In Turbulent Pakistan, Start-Ups Drive a Boom

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Pakistan’s political scene is growing more clouded, but a clear demonstration of confidence in the country’s future is coming from an emerging economic force: entrepreneurs. ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan’s political scene is growing more clouded, but a clear demonstration of confidence in the country’s future is coming from an emerging economic force: entrepreneurs.

Scores of new businesses once unseen in Pakistan, from fitness studios to chic coffee shops to hair-transplant centers, are springing up in the wake of a dramatic economic expansion. As a result, new wealth and unprecedented consumer choice have become part of Pakistan’s volatile social mix.

Volatility has erupted often in recent weeks. Yesterday, two bombs exploded outside this city, killing 25 people. Adding to the political uncertainty is the expected return Monday from exile of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted in a 1999 military coup led by Pervez Musharraf. To counter that challenge, President Musharraf is close to sealing a power-sharing pact with another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto. The two aim to join forces in a government that would take on Islamic extremists who have recently launched a series of suicide attacks around Pakistan. (See related article1.)

Clashes between militants and security forces have pushed Pakistan toward an uncertain future. But they have largely overshadowed some of the broader changes taking place.

A new class of entrepreneurs is emerging who, in small but significant ways, have challenged the religious orthodoxy. They provide a stark counterpoint to the rising Islamic radicalism that the U.S. and others view as a threat to Pakistan’s position as a staunch Western ally. And with many importing ideas from abroad, they are contributing to Pakistan’s 21st-century search for itself.

“Can you be modern and Muslim? How is Pakistan going to link into the global economy?” asks Ali Cheema, an economics professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences, who has researched Pakistan’s entrepreneurs. “These people are posing important questions.”

By sheer demographic weight, the younger generation will determine Pakistan’s direction. Of its 160 million people, 100 million are under the age of 25. Many are rural, poor and unprepared for a role in the global economy. But fast economic growth has also drawn more men and women to the cities, propelling some up the income ladder through education and new jobs.

On a recent summer afternoon, clerics from a Muslim seminary here walked across the street to a new boutique, which purports to be the first couture store in Islamabad. The bearded men, clad in white cotton tunics and trousers, were patrolling the neighborhood for signs of moral laxity. Upon entering the store, they walked over to a rack of slinky shirts.

“Our women don’t wear such clothes,” declared one of the visitors.

“You’re right,” replied Yasser Anees, the boutique’s 26-year-old co-owner. “Those are for men.” The patrol soon departed.

Overall, the entrepreneurial class remains a sliver, just over a million people by some estimates. Much of the business is confined to pockets of urban wealth that most Pakistanis won’t experience in their lifetimes. And yet, the brief business careers of many entrepreneurs show how rapidly dramatic change can unfold in Pakistan. That change also helps explain why Gen. Musharraf remains relatively popular among this group.

Following recent events that have engulfed his government in turmoil, Gen. Musharraf can use all the support he can get. His efforts earlier this year to oust the country’s Supreme Court chief — which were unsuccessful — provoked months of street protests from people worried about the loss of civil liberties, many of them from Pakistan’s new middle class.

Meanwhile, many fear the country has become less safe. The Pakistani army has battled militants in the northwest and on the border with Afghanistan, which is where the U.S. government believes tribal chieftains harbor key figures of al-Qaeda, possibly including Osama bin Laden. In July, Pakistani security forces raided a heavily fortified mosque in Islamabad, killing dozens of armed militants.

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Source: Wall Street Journal (link opens in a new window)