Hanging out with Pakistan’s 1%

By Fouzia Nasir Ahmad
Published in The Express Tribune on March 05, 2023

KARACHI: Rosita Armytage, a governance specialist, anthropologist and author from Australia recently visited Pakistan to launch her book Big Capital in an Unequal World: The Micro Politics of Wealth in Pakistan, a fascinating insight into Pakistan’s upper crust, and how it maintains its position and reinforces inequality in the country.

This was not Armytage’s first visit to Pakistan. She first came here as a backpacker and fell in love with the country. Later, she returned as an NGO worker for a development programme and then a researcher.

Choosing Pakistan for her PhD research project, she set out to investigate Pakistan’s elite. Her research based on interviews of many people from elite families revealed that beneath the formal structure lie networks of power and influence linked by family, social connections and marriages through which economic and political competition, deals and alliances are made.

Initially, her focus was going to be about the aspirations of the middle class, but a car ride to Lahore, changed the course of her research. “I wanted to learn more about middle-class Pakistanis as I spent a lot of time with my colleagues and my friends,” she says. “But one day, I had to go to Lahore to meet some academics at LUMS and was all set for a Daewoo trip, but my friend who I was staying with suggested that I go with a friend of hers who was driving to Lahore. Over the three and a half hours of this car ride to Lahore, I started asking questions and this amazing story came out about this person’s family business as a cigarette manufacturer, his family, networks of uncles and cousins and family members involved in trade with China, and of the bribes they’d recently been asked to pay.”

By the time they arrived in Lahore, Armytage had made up her mind to write a book about big business families. “A few days later, I sat with an industrialist, his brother and his cousin and one of their family friends, the son of a prominent Lahore politician and they drew this three-page long list of the wealthiest and most powerful business people in Pakistan to be interviewed,” she recalls. “They marked at least 20 people off that list that they could access either through work or friends.”

Eventually, Armytage had several interviews lined up with some of the biggest business families in Lahore.

“Every person that I interviewed introduced me to more,” says Armytage. “Some I met multiple times for second interviews or to meet more people and it just spiralled. There were challenges, but it opened up in a way that I hadn’t expected. A lot of these families had gone through turbulence because of the instability in Pakistan so was plenty to tell. Sometimes they would speak for hours and I would be exhausted.”

Did they enjoy talking to her or thought she was being nosy? “People were clear about what I was doing,” says Armytage. “I had to form relationships of trust with people who I would be introduced to and I told them that I am writing a book. People enjoy talking about what they do and it’s surprising how much they tell you if you’re genuinely interested in their lives,” she says. “Pakistanis are so used to being asked about terrorism and political instability that I think they were delighted to be asked about their success. Mostly, it would be about their work, families and friendships. Also I could gauge how much freedom I had to ask. There were some areas, however, where I was advised to not go too far.”

Did being a foreigner and a woman help in these influential people loosening up?

“I have an entire chapter in the book about my position as a middle-class foreign woman enabling me to access often older, Pakistani, wealthy men who were far above me in social class and from a different culture,” she responds. “Being a woman changes the dynamic significantly. That type of access is difficult for Pakistani journalists.”

Armytage claims to be well-accustomed to the Pakistani society, since she has been exposed to it for 22 years in different capacities.

Her research points out that the wealthy in Pakistan are not a homogenous group, but divided along various lines such as region, ethnicity, religion, and business sector. Armytage argues that these divisions are important for understanding the micro politics of wealth in Pakistan, as they shape the ways in which the wealthy interact with each other and the society.

Hence, the central message of her book is that Pakistan is run by a small group of elite families who comprise different power blocks in business, politics, bureaucracy and military. “They determine the direction of the country, make laws and benefit from that,” she says. “The book looks at how they have power that they have maintained since Partition and in times of major upheavals such as the 1965 and 1971 wars. Basically, the elite creates regulation, but does not have to follow it. They get wealthier and more powerful as they shape up for a better control on things. The book also looks at strategic socialising and marriages and the ‘culture of exemptions.’”

Armytage explains that this culture enables the elite to maintain and buttress their positions and thwart competition. The use of law as a mechanism, plus extralegal and sometimes illegal activities constitute the means of wealth accumulation and preservation as well as tax avoidance.

