Pakistan 'oil wealth': workers toiling in foreign oil fields

* A brightly painted concrete house among the mud and stone dwellings of a Northwest Frontier village. * A brand-new video cassette recorder in the slums of Karachi.

* The son of an illiterate Punjabi subsistance farmer studying law at Lahore University.

All these are the benefits of Pakistan's "human oil wealth" -- the steadily expanding pool of remittances sent home by more than 2 million workers employed overseas.

Added together, the remittances constitute this country's single most important hard- currency asset. And the rush to the shops that it has generated among the normally deprived lower classes has begun to provoke a radical social change here.

The remittances nearly equal Pakistan's total export earnings. This past fiscal year (ending June 1981) the remittances were estimated officially at more than $2.1 billion, a $400 million rise over the previous year. That is a vital contribution toward reducing Islamabad's surging balance-of-payments deficit.

Unofficially, however, the actual flow of overseas hard currency back into Pakistan is thought to be a lot higher.

"A considerable portion of remittances simply remain undeclared and are channeled in by means other than the central state bank," noted one economist. Attracted relatively high salaries, the great majority of Pakistanis overseas head for the oil-producing Middle East nations, in particular, Saudi Arabia.

Benefiting from the region's post 1974 construction boom, most of these primarily poor and illiterate Pakistanis from a rural background are employed as ordinary laborers. Roughly one-third of Pakistani work force could be categorized as semiskilled, ranging from truck drivers to electricians. Only a small elite, perhaps less than 5 percent, are considered highly qualified. These include doctors, technicians, and engineers.

Pakistani military personnel, either "retired" but actively operating with certain Arab military forces or officially loaned by the Islamabad government, hover on the fringes of this overseas employment phenomenon.

Pakistan has also reportedly received $1.2 billion from Saudi Arabia in return for the stationing of a $10,000-man contingent as a special security force for the Saudi royal family.

Despite well-publicized warnings by both the government and Western embassies concerning stiff visa requirements, a significant number of Pakistani workers still seek golden opportunity in Europe or North America.

Usually they cultivate hopes of eventually bringing over their families. Encouragement comes from friends and relatives and from promises of employment made by job racketeers who sell as bait counterfeit work permits and impressively stamped documents.

Pakistanis continue to make the arduous overland bus journeys through Iran and Turkey to Western Europe. Others are smuggled in by boat or transported en masse on cheap flights to Brussels, Berlin, or London.

All too often, the result is deportation. The hapless worker finds himself back home, possibly minus several thousand dollars worth of savings or borrowed capital.

In the Gulf jobs and visas are a great deal more accessible. However, while opening up their frontiers, the oil-producing Arab countries have been careful to avoid the sort of "guest worker" problems experienced by West Germany, France , and the Netherlands. Overseas workers are issued limited, albeit often renewable, work permits to prevent them from staying on a permanent basis.

With foreigners often grossly outnumbering indigenous nationals, the Gulf regimes harbor deep fears to their guests. There is also a concern over possible subversion. As a result, only highly qualified government or company contract personnel may bring their families. Workers involved in trade union activities are immediately deported. In some cases, troublemakers have been killed.

What the Saudis and their Gulf neighbors are effectively practicing is a form of apartheid, observed one West European diplomat. "They want all the benefits of migrant workers to help construct their economies, but not the political or social inconveniencies."

For the most part, Pakistani workers express little desire to settle in the Gulf and do not seem perturbed by countries stressing their temporary status. Their main ambition is to make as much money as possible and then return home to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

Life overseas is therefore a matter of working, living in group dormitories, visiting the family on vacations, and above all, sending back those hard-earned remittances.

To take one example, Muhammad Sadiq Khan is a middle-aged kashmiri with four children. He works as a cook with a diplomatic family in Islamabad. He spent four years in Muscat and one year in Dubai engaged as a mess assistant for an American construction company. There he earned enough money to build himself three houses, buy a color TV set, a refrigeratror, and send his daughter to college.

"If I had not gone overseas, I would never have been able to even dream of such luxuries," he says. "In the Gulf I made four times more than here in Pakistan. My room and board were free and apart from day-to-day expenses, I saved most of my salary, at least 3,000 rupees ($300) a month."

Such rapid wealth has opened up previously unimagined avenues for Pakistan's illiterate poor, roughly 70 percent of the country's population. It has permitted visible improvements in material living standards ranging from new housing to automobiles. Even more striking, higher education, normally a middle-class preserve, is no longer out of reach for the children of lower-class parents. In a country where university qualifications are often as treasured as campaign medals at a military ceremony, "my son the doctor . . ." remains a pertinent symbol of social accomplishment.

The fact that so many Pakistani workers are able to find employment overseas has temporarily helped defuse some of the country's more pressing problems. In effect, with each overseas worker statistically supporting five dependents, some 10 million Pakistanis are for the moment not a burden on the government.

The government is aware that this massive source could quite easily dry up in the event of crisis. Thus it has established a series of housing investment and training programs of varying success in an attempt to direct remittances more effectively into the economy.

But the great majority of overseas workers still seek to satisfy their consumer needs first before considering long-term needs.

Another major concern is creeping competition by other foreign nationals in the Gulf. The highly efficient South Koreans have already seriously begun to eclipse the Pakistanis in many places. Indians, often so desperate for employment that they are willing to work for little more than room and board, have begun to undermine the market.

By seeking to bring Pakistan closer to the Middle East with his rigidly fundamentalist policies, President Zia ul-Haq is hoping to present his Muslim countrymen as ideal working partners free of the corruptible non-Islamic influences that other foreigners might have.

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