Syed Haider Shah came to Nepal in November 2020 to serve as Pakistan’s ambassador to Nepal. Before his new diplomatic assignment in Kathmandu, Shah was an Acting High Commissioner at the Pakistan High Commission, New Delhi. Republica had an extensive interview with ambassador Shah on a range of bilateral issues. Excerpts:
It has only been a few months since you came to Nepal. What is your initial impression of Nepal and its people?
My impressions are very positive and upbeat. Nepal is lavishly endowed with natural beauty. It is a treasure trove for nature lovers and especially those infatuated with mountains. The people of Nepal are peaceful, friendly and cooperative. They are simple yet brimming with humility and kindness.
What will be your major tasks in improving Nepal-Pakistan ties?
Our two countries enjoy warm and friendly relations. Our relationship spans thousands of years. Pakistan wishes to further strengthen, deepen and broaden our bilateral ties in all domains including political, socio-economic, cultural, defence, and people-to-people. There is goodwill and fraternal feelings on both sides – we need to harness this positive energy and infuse it into our bilateral ties. Increasing cooperation in human resource development, education, health, infrastructure, connectivity, defence – there are many areas in which we can make further progress. Our priority would remain high-level political contacts, expansion in bilateral trade, and expanding socio-economic cooperation. These will assist in further strengthening bilateral cooperation in other areas also.
Why have the two countries failed to enhance trade, connectivity and other areas of mutual cooperation? How do we fix this?
I would be reluctant to characterize it in such terms. I believe the leadership on the two sides remains aware of the need to enhance trade, connectivity and overall cooperation in different fields. As we are both at different stages of development, it is often not without challenges to pursue our different priorities simultaneously. I believe the political will and commitment on both sides is of crucial importance. Both Nepal and Pakistan are part of the Belt & Road initiative. Hopefully, in the coming days we will continue to steadily pursue our mutually beneficial objectives of enhancing, inter-alia, bilateral trade and connectivity.
Sports is a common theme that can strengthen relations between the two countries. Cricket is popular in both the countries. How can we enhance cooperation between the cricket teams of our two countries?
We are in touch with our Nepali counterparts. I couldn't agree more with you that sports is a powerful binder – and cricket fans in our two countries share similar views about the role of this sport in bringing our two countries closer. We are exploring different possibilities to enhance our cooperation in the field of sports, particularly cricket.
Countries like Nepal and Pakistan have a tough job of balancing act: Dealing with big powers in the region and also maintaining our sovereignty. How do we work to strengthen our sovereignty, and amplify our voice in the international stage?
The current international system, with the United Nations providing a crucial platform for all countries, to come together, and deliberate on issues of global concern, provides both Nepal and Pakistan an opportunity to join hands and work together with like-minded countries on issues of common importance. International system remains dynamic as it grapples with different challenges, from pandemic to cybersecurity, to climate change and technology, let alone the more basic issues of peace, security and socio-economic and political nature. The UN system also encourages regional cooperative approaches – both Nepal and Pakistan can and should make use of the UN and other multilateral and regional platforms to ensure full compliance with the basic purposes and principles of United Nations system – including the rule of law, respect for sovereignty of state and their territorial integrity and pacific settlement of disputes. Our two countries have been cooperating with each other at the international and multilateral fora. We should further deepen our cooperation in these areas in pursuance of our common objectives.
What should Nepal do to bring in more Pakistani tourists and vice versa?
Both Nepal and Pakistan have huge tourist potential, from nature tourism to mountain tourism to religious tourism. Our two sides are in the process of exploring ways to further deepen our cooperation in the tourism sector – as it remains a potentially significant contributor to our economic growth. Pakistan has been simplifying its visa procedures – and hopefully, this would encourage greater flow of tourists from Nepal. Facilitation for travellers between our two countries through simplified procedures, better information dissemination, and logistical arrangements can promote two-way tourism.
There are opportunities for collaboration between the institutes of higher education. What will be your role to make that happen?
We are already engaged in facilitating higher education of Nepalis in Pakistan in different disciplines. We are in the process of further streamlining, and expanding educational assistance to Nepali students. We are also exploring ways to further promote cooperation in higher education. Some MoUs have been signed between our higher education institutions. We hope to fully operationalize them – so that we have an increased exchange of students for professional training as well as research and development activities.
Both countries sit on top of highly active seismic land. There was some level of cooperation in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquakes. How can the two countries work on this issue: especially in areas of preparedness and rebuilding efforts?
Our world has been increasingly prone to natural disasters, including earthquakes. Pakistan and Nepal remain vulnerable to natural disasters. I think our disaster management authorities can cooperate by exchanging information, sharing of experiences etc. There are mechanisms where such exchange and cooperation is already happening. It would be useful to expand this cooperation bilaterally. Similarly, the two countries can share experiences in reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts, including ways to ensure structural safety of new or existing buildings in areas under seismic threats.
What are some of the places you are excited to visit here in Nepal during your tenure?
It’s a long list. For the time being suffice to say that Pokhara and Lumbini are next.
Are we likely to see some high-level visits between the two countries during your tenure?
As I mentioned, enhancing high-level visits is a priority. Currently, COVID-19 pandemic has put a dampener on international travel in general and high-level bilateral visits in particular. Hopefully, the COVID situation will improve in the coming months to ease such contacts at the highest level.