In conversation with Norway’s ambassador Leif H. Larsen.
Leif H. Larsen, Norway’s ambassador to Pakistan, opened Lahore’s first Royal Norwegian Consulate, headed by Naveen Fareed, on April 23. We caught up with the envoy and discussed bilateral relations, common security interests, and more. Excerpts:
What would you describe as the biggest strength of the relationship between Pakistan and Norway?
One of the biggest strengths of our relationship is the large population of Pakistanis in Norway. There are around 35,000 Pakistani-Norwegians, a figure which is quite significant in a total national population of 5 million. They now include second and third generation Norwegians who are in many ways more Norwegian than Pakistani. A lot of them are originally from the Punjab; this means there are special links between Norway and Punjab. Many of these Pakistani-Norwegians hold influential positions in the private and public sectors. One example is parliamentarian Hadia Tajik. She is of Pakistani origin, is a former minister of culture, and was recently elected deputy leader of the Labour Party. It is not inconceivable that she, a Muslim woman of Pakistani origin, may become prime minister some day. [Pakistani-Norwegians] have been able to prosper. One reason for this may be Norway’s egalitarian system, including in education, which has made it easier for them to assimilate regardless of religion, ethnicity or race. This underscores the importance of quality education for all, including for women and girls. Of course, the picture isn’t all rosy. There have been problems with Pakistani-Norwegians turning to crime and then running off to Pakistan. This makes it important for us to increase police and justice cooperation between both countries. It is also a fact that some third generation Norwegians of Pakistani origin feel they are neither completely Norwegian nor entirely Pakistani. Some of them have turned to extremism, including providing support to the Islamic State militant group. There are also domestic problems such as forced marriages, with some Pakistani parents getting their daughters married off in Pakistan against their wishes.
What other common interests can both sides work on further?
Security and combating terrorism; a secure and stable Pakistan is a major common interest. Norway has been committed to the NATO mission in Afghanistan and will continue to help in the peace building process, of which Pakistan is a part. Pakistan is doing an excellent job with its operation against extremism, and we hope to see it completed. We also hope that it is followed up with a long-term comprehensive plan that includes reconstruction, jobs, and a political process of reconciliation. Our experience from Afghanistan is that in order to succeed you must give people the hope of a better future for themselves and their families. That is the best way of ensuring that they turn away from extremism.
What are some of the challenges Norwegian investors face here?
Security concerns, the energy crisis, and Pakistan’s image problem in the West