“Much like the global elite of which they are a part, the Pakistani elite direct the legal and regulatory structures that determine wealth flow and opportunity within the country, while simultaneously operating outside of, and above these structures,” she explains. “There are two groups of established elite. Firstly, those who acquired their wealth pre-partition through land grants and other perks from the Mughal empire all from association with the British and through benefitting from that particular regime, and also in the first couple of decades after Pakistan. Then there are those who acquired their wealth mostly post-1977 in relation to the military regime of the time and other regimes that followed. Within the established elite group, there are a couple of different groups. There is the group of mainly middle-class Gujrati traders who Muhammad Ali Jinnah relied on to establish the new Pakistani nation and that becomes really important when we look at Pakistani elite today. They were called upon to help establish the industry that Pakistan needed. At the time of Partition, all the industrial infrastructure of united India remained in India and an enormous vacuum needed to be filled to justify the needs of the new Pakistan. So these middle-class groups were lured over to Pakistan by Jinnah and his government and given tax concessions and other perks to make business lucrative for them. As a result they really thrived within that community. Most of those traders moved to Karachi while the established elite settled in Lahore, which is closer to the Indo-Pak border that they crossed over.”

Armytage observes that marriages among the elite create bonds between families and promote ‘political dynasties’ which helps protect their power and influence.

“Interestingly, military officers prefer industrialist girls or even the daughters of bureaucrats with good standing and they seem to shy away from politicians,” she says. “Marital strategies continue to be one of the most powerful mechanisms employed by the Pakistani elite to protect their economic assets and their social status, to foster inter-elite networks and to gather information on other elite families.”

Many of the established elite families that Armytage spoke to view themselves as having really high culture and elite dispositions. “Often they have actually lost a lot of wealth that they originally had, but they continue to own property and have high status, even though they’re no longer the most-wealthy people in Pakistan. Many wealth holders are the nouveau riche families but they don’t have old-money prestige and hence feel stigmatised. Often the established elite as gatekeepers, keep out the nouveau riche from institutions such as the elite social clubs of Lahore and Karachi and established elite schools that they want to be part of and where business and marriage decisions are made. They try to keep them out because these families are losing income comparative to the nouveau riche families. Marriages blend the wealth of one family with the status of another, provide an overall security and stability, and protect these families from political volatility. Some influential families have connections to the princely states in India so it’s all about propelling upward mobility.”

Armytage explains why, for instance, people from solid middle-class backgrounds who were in the military weren’t able to break into the social forums of the established elite and weren’t even able to do business with a certain group of people. “It is because they were never invited to the right parties,” she says. “But when they go about setting up marriages with the daughters or sons of some of those most established elite families, it brings a huge influx of capital to families who are running on fumes despite huge properties.”

Another interesting deduction Armytage makes is that Pakistani elites don’t like to dominate and be competitive in the world because they enjoy being big fish in a little pond. “A number of elites in other parts of the world also find that when they leave their country, they lose their status and access that they had before,” she points out. “When the Russian elites came to London, they brought in enormous wealth, much more than the Londoners they were spending time with. Yet they couldn’t break into these elite circles because they were viewed as too ostentatious and crass.”

Since most of her research done in 2014 was a turbulent time for Pakistan, many people told Armytage they couldn’t possibly move overseas permanently, because it would be dull without the excitement of Pakistani politics and being in the centre of the constant drama.

Towards the end of the book she discusses that the contemporary Pakistani elite are closer to their colonial predecessors in their abuse of power and moral grounds than they would like to acknowledge.

Armytage sees food insecurity, climate change, and uneducated youth population as serious challenges for Pakistan and she hopes that the country would increase its wealth base and that as a result of moving into middle-income status, there could be more wealth available and less people living in poverty. She believes that good policy making can transform people’s access to resources, their ability to grow their own income and to improve the lives of a larger number of people, which has happened to some degree in each of the decades post-partition.

Clearing misconceptions about her book, Armytage says, “It’s not an economic study of power or a prescription to run the economy of Pakistan or to solve its power distribution. These are personalised stories of how the elite lives, captures and maintains power. Rather than attempting to diagnose a problem or solve it, my focus was on understanding the elite stronghold on power. The title is analytical, not on the economy of Pakistan, but on the unity and collaboration of the elite to benefit from that power, benefits not accessible to common people. The elite doesn’t need to improve the education system because they can send their children wherever they like. Why would they need to improve the health system when they can go to Dubai? It only becomes their problem when they feel they are not going to be elected to power. The elite knows this, while the middle class may not be completely aware. My book brings it to light in a structured and clear way. There is a value in verbalising something that exists deep in the society.”

Will there be a follow-on to this book, perhaps a decade later, to gauge what has changed?

She laughs and says that there are many stories behind the stories in this book that she could tell, but that would not be non-fiction.

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