Martin Kobler is a German diplomat who has been serving as Germany’s Ambassador to Pakistan since 2017. Before coming to Pakistan, he served as Special Representative, Head of United Nations Support Mission in Libya and Special Representative for the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He has also served as Ambassador of Germany to Iraq and Egypt. He sat down with Newsweek Pakistan recently to offer insight on his host nation, the new government under P.M. Imran Khan and much more. Excerpts:
You have been Germany’s Ambassador to Pakistan for two years. What triggered your desire to portray a positive image of Pakistan?
Pakistan is my host country and I have deep sympathy for the country and its people. I have rarely experienced such a hospitable atmosphere!
You have two big assets in the country, the first one is the tremendous landscape—particularly in the north but also in other areas—and the second is the people of Pakistan who are so diverse and so friendly. I regularly post on social media about the positive impressions I have experienced in Pakistan because unfortunately the general image of Pakistan is quite negative and influenced by terror attacks, by corruption and so on. I am in no way neglecting this; I am also pointing out things that are perhaps not that positive, for example, the pollution in the country, especially plastic disposal, and the sometimes lacking awareness of taking environmental protection seriously.
Germany funded cultural preservation projects across Pakistan for several years. What is the status of these?
When I was in Lahore with my family during the Christmas holidays, I showed them the Frescoes in the Walled City. This is really a world wonder, so great and so impressive. We are very happy that we contributed some funds to restore them over several years, but unfortunately this project for supporting the cultural heritage has come to an end now. We are currently checking new projects we could support. I am a member of the board of a German foundation, the Gerda Henkel Foundation, which supports projects in Peshawar and Makli. I have been to Makli in the south of Sindh twice, where there are graves of Mughal emperors. Unfortunately, they are in a state of decay, this is why the German foundation finances their restoration. I go there from time to time to visit the project and check the progress.
Cultural heritage is important for every nation, for identification with their history. This is true for Germany and France, but particularly for Pakistan as you have experienced the Partition of 1947, which divided heritage sites between Pakistan and India.
Pakistan has proposed Germany’s inclusion in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. How much interest is there within Germany for investment in the Special Economic Zones of CPEC?
We are in close contact with the Chinese. I don’t share the apprehensions about CPEC, because investment in Pakistan is essential for growth. In 2050, by some estimates, Pakistan will have 400 million inhabitants. All these people will need jobs. Two thirds of them will be below the age of 30. This means that Pakistan will have around 210 million young people, six million of which will be added to the labor market every year. The Special Economic Zones are excellent opportunities for foreigners to invest, however they are still in planning stages but there is a lack of transparency. If you want foreign investors to come to the country for investment, they must be in a position to do this on a level playing field. So the tenders must be handled in a transparent way. If a German investor were to ask me where they could find all the information on CPEC, I would not know where to direct him. The process has to be really transparent to ensure full participation.
Imran Khan’s government has come out very strongly in favor of Pakistan’s tourism potential. Is there an untapped market for German tourism? How can this shortfall be made up?
Firstly, Pakistan needs to build up its own capacities. One cannot invite tourists without ensuring security. Second, the tourism industry needs to be developed. Tourists need a certain infrastructure, for example a reliable air connection. A colleague of mine wanted to do winter camping in Deosai but his flight to Skardu was cancelled and then the flight back from Skardu was cancelled as well. This makes it difficult to attract tourists. Look at Ethiopia, which is also a big but a poor country. However, it has a very reliable airline which results in greater tourism. Pakistan needs to address deficiencies in its air travel and infrastructure. I think it is very important.
Pakistan should also upgrade its technical vocational training in the hospitality sector. In this sector Germany would be happy to assist. I recently had a meeting with a hotel school that wants to recruit Pakistanis for training. Currently the tourism industry here is not yet booming, so it is the perfect time to prepare for it and go into training.
The Gulf is a good example. The taxi drivers, the gardeners, the construction workers all tend to be Pakistanis, but the hotel staff are primarily from Indonesia, the Philippines and from Africa. Here in Pakistan, you can find a service of international standard in the big hotels, but you won’t see the same people abroad because there aren’t enough schools to train people according to the required standard. I would love to see, in a few years, Pakistanis in hospitality services in the Gulf. We would be glad to support the government in increasing the level of training in the hospitality sector to meet this goal. And why don’t the big hotels in Pakistan join forces and found a hotel training school to train their own staff and young people for working abroad?
