Representing a country as diverse and stocked with avenues for investment as Pakistan is no mean feat. It is a task requiring the skills of a multi-tasker, able to envisage and promote different facets of the country to different parties — national and global. Only somebody smart and experienced, someone who has become a veteran of the rigours of the market and knows the ins and outs precisely, can handle the pressure. Here, Zeeshan Shah fits the bill perfectly.
Recently appointed by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, Shah does not take his position as Pakistan’s Honorary Ambassador-at-Large on Investments lightly. In fact, he says that it is a role he has been preparing for all his life.
New role in the making
Expressing his gratitude to the Prime Minister for the honour, Shah said that the timings of the news was a bit of a surprise. “I was on a family vacation in California when I was notified about the role. I’ve been juggling the new role with the family duties.” Still on vacation, Shah added that he had already been in contact with the Prime Minister, who had inquired about updates, while he continues to rein in new responsibilities from a foreign land.
Being made responsible for bringing investment into the country is an enormous privilege, Shah affirms. “Beyond the excitement, it is a big responsibility. I am looking to deliver. I have always taken pride in being someone who delivers on his commitments, once I take on something, excellence is always the goal for me. I see it as a big responsibility to deliver beyond and above expectation.”
Speaking about his roles and duties, Shah pointed out that his new position was that of a facilitator, tasked with assisting investors, looking to come to Pakistan and providing them with a smooth process, through the utilisation of various minis¬tries and departments whilst contributing to new policies to enhance ease of doing business in the country.
"I am the focal point for foreign investors looking to come into Pakistanis well as for local investors. Besides that, I will be also looking into the reforms and incentives that we need for investments in the country. Since there are investors who are already in Pakistan or looking to come to this country, we will help remove any impediments that are in their way. I’m also part of the Prime Minister’s task force on foreign investment. It is a purely reform-based task force where we are looking at the existing policies and planning to introduce new policies in order to improve the ease of doing business. We want to ensure that investors who come in can invest in a secure and transparent and smooth manner.”
A fertile ground
According to Shah, Pakistan has emerged as an attractive destination in the region for foreign investors with a lot of investment opportunities in diverse areas of trade and industry. “Pakistan is a virgin territory in terms of the investment landscape in most sectors. Right from having the sixth largest population in the world. Even if you pick up the top 10 largest populations in the world, none of them is as abundant in opportunities as Pakistan.”
Furthermore, focussing on the top core growth sectors, Shah listed the IT sector as the fast-growing sector along with tourism and renewable energy. “The IT sector has shown triple-digit growth year on year consistently. And tourism cannot be neglected as well. Last year, 12 million people visited the northern areas. In this regard, we have various prime government-owned sites that we want to privatise and give to the right operators to come and build hotels and resorts. The government is introducing new policies for the renewable energy sector with a focus on solar which will present great opportunities for global investors. Infrastructure is another area, both in terms of digital infrastructure, and physical infrastructure such as road networks it’s filled with untapped opportunities. Every sector in Pakistan has opportunity, but I think these are the core areas that can be capitalised on.”
Shah added that multiple international reports of repute have shown that Pakistan ranks ahead of regional countries in ease of doing business. The country’s structure has been designed to provide a comprehensive framework for creating a conducive business environment that attracts investors. Speaking about why Pakistan has a cutting-edge over other nations, Shah said: “Pakistan has a population of almost 230 million people, with English being widely spoken. With 150 million people under the age of 35, Pakistan ranks amongst the top countries with a significant youth bulge, which translates into human growth potential. Pakistanis are successful all over the world in every field; from doctors and physicians to engineers and entrepreneurs. Right here in Pakistan, we have the human capital we just need to create a conducive environment for our people to flourish.”
Further speaking about the ease of doing business in Pakistan, Shah explained: “As a foreign investor here, you can enjoy 100 per cent ownership along with full repatriation of profits as well. Our legal system is based on the British framework, making it easy to understand and compatible with international laws. So, as a foreign company, it is quite easy to come into Pakistan and operate. We also have a booming banking sector, which is very versatile with a lot of private sector banks offering fast and stream¬lined processes for opening bank accounts, etc.”
Booming tech sector
With a massive young, English-speaking population and a fast-growing, tech-savvy middle class, Pakistan has many ingredients for a thriving startup eco-system. According to Shah, Pakistan’s tech sector has suddenly sprung to life and shows no signs of slowing down. “Pakistan is the only last large country left that remains untapped. We have great entrepreneurs and great ideas. Our nation is a hotbed for international entrepreneurs as well who have come to Pakistan, and successfully established their startups. In the Fintech space, the list is endless, many come to mind that are founded by non-Pakistanis.”
He added: “Fintech is doing well because there is a large population and all of them require digital services — whether it’s payment processing, transfers, quick money transfers, etc.”
With digital services rising, Pakistan is also witnessing a booming market for smartphones. Speaking about the spread of mobile phones in Pakistan, he said: “We have over 65 per cent smartphone penetration in Pakistan. And with a population of 230 million people, over 150 million people have got smartphones in their hands. This is where the opportunity lies. I can see all of the world’s big venture capitalist (VC) funds now looking at Pakistan.”
