WHETHER we like it or not Brexit is a reality. We have to get on with it. And getting on with it means opening our eyes to areas of the world previously written off.
I know from deep personal experience how the global economy has changed. I spent my first few years in a remote village in Pakistan. The nearest main road was always barren. Recently, I went back to that self-same village. The road was bumper to bumper.
The world has moved on. Countries previously dismissed as being chaotic, backwards even – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and China – are now the fastest growing on the planet.
Forget old photos of peasants carrying baskets on their backs, these nations are now home to millions of educated, skilled professionals – people no different to you and I – carrying aspiration and ambition.
They want the accoutrements of a successful and comfortable life – shops, leisure facilities, technology, homeware, efficient service industries, to name but a few. And they will, and do, work hard to achieve them.
Brexit has forced our hand in finding new global opportunities. The door is swinging shut on one market and so we must find another.
This is nothing new. History has frequently provided exactly the same challenge. Take the 18th century when the path to the east was blocked by the land mass empires of the Russians and the Ottomans. We found new ways to travel and trade with the rest of the world. It is now time to do so again.
The British Empire, like that of the Russians and the Ottomans, may be history but it still provides an easy link with the emerging economies of India, Pakistan and others. Elsewhere, many UK businesses have already seen the benefits of trading with China, a vast market containing almost one-fifth of the world’s population.
We are talking about nations that want to trade with the world. Their arms are wide open. The Chinese are building a new port city in Pakistan near the Gulf which will open up a sea gateway. Similarly, there is now a global rail network, starting in Shanghai, with one fork heading through Russia all the way to the UK and another reaching the same destination via Pakistan and Istanbul. We are connected in more ways than just the digital world. We have physical links that we can exploit. British businesses must grasp the concept of an accessible and open global marketplace.
UK businesses can only strengthen by engaging with countries that for too long have been seen as unmanageable when in fact they have an infrastructure, working population, and demographic that should be the envy of the western world.
In Pakistan, two-thirds of the population are below 30 years of age. We’re talking young people, bright, energetic, ambitious, with plenty to prove. They are part of an emerging middle-class. In Pakistan alone they number 40 million – bigger than the whole working population of the UK.
I know plenty of UK companies which operate in Pakistan. It is an incredibly easy and efficient place to set up business and unlike China and India one can have full corporate control.
We are seeing a role reversal. In the past, millions of people from the sub-continent went abroad to make a life for themselves. Now the sub-continent including Pakistan is rapidly becoming the place to go to, not to leave.
People are waking up to the fact that Pakistan’s reputation as a place of unpredictability and turmoil is increasingly undeserved. Listen to the clichés about the country being a security risk and you’d never go. But on all my visits I’ve never seen any trouble.
I find Pakistan a peaceful country, harmonious, tranquil, reinforced by a new government under the stewardship of ex-cricketer Imran Khan, a man who has both the credibility and opportunity to encourage the inward investment the country needs. It is a place full of hope and ambition.
For business people in the UK, Pakistan is a seven-hour flight to opportunity, a chance to make their mark in virgin territory, where the population has exploded from 170 million to 220 million in 10 years.
I am not advocating businesses leave these shores for the sub-continent. They should see countries like Pakistan as a place to build, to establish new roots and achieve scale.
They also offer a chance to take advantage of a role reversal – instead of being victim to companies paying taxes in the country of origin, we would be feeling the tax benefit of commercial success overseas – a win/win for UK PLC.
Expansion of business strengthens business. Entrepreneurs must explore this new world of opportunity.
The message is clear. Go and get it. Don’t wait for it to happen.
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