FeaturedNationalVolume 13 Issue # 01

Ambiguous loyalties

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was disqualified for holding an Iqama (work permit) of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Though he faces more serious charges in a few weeks, yet his Iqama proved to be even more fatal for him than the original Panama case in the court.

According to experts, at least 100 Members of the National Assembly (MNAs) belonging to the government and the opposition hold work permits of other countries. The number could be even larger. Besides the disgraced Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, his Defence Minister Khawaja Asif and Planning and Development Minister Ahsan Iqbal also held Iqamas. The two ministers have also been included in the new cabinet. There were also rumours on social media about the newly elected Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Finance Minister Ishaq Dar holding work permits; however, they have denied it and no proof has emerged against them so far.

According to media reports, Ahsan Iqbal, who was minister for planning and development in the Nawaz cabinet and is interior minister in the new cabinet, had an Iqama for a Madina-based firm. After keeping quiet initially, he admitted that he held the kingdom’s work/residence permit for two years. “I worked in Madina Munawarah 2004-06 afterwards retained Iqama without receiving any compensation for frequent travel hence no illegal act,” he said in a Twitter message. In a statement, a spokesman for his ministry said he had served as an adviser to the governor of Madina from 2004 to 2006 on a digital economy project. He claimed the minister had not taken any salary for the project since 2006, and he had declared his Iqama in his nomination papers in 2013.

Pakistan’s former Defence Minister and newly-appointed Foreign Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif has also admitted to drawing a monthly salary of more than Rs1.40 million from a UAE-based firm. Documents prove the PML-N minister works as a “Management Consultant” in an Abu Dhabi-based firm and draws a monthly salary of AED50,000 for his services. According to his contract letter, released by the UAE Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation, he also had his UAE labour card renewed on June 29, 2017, which is valid till June 28, 2019. Overall, the minister has held three Iqamas during different periods; one from 2007 to 2010, the second from 2010 to 2011, and the third for further six months. However, he said the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) were aware of his Iqamas and he had a bank account in Abu Dhabi since 1984. It is said former Presidents Asif Ali Zardari and General (retd) Pervez Musharraf, Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah, PPP’s Maula Bux Chandio and a few PTI leaders also hold Iqamas.

One wonders why our “respectable” and billionaire politicians obtain work permits of the UAE and Saudi Arabia on “fake salaries”?According to experts, there are some reasons for our politicians to hold Iqamas despite the fact that they know that they could be disqualified by the court. In many countries, including Switzerland, banks require only residential addresses to open accounts. They do not ask for the nationality before opening an account. Our corrupt politicians use their residential addresses in the UAE and Saudi Arabia to open accounts in foreign banks. They do not receive salaries, or receive fake salaries, but they pay full taxes in the Gulf countries. An Iqma holder has just to visit the countries once in four or six months and they do not have to live there permanently. It helps them escape accountability as they have used the UAE and Saudi Aabia as their residential places and the foreign banks or governments have no information that they are Pakistanis. It was perhaps the main reason the ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had obtained an Iqama of the UEA to avoid reporting of his bank accounts in other countries. One could easily understand his nervousness when he desperately tried to contact the UAE government officials when two members of the joint investigation team (JIT) had reached there to receive information about his business and bank accounts. Later, he wrote an official letter to the UAE authorities to attend his phone call, but by then the information had been provided to the JIT members.

Another benefit of the Iqama is that the holder can flee Pakistan easily, when an emergency arises. They do not have to apply for a visa if they have an Iqama. It makes their escape easier. Getting a UAE Iqama is also cheaper and easier as it has no residency requirements except that one visit is mandatory in six months to maintain an Iqama.

According to experts, over 80pc people in the National Assembly could hold Iqmas of the UAE and other Gulf countries. It is a grave issue and could be more serious than the Panama case. Pakistani politicians have devised novel ways to avoid taxes, stash their wealth abroad and escape accountability in the country. Iqamas are a part of the scam. The court has reached the bottom of the issue. It is why it has disqualified Nawaz Sharif. The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) had decided to move the court against Iqama holders a few weeks ago. However, it has not challenged them in court yet, as some of its own leaders could be Iqma holders. If it loses some leaders after the petition, it will not be a big deal. Instead, it will improve its image. Otherwise, the court should take suo motu notice of the issue and take action against all Iqama holders. Justice also demands similar treatment to all Iqma holders after the disqualification of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on its basis.