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Blurred lines: business and partying among Pakistan’s elite April 9, 2015

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Rosita Armytage

As we walk from the cul-de-sac clogged by Land Cruisers, Mercedes and BMWs towards a residence in one the city’s most exclusive suburbs, trickles of laughter and music drift down to greet us. Drivers emerge to open back doors, while the shalwar kameez clad workers of the construction site opposite survey the procession of suits and gowns from where they rest on tomorrow’s stacked bricks. A white-suited staff member leads us through the fairy-lit and manicured gardens, and a waiter descends with a tray of glasses of red and white wine, immediately offering to make my companion something stronger. Across the lawn, men in black suits stand about smoking, drinking whiskey and water, talking politics and business, while brightly decorated, bejeweled and kohl-lined women gather uneasily on couches, eyeing one another critically whilst loudly proclaiming how pleased they are to see each other.

This is Islamabad, and being invited to this party means you’ve made it: to a club where the grass is green, the liquor imported, and the wealth is unimaginable.

At parties like this one the lines between social and business networks blur, as one mingles with the highest tier of Pakistan’s commercial and political elite. Favor-giving and exclusive social networking are critical features of how big business gets done at the uppermost tier in Pakistan – or anywhere, really. But while these are universal characteristics of elite-level business, in the context of Pakistan’s weak regulatory structure the exclusionary element of this world is both compounded and solidified – serious profit-making depends on access to decision-makers and the influential people around them, and it is an access that is extremely difficult to obtain.  As a result, at its uppermost levels, the country’s economic system is closed, and the elite, not legal statutes, create, control, and guard their domain, serving as gatekeepers to those outsiders who might seek to gain entry.

Most of Punjab and Khyber Paktunkhwa’s big business owners and business families (those in the very uppermost tier of wealth) are part of closed communities consisting of family empires spanning three generations. While the social, cultural and economic capital these families inherit take various forms and flow from varied family histories, it remains rare to find first generation wealth amongst Punjabi or Pathan businessmen who are under sixty years of age. The story is different in Karachi, where social structures are less rigid and business acumen is at least as highly regarded as family background. In Karachi, the ‘old money’ won’t just do deals with the ‘new money’, they’ll socialize with them too.

Broadly speaking, Pakistan’s business community today can be broken down into three distinct types: the landed elite of the British era (pre-1947), colloquially known as the ‘feudals’; those families who successfully capitalized on the opportunities created in the upheaval of the partition with India (whose wealth emerged in the twenty-five years following Partition); and the ‘new money’, who achieved major business wealth from the mid-1970s onwards. In reality however, despite their moniker, the family heads of most of this last group are already more than sixty years old. Though Pakistan’s class structure was relatively fluid in the decades following Partition, it is now extremely rare, if not impossible, for an individual of lower or middle class origin to gain entry into the theaters and forums where elite business takes place, regardless of their talent, entrepreneurship or level of education.

I came to Pakistan to understand how people achieve wealth and influence in a country with huge potential, ongoing political instability, and severely deteriorating security.  Over the last 15 months, I met and socialized with hundreds of Pakistan’s most successful business people, as well as individuals from major political families, staff from government regulatory bodies and government ministries; prosecutorial and defense lawyers; journalists and editors; and the wives, daughters, sons and girlfriends of major business families.  I ate in their homes,  met with their families, talked with their friends and associates at dinners, and danced at their weddings.

Excerpt reprinted from Tanqeed, February 2105. Read the full article

Rosita Armytage is an Islamabad-based researcher and PhD candidate in Anthropology at the Australian National University, Canberra.

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