Looking towards the future, Shah surmises that within the next few years, the inward investment will cross over a billion dollars into the startup industry. The growth has been rapidly inclining over the past couple of years, Shah quips.
“Between 2016 to 2020, the startup sector was raising $10’s of millions of dollars a year however in 2021, that number went up to $325 million. This year is a shaky year for the global economy. However, with all things being equal, if things had been different this year, I would expect Pakistan to reach close to a billion dollars.”
Based out of London, Shah is no stranger when it comes to dealing with important portfolios. His group has overseen investment transactions worth over $1.3 billion predominantly in the real estate space and in recent years venture capital too.
Naming some of the notable ones in Pakistan, Shah spoke about the fintech startup, CreditBook where his group was amongst the seed investors. “It is still in a nascent phase. They were the first Pakistani company to be funded by Tiger Global, which is the world’s largest VC fund. People have been waiting for this for a long time. In the last five or six years, people have been talking about Pakistan as an opportunity. The tech investors are ahead of the pack, including large economies of the world.”
The real estate sector in Pakistan too has shown tremendous growth over the years while being affordable, wherein Shah sees an opportunity that cannot be misses.
“Pakistan’s real estate market is abundant with opportunity. To this day, most properties are still bought using cash, without leverage or traditional financing. This is the nature of how people buy properties in the country. They pay from their savings to buy the property. With mortgage finance starting to crop up into the market, and becoming widely available, people’s affordability will stretch, which leads to an increase in quality of housing and prices. As compared to the sub-continent, Pakistan’s real estate is still very affordable showing much room for growth over the coming years.”
Shah goes on to predict that over the next five to 10 years, there is a huge growth opportunity, underpinned by a growing population of 230 million people and a bulging middle-class needing housing. “I believe there’s a shortfall in Pakistan of around about ten million homes right,” he added.
This is what will lead to the success of the real estate market with Shah pointing towards quality as being a decisive factor. “Consumers have now become mature in Pakistan. You can’t just give them any property. They understand what international standards are. There are some very good developers in Pakistan. In today’s day and age, in order to be a successful real estate developer in Pakistan, you have to create value. In its true essence, real estate development is the process of improving standards of living, it is giving someone a better lifestyle. Real estate developers in every sector, whether it’s residential, retail or commercial, whichever spaces, should focus on adding value to their client’s life, and that is the real key to success. The developers who can improve standards of living, will be successful.”
Dubai has created a huge mark in Shah’s personal space as well. Starting his career in Dubai’s real estate market, he said that Pakistan can take lessons on the world-class projects that this market delivers.
“Dubai’s real estate is on par with any great city in the world today. It’s as good as the best real estate in London or New York or Miami or any of the world’s best cities. Dubai is an hour and a half to two-hour flight away from Pakistan. They have great synergy and great cultural ties with Pakistan. I think Dubai’s real estate developers can benefit and create some good real estate in Pakistan, especially in the Pakistan’s retail sector, which is booming.”
He went on to say that it would be a great move to bring good retail concepts and developers from Dubai to Pakistan. “I would love to help some of the Dubai developers to successfully come into Pakistan.”
Multifaceted Shah also dons the cap of an ace venture capitalist. One such startup that he has supported is an Ed-tech startup that not only educates but also empowers women.
Founded in 2015 by two female entrepreneurs, Dot and Line is a tech-based network empowering female tutors who deliver after-school classes in Mathematics and English from their own homes. With cutting-edge technology and a quality curriculum built by subject specialists including PhDs from leading universities and top schools, the tutors provide online classes globally.
Speaking about his investment, Shah said: “This Ed-tech startup focuses on creating opportunities for women who are educated and can’t or don’t work due to family circumstances. The founders are striving to fill the learning gaps, and implementing teaching methodologies that are student-centric and inclusive for all learners. By leveraging technology, we are able to make a much stronger nation-wide impact. The startup has received funding from organisations such as the Nike Foundation. We have students from all over the world signing for these classes. These tutors, whether in Karachi, Lahore or in different cities across Pakistan, are teaching children in San Francisco, London, Amsterdam, Belgium, or anywhere in the world.”
Today Dot and Line, with its lean team, robust data-driven processes and auto¬mated tech-enabled systems is perfectly positioned for fast growth. Paving way for future opportunities, Shah stressed on importance of a working woman for making this project successful. “For me, this investment was less about making money and more about being successful because when you believe in the business, you want it to reach to newer heights. When you have economies where the majority of women are still inactive, economically, you’re losing out on half of your workforce, half of your human capital is inactive.”
To change the reputation of Pakistan in the West and the negative impact it had on the country, Shah launched an initiative ‘Changing Perceptions’. Via this initiative, Shah brought over 30 of the world’s leading social media influencers to Pakistan. “The concept was super cool. On every trip, we would have five to six mega international influencers and up to three local Pakistani influencers and we would go on fun trips across the country. We hired professional film-makers who would document the entire journey along with each influencer creating their own vlog of the trip.”
