The risks that Pittsburgh companies see make it challenging to tap into growing country’s potential rewards
In 2009, it seemed like a great idea. Bryan Tamburro, a soft-spoken, steely-eyed international business consultant in Pittsburgh, launched a consulting firm, Rabta LLC, to broker deals between American businesses and this country with an economy growing blisteringly fast.
Mr. Tamburro — who had extensively traveled Pakistan and initially charmed his Pakistani-American wife by correctly guessing her ethnicity and language — became a persuasive promoter of investments focused on transportation, water and energy.
While he garnered some interest, many businesses became wary about the country — particularly after the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. They blamed the liabilities, seen in high insurance rates, of sending workers there. The U.S. State Department issued travel warnings and Commerce Department officials, tasked with promoting economic diplomacy, were holed away in compounds.
One U.S. power company refused to meet prospective partners in Pakistan, insisting on meeting in Singapore to sign deals, Mr. Tamburro said.
“Pakistanis were insulted,” he said. He fumed as deal after deal fell through.
The struggle to advance business with the South Asian country — and Mr. Tamburro’s earnest effort to promote it — is emblematic of the rocky U.S.-Pakistan relationship over the years.
Pakistan, viewed through a U.S. lens, is an enigma. The country has been, at best, an ally in the fight against common enemies and, at worst, an unpredictable partner marred by terrorism and the decades-old conflicts with its neighbors, India and Afghanistan.
But many Pakistanis — including the hundreds who live in the Pittsburgh region — have a fierce desire for Americans to view them not as adversaries but as an advanced society with a vibrant history and culture hospitable to foreigners.
That sentiment was clear during a 10-day visit to the country in March. The Post-Gazette, along with journalists from seven other U.S. newsrooms, participated in an exchange program sponsored by the U.S. State Department.
Organized by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit International Center For Journalists, the program was tucked into legislation passed in 2009 that granted $1.5 billion in annual non-military aid to Pakistan.
The government-sponsored trip came amid souring relations under President Donald Trump, whose tweet on New Year’s Day that Pakistan has given the U.S. “nothing but lies & deceit” stunned many in the country of 208 million people.
A risky venture?
Even companies that have experience working in unstable regions are often hesitant to do business in Pakistan. Preservation Technologies, a Cranberry-based manufacturer of chemicals and equipment that preserve paper documents, was in talks with the National Archives of Pakistan beginning in 2009.
But the company, which was not working with Mr. Tamburro, did not want to send employees to install and maintain the equipment, said Jim Burd, the company’s CEO. It was advised against doing so by the State Department.
“Things really heated up badly in Pakistan,” Mr. Burd said in a recent interview. He was also told bribes would likely to be required: “Nothing would be possible without a significant payment to the appropriate government officials — something we would not and could not do,” he said.
Across Pennsylvania, some industries have found trade with Pakistan lucrative. Since 2008, Pennsylvania businesses have exported $752 million there, mostly in transportation products, while the state’s consumers purchased nearly $1.2 billion worth of Pakistani goods, mostly textiles, clothing and sporting goods.
In this region, General Electric is the undisputed leader. GE Transportation’s manufacturing plant in Grove City has shipped hundreds of locomotives in recent years as Pakistan Railways moves freight from long-haul trucks onto rail networks.
“It represents a great opportunity to modernize (the railway network) and make it more efficient,” said Yuvbir Singh, GE Transportation’s vice president of global locomotive operations.
Pakistanis may start to shift their focus away from luring American dollars. Neighboring China is promising to unleash a $62 billion program in Pakistan to develop its “One Belt, One Road” economic corridor that would push Chinese workers and goods throughout Asia and Europe.
Repairing the message
It is against this difficult backdrop that Riffat Chugtai sees her two homelands colliding.
One February evening earlier this year, her doorbell rang steadily as dozens of visitors filled her Murrysville home. The last guest strode in to applause and handshakes: Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States.
Mr. Chaudhry was wrapping up a visit to Pittsburgh orchestrated by Ms. Chugtai, who was until recently the president of the Pakistani-American Political Action Committee.
Earlier, the ambassador had told a lunch gathering at the Duquesne Club that blaming Pakistan for harboring terrorists was an “oversimplification,” citing figures that terrorist attacks in Pakistan have sharply declined. “We have snuffed them out and secured every square inch” of territory, he insisted.
