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October 26, 1999
The Citibank executive who will now manage Pakistan
Andrew Hill in Islamabad
Shaukat Aziz, the US bank executive entrusted with fixing Pakistan's feeble economy, is an example of the local talent that has flourished outside the country during its ten-year slide into chaotic poverty. ''He has thrived. But unlike many of his contemporaries, he has not lost touch with Pakistan and is a frequent visitor who knows everyone in the banking and business community,'' said a contemporary, who declined to be named. ''Whenever he comes home, and he's back four or five times a year, it's hard to see him because he is seeing everyone who matters at breakfast, lunch and dinner. He never lost touch.''
Aziz, 49, is viewed by his peers as a brilliant banker and by successive governments as a touchstone of the new thinking needed to turn around an economy dragging a millstone of debt. But until his appointment as finance minister by army ruler General Pervez Musharraf, Aziz was just another bright Pakistani who preferred to use his talents to make money abroad rather than risk his skills or career in turbulent Pakistan.
'If there is one question mark over him it is that he is a banker rather than an economist. But he will do the things that are needed,'' the contemporary said.
Aziz formed a group of foreign-based bankers who tried to advise ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his wisdom was also sought by Sharif's precedessor, Benazir Bhutto. Aziz flew to Pakistan in 1997 on a jet owned by Citibank, his employer, to try to advise Sharif how to squeeze growth out of a country choked by 32 billion dollars of debt and years of living beyond its means, but the visits stopped as the economy sank.
Like hundreds of thousands of talented Pakistanis, Aziz has made his name and career abroad, rising to head several divisions of New York-based Citibank. He is currently in charge of its global private banking arm. It was not known what lured him back to join a government under the cloud of a military takeover which may bar access to the International Monetary Fund support the economy needs.
The IMF put on hold a 280 million dollar tranche of a 1.56 billion dollar loan programme even before the army's October 12 bloodless coup which led to the detention of Sharif, who is being investigated for alleged corruption. Aziz is expected to impress the IMF, although a decision to release the tranche is thought to be as much dependent upon the West's view of Pakistan's likely return to democratic politics as to its woeful economic performance under Sharif. The tranche was delayed because of a 30-month stand-off between the government and independent power producers on how much they should charge the state utility for electricity.
The dispute crystallised Pakistan's key problems - stop-go government and an acute shortage of foreign exchange. When Gen Musharraf came to power and appointed himself chief executive of an army-led government, he said overseas Pakistanis had a key role to play in realising his dream to steer Pakistan ''out of despondency, with no light anywhere.'' The overseas Pakistani community, spread between north America, Britain and the Gulf, is viewed by donors as a key resource, not only because of the lifeblood foreign remittances that top up the nation's reserves, but because of its talent.
Aziz joined Citibank in Pakistan in 1969 as an executive. He was posted to Athens in 1975 and has had several other postings for the bank. He is a business graduate from Karachi University's Institute of Business Administration. His family migrated from east Punjab at the time of the partition of the sub-continent in 1947 into India and Pakistan.
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