He added: “Living in the West, I realised how much of a reputational issue Pakistan faced and the negative impact this had on investment into the country. Perceptions-wise and reality-wise, countries similar to Pakistan were classified as vibrant emerging markets and yet, Pakistan due to a perception issue was ignored.”
The areas covered in this initiative included Swat, Chitral, Skardu and Hunza down to the emerging coastal city of Gwadar. “Every length and breadth of the country was covered.”
The influencers’ verdict
Shah reminiscences fondly that every one of them absolutely loved it. “Most of them were warned by friends and family before they came about Pakistan being dangerous. However, when they arrived their experience was the absolute opposite. One unanimous theme was them being not just surprised but, I would say, shocked by Pakistani hospitality. These were mostly travel influencers who have travelled the world. These influencers said that the
hospitality of Pakistan is unrivalled. Secondly, they felt was that the scenery was unparalleled. Many don’t know that Pakistan has the highest concentration of 7,000 metre-plus peaks in the entire world. So when you go into the mountainous areas,
you are cocooned with these mammoth mountains for days and weeks of travelling in every direction. It is really surreal. And the most amazing thing about it is that we captured it all live, from their initial thoughts, to their journey through Pakistan, and their final thoughts on the country.”
Impact of the trip on the World
Hailing the trips as super successful, Shah proudly says that the vlogs garnered over 50 million views across all social media platforms and the short films were featured and applauded in British Parliament where are work was applauded and aired in cinemas in the US. “In 2020, Pakistan was listed as amongst the top travel destinations by ‘Forbes’, I think we had a part to play in this.”
Shah also added that all the videos available on YouTube where you can simply search ‘CPIC Changing Perceptions’ or search World Nate or Brook Sawart and watch their own accounts of their trip across Pakistan.
Rise to Success
Before jumping onto the political bandwagon, Shah was a real estate mogul. Starting his career in Dubai 15 years ago, Shah owns ONE Investments one of the largest agencies in Dubai, which has been operating for over 10 years now.
“I started my career in Dubai in 2006- 2007 in the real estate market. Dubai is a fantastic city and one of the real success stories over the last 20 years in the world. I believe Dubai is probably the greatest growth story in the world.”
Besides Dubai, Shah also has projects in the UK. “We recently acquired a site to build an industrial and logistics park in the country, which is around about 100,000 sq ft of prime industrial warehousing space. With e-commerce booming, particularly after Covid-19, industrial space and warehousing became one of the strongest sectors in the real estate market, especially in the West.”
Living up to his identity as ‘International Entrepreneur of the Year’, an accolade bestowed on him at the Asian Business Awards in 2019, Shah is not only a successful investor but is also a brand name in Pakistan’s real estate industry. His recent project — One Canal Road — in Lahore speaks much about his ideology of developing lifestyle centric real estate. “One Canal can be called a dream project for me. Located in the heart of Lahore, I have worked with a vision to create the gold standard for real estate developments in Pakistan,” said Shah.
With a history of working in a city that is famous for attracting the world’s best talent, Shah speaks about the lessons he has learnt while living in Dubai. “For One Canal Road I engaged with the world’s best consultants. This is some¬thing that I learned from Dubai — they spent money to bring the world’s best minds to Dubai, and got them to build an epic city and I’m emulating the same. We engaged Kobi Karp, a renowned celebrity architect based out of Miami, to design building, we have one of the Middle East’s leading interior designers to design the interiors and Versace ceramics for flooring and walls”.
Describing One Canal as a lifestyle project, Shah added: “It is the first building with Versace ceramic finishing in Pakistan. The 200,000 sq ft building has over 35,000 sq ft of amenities. With a 28-feet high ceiling lobby, the property includes resident’s lounge, a private cinema, a full state-of-the-art gymnasium, a full spa, a kid’s club, and a rooftop infinity swimming pool and a rooftop lounge. This is more like a lifestyle project than just a real estate development. The project has already been sold out, three to four months ago. It’s under development and should be completed about two years from now with basements and foundation laid out.
From a successful entrepreneur to the Honorary Ambassador-at-Large on Investments, Shah finds similarities between both roles. “I have been in the real estate business in the UK and Dubai. And about five years ago, I started in¬vesting in Pakistan. So, I have faced all the issues that all potential foreign investors, looking to come to Pakistan, would encounter. I’ve got that first-hand experience, I understand what can go wrong and what the difficulties are. I under¬stand what needs to be improved and how it needs to be improved. So, I think in terms of the job role itself, it suits my experience pretty much perfectly.”
Independence Day Wishes
Wishing fellow expats on 75 years of Independence, Shah concluded on a positive note. “Pakistan is a young country. We need to be optimistic and ask ourselves what are we doing for our Motherland. With the great opportunities and human capital, in the next 75 years, we can see tremendous growth, if we focus on entrepreneurship and innovation. Countries with the greatest entrepreneurs will lead the world in the future.”
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