He then moved to speak to a lecture hall filled with Carnegie Mellon University international relations students: “Corporate America wants to come in — in a big way,” he said. “Why would they invest if Pakistan is so dangerous?”
And in Ms. Chugtai’s home, he spoke to the Pakistani-American community directly, telling them to be their own ambassadors.
This is the type of campaigning Ms. Chugtai pushed for as head of the national PAC organization, which got a remake under her leadership. It was not that Pakistani-Americans were shy about brushing elbows with politicians — but there were no cohesive values from the community reaching those in power, Ms. Chugtai said.
On Capitol Hill, Pakistani-Americans have been known derisively as an “ATM” — or automated teller machine — she said, “because they’re very rich, they’re highly educated and they don’t understand politics.”
“They do amazing fundraisers. They raise a lot of money,” she said. “For me, it was not just having fundraisers or pictures with these people. I wanted to learn as much as I could about what they do and how they do it.”
Ms. Chugtai has long had the ear of politicians. In the 1970s, she represented the liberal Pakistan Peoples Party as student body president of her university, leading thousands of young women in street protests.
When she moved to Pittsburgh in 1981 as her husband — a doctor at UPMC McKeesport — searched for medical residency, she started connecting political candidates with the Pakistani-American community. The community is tiny: Government figures peg Pakistani-born residents of southwestern Pennsylvania at roughly 1,000.
Ms. Chugtai, who has a master’s degree in psychology from Duquesne University, said she translates Pakistan’s “national psyche” for U.S. politicians, including for Sen. Bob Casey and Rep. Mike Doyle. In May, she plans to host Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin at her home for an afternoon tea.
She draws inspiration from her father, who served in the Pakistan Air Force.
“He always used to say don’t ever forget we fought for your freedom, and you have to cherish that freedom and you have to cherish this country,” she said. “That’s why I’m so involved. I have to do something, something positive.”
What comes next?
Pakistan is a diverse, difficult place for visitors to assess in 10 days. The country has problems that are almost unfathomably big: infrastructure woes leading to shortages of drinking water, millions of children out of school and the insidious creep of politics into police forces and schools.
The International Center for Journalists followed strict protocols set by the U.S. State Department, requiring journalists to travel in a van accompanied by an armed guard and to avoid places considered “targets” by the U.S. government.
Yet the trip emphasized the organizations studying the array of problems and demanding that the government address them. Some efforts are led by artists. At the National Artists’ Convention in Islamabad in February, participants called for a national culture policy and better funding.
“People consider art a necessity, but the government has never given it its due importance,” said Syed Jamal Shah, director general of the Pakistan National Council of the Arts.
Others are led by foundations and charitable giving.
The Aman Foundation is a Karachi charitable group that, partially with U.S. aid, runs a trade school to train 2,000 young people and a private ambulance service that has completed nearly one million trips since 2009. It sits in an industrial sector called Korangi, away from glittering malls and wealthy districts, that CEO Ahmad Jalal proudly calls “real Karachi.”
This spring, the first class is slated to graduate from Habib University, a school established in 2014 with $40 million from the Habib family, which owns a conglomerate of companies, including Pakistan’s largest bank.
In March, students lounged with laptops in a cavernous common room called the Playground, where they tackle tech problems like a online tailor service competing with Amazon and a ride-sharing start-up that uses motorbikes deal with traffic challenges in Karachi.
At The Second Floor — a small building containing an art gallery, bookshop and coffeehouse tucked away in a hot, dusty alley in Karachi — the mood was surprisingly upbeat. The space lives on even after its founder, Sabeen Mahmud, was gunned down by religious extremists in April 2015 while sitting at a traffic light just blocks from the gallery.
“The assassination of our founder failed to kill her idea,” said Shaheen Jaffrani, a 26-year-old artist who left an advertising job to become gallery manager in January.
The space hosts exhibitions, conferences and concerts — in March, it featured a film festival exploring gender identity and minority issues in Pakistan. “Every day more and more people approach us who want to exhibit their talent and are in search of a platform. This is what makes me optimistic about this space and the future of Karachi,” she said.
Meanwhile, Mr. Tamburro eventually abandoned his plan to build a business connecting American and Pakistani companies. He dissolved Rabta in about 2013.
“It’s something I don’t want to give up on,” he said. “But we still got a long way to go.”