You recently appeared on a PTV show to discuss how to improve Pakistan’s image abroad. Can you share some of your ideas with us?
Well, I think Pakistanis should take the lead in promoting a positive image of their country. However, I am very enthusiastic about promoting tourism because it is an important sector.
Pakistan’s north has great natural wonders that can be utilized to attract tourism. The Gilgit River, for example, is ideal for whitewater rafting. If I were younger, I would have made up my own business to fill this demand. In winters, you have great potential for skiing, which has to be developed and would attract tourism.
However, security problems make it very difficult to attract visitors. It is difficult to tell tourists to come to Peshawar and see the world’s largest museum on Gandhara Buddhist culture—did you know this? No one knows this, not even many Pakistanis!—when just a week earlier there was a bombing in that city. Security is a constraint, but Pakistan should not let its whole image be monopolized by it. There are perfectly secure areas where you can travel in the country. You need to promote tourism and then people will come.
The second part is of course politics. Relations between Germany and Pakistan are good, however the number of bilateral visits of politicians and parliamentarians could be increased. I would love that Pakistan also reaches out to Europe. Europe is also an important factor, which should not be neglected.
You have traveled extensively across Pakistan. What are the major challenges that you face during your tours?
The first challenge is of course to get permissions because unlike tourists diplomats need permissions. I have to apply anew for every trip outside of Islamabad. Sometimes it takes up to 15 working days. So every trip requires planning. However, I have never been refused entry to places I wanted to go.
But this means I can’t just go to visit the Taxila Museum, as an example, which is less than an hour from Islamabad. I would love to make spontaneous trips to Taxila because the Gandhara culture is fascinating. And I would also like to make more trips to areas surrounding Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, but they require three weeks of planning in advance.
What has been your favorite place to visit in Pakistan?
I won’t answer this! If I said, for example, Lahore, what would people from Karachi or other regions say? I’ve spent a lot of time in Punjab because I visit it regularly due to the high number of projects we do in Punjab. Punjab, with 110 million inhabitants—more than Germany!—is practically a country in itself. But I have a particular preference for Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa: the natural beauty, the areas around Chitral, the Kailash, the area between Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit Baltistan. I also visited the Shandur Polo Festival which was especially thrilling. Watching this polo match with the incredible view of the snow-covered mountain peaks behind you is something you will never forget. It’s an experience of a lifetime.
You often share images of local food on your Twitter account. What is your favorite Pakistani cuisine?
I like Baltistani food very much because it is healthy with a lot of yogurt and fresh vegetables. I was told that Baltistan has one of the highest percentages of people who are older than 100 years. I guess it is also due to their healthy food. I also really like biryani, especially if it’s spicy and the different raitas really complement it. I do prefer simple restaurants over posh ones, because I feel sometimes the food is better if a few people, perhaps a family, cook it rather than a hired chef.
Germany, much like Pakistan, has a large refugee population. What are some ways the two nations can cooperate in dealing with this persistent humanitarian crisis?
The underlying reason of the refugee problem has to be resolved. Our refugees are mainly Syrian refugees. So why did they come? Because Syria suffered from war and people were fleeing with their families because their lives were threatened. Why are the Afghan refugees in Pakistan? Because life in Afghanistan is still very hard. The majority of Afghan refugees came to Pakistan during the Soviet times and many were born here after 1979. Once stability is achieved, refugees can go back to their home countries. I don’t meet refugees who like to be refugees. Everybody wants to go back to their country of origin. Most Syrians in Germany, instead of hanging out in Germany, would prefer to go back to their country. This is also true for African refugees as well. The economic situation has to be dealt with, there must be a perspective in particular for the young people and the political environment must match.
Do you think the world is doing enough to resolve the problems of conflict regions?
The primary responsibility lies with the countries themselves. It is not up to the Germans or whoever to solve conflicts in Libya, Syria, Congo, Myanmar or any other places. It is the responsibility of every country leadership to provide a safe framework for their citizens and minorities. Unfortunately, when a war breaks out or instability starts to spread, we tend to deal only with the symptoms and not with the causes. There are 65 million refugees worldwide and we should do more! But once again the primary responsibility is with the country of origin to prevent a flow of refugees. For example in Afghanistan, it’s very important to reach a power-sharing agreement with all political forces soon, including the Taliban, and create an atmosphere of confidence. I spent years in the U.N. working in crisis regions and I know that the main challenge is to establish confidence in a region after a conflict. Only after this has been successfully done, refugees will go back. Re-establishing a sound political process is an incentive for Afghan refugees to go back to their country.
You are a great supporter of education and environment initiatives. Can you identify some of the policies undertaken by the new government that you feel are most laudable?
I think the agenda of the new government focuses on important aspects like health, education and environmental protection. These same three topics have also dominated our development agenda for Pakistan for 20 years. We have supported all governments here with education and technical vocational training programs. After World War II, we were at zero, in fact sub-zero. We do not have many natural resources in Germany, so we invested in education to build up the country. We still have free university education; we even pay students to go to university. Also Pakistan should heavily invest in education. 2.4% of the GDP for education is not enough to make Pakistan fit for the 21st century.
In his first speech after the election, Prime Minister Imran Khan said it is important to bring 22 million children into schools. This is a good vision but it needs to be implemented. During my interactions with the government and the Ministry of Education, I have discussed how we could help. I think the agenda is great, but we still lack clear guidance on how foreigners can assist.
Environment is very close to my heart. We need a clear commitment of all governments that our planet’s climate can only be saved through a multilateral effort. Any fake news about the non-existence of climate change should be countered. I take this issue very seriously. That’s why I think the billion-tree tsunami in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa is a good idea. I went there myself and found freshly planted trees. It wasn’t a gimmick.
Now, the new project is that of a 10-billion tree tsunami. Reforestation is an extremely important topic to reduce CO2 emissions and increase oxygen levels, which reduce temperatures and increase rains. This would be very important for Pakistan, too. I have asked our development agencies to support the Pakistani government in reforestation across the country.
German development cooperation is also covering the health sector. The Health Card in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, which is now being expanded across the province, was the brainchild of German development cooperation. I hear it is now also considered as a model for the whole country. I think these are very good initiatives but once again the responsibility is on the Pakistani side. They have to determine their priorities and if you then decide to ask us for advice, we will surely consider offering assistance.
There are thousands of Pakistanis currently receiving education in Germany. Are there any plans to further strengthen this relationship through scholarships and student exchange programs?
There are more than 4,000 Pakistani students in Germany now. These include scholarships recipients and those we call “free movers.” Unlike Great Britain or the U.S., Germany offers free university education. This is a great advantage of German universities; one doesn’t have to pay tuition fees. If you study at Harvard or any other global institution, you will pay high fees but this is not the case in Germany.
Student exchange programs are very important, however I am disappointed that these exchange programs are currently only in one direction. When I visit Pakistani universities, I rarely see foreign students there.
I would really like to work on two aspects: First, we should bring German students to Pakistan with the help of exchange programs, and second we need to bring German educational facilities here. There are German universities in Muscat, Amman, Jordan, Istanbul, and Cairo. When I was the German Ambassador to Egypt, I helped to establish a private German university in Cairo. Its enrollment is currently at 7,000 students after starting with only 150. Before 2008 there was a consortium of 8 German universities but then after the terrorism of 2008, everybody withdrew and I would revitalize this idea to have German universities in Pakistan.
You spent three years in India in the 1990s. Now you are in Pakistan. Can you share your experience and feelings of the people of both countries towards each other? And what would be your message to both countries?
The Kashmir problem is a big obstacle between the two nations. The people on both countries are friendly and my family and me felt and still feel very welcome on both sides of the border. I have never met a Pakistani or Indian who personally hates the other side. This is very good! If you look at the European history, there was once a big animosity between French and Germans. My own family, my father, my aunts, everybody was against the French. I suppose it was the same in France, because we invaded this great country and the French had bad memories about the Germans. But over 70 years since World War II, this has changed. We even have a joint history book so students in France and students in Germany can learn the same interpretation of history!
We encourage both countries to sit together and find a solution. Currently, Pakistan is only doing 5% of its trade with India, its nearest neighbor. If this were to increase, imagine the opportunities for Pakistan! In Europe, again, around 60-70% of our trade is among the European countries. Intra-regional trade has proven to lead to greater prosperity. Might this be a way forward for South Asia?