating Pakistanis in what would become the biggest operation of its kind in the country’s history.
“The evacuation plan was well coordinated by the embassy and the local authorities. We operated more than 300 flights over that period, to evacuate those who were willing to return to Pakistan, including not only residents but Pakistanis who were on visit visas here,” says Ghulam Dastgir, Ambassador of Pakistan to the UAE.
“We managed to repatriate around 80,000 people through Pakistani airlines and UAE carriers between April 18 and June 27.”
The evacuation plan was well coordinated by the embassy and the local authorities. We operated more than 300 flights over that period.
Ahmed Amjad Ali, Consul General, Dubai, UAE, says that the repatriation drive began in March. “Once the outbreak started, our first challenge came on March 21 when Pakistan closed its airspace and the airports were closed. There were many people who were stranded at airports and who could not land in Pakistan.
“We repatriated the first batch of people on March 23 on a special flight. Since airspace was closed and there were no flights there was a huge influx of people coming to the consulate every day. We started a database of people who wanted to be repatriated and we also started the distribution of ration food packages.”
Funded by the consulate with support from Pakistani philanthropists, more than 17,500 ration packs were distributed to expats and following the implementation of Dubai’s 24-hour lockdown, delivery drivers were used to ensure that the packages were sent to where they were needed most across the UAE.
We received more than 80,000 applications for repatriation from Dubai and between April 18 and June 27, we sent 32,500 people home on flights.
“We learned from both sides on how to handle the virus. Pakistan has done very well and we are pleased to announce that the infection rates have come down significantly. The UAE has also been very good at controlling the virus,” says Dastgir.
A colossal effort
“On April 18, we had our first repatriation flight to Islamabad and this operation continued until June 27. The consulate was in charge of all of the Pakistan International Airline (PIA) flights. There were also some UAE flights but those were chartered flights,” says Ali.
He says there were also two special flights that month for UAE Pakistani prisoners, who were pardoned by the government.
“We received more than 80,000 applications for repatriation from Dubai and between April 18 and June 27 we sent 32,500 people home on 141 PIA flights. It was one of the biggest repatriation acts ever and it was the biggest that has happened in the history of Pakistan,” says Ali.
Accommodation was provided to more than 800 people in different labour camps and houses and, up to June 27, almost Dh1 million was spent on free tickets for more than 1,000 people who could not afford them. Subsidies were also provided for tickets.
Ali says that the operation was only possible due to support from the UAE. “The cooperation from the UAE authorities was immaculate. We were regularly in touch with police authorities, the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs, civil aviation and airport authorities. They were immensely helpful so I must praise the UAE authorities for their support during the pandemic.
“From May 14, with the help of Dubai Health Authority and Dubai Airports, rapid coronavirus tests were carried out at the airport for all of our flights. We gave priority to sick people, pregnant women, elderly people and students.”
The Ambassador says that it was also a period where the embassy was working to provide expats with the latest information and advice. “When the pandemic started in March and the flights were closed, we advised Pakistanis to follow the advice from the local government. We actively kept communications with our population open and we updated our messages on social media and our website as well as through the consulate,” he says.
According to Dastgir, up to May 2020, trade between the UAE and Pakistan grew significantly. “The data from July 2019 to May 2020 shows our trade with the UAE has increased around 17 per cent. There are many factors for this. Pakistan is in very close proximity to the UAE and sectors such as food and textiles are items which are not really dropping in demand during the coronavirus,” he says.
The Pakistan government has prioritised developing tourism and infrastructure and welcomes investment from the UAE. Pakistan has also created special economic zones to encourage investment and information about these zones is being shared by the government with the UAE government and private sector.
“We hope that the incentives and the friendly investment environment created by the Pakistan government will help our friends here in the UAE,” says Dastgir.
The Consul General, says that while the UAE and Pakistan’s relationship may have strengthened, the two nations’ battle against Covid-19 still remains. “Since June 27, the operation is still not finished and we have sent around 3,500 people back to Pakistan on free flights.
“In this period around 400 people have been provided with food and accommodation.” He also says that the consulate has launched a free legal service for Pakistani expats and that they continue work on the development and improvement of their three UAE schools. During the pandemic, 350 free laptops were distributed to students to facilitate distance learning.
The Consul General says that working together is how Pakistanis will overcome the challenges of the coronavirus and is grateful to the UAE authorities for their support during the repatriation drive.
“I would congratulate Pakistanis on their Independence Day. We are passing through difficult times and we all need to support each other and we need to take care of ourselves and our loved ones. Let’s all work together for the prosperity of Pakistan and the UAE, which is our second home.
“I would like thank all Pakistanis who have wholeheartedly supported us in this cause. I would also like to give special thanks to the UAE government, UAE authorities, Pakistani authorities and those who supported us to complete such a large operation.”
The Ambassador also recognises the UAE’s efforts in the remarkable repatriation of Pakistanis. “My message to my Pakistani brothers and sisters living in the UAE is that your safety and security is very important during this pandemic.
“My advice is that people should continue to follow the SOPs and the directives from the government. They should abide by the rules and regulations of the UAE and wherever they are working, they should try to undertake the responsibility given to them with devotion and dedication.
“I would like to convey appreciation to the UAE leadership and government for the cooperation and assistance that they have extended to our nationals here through this pandemic. I would also like to thank them for the cooperation they extended to the Pakistan government in controlling this pandemic.
It was a huge evacuation and would not have been possible without the support of the UAE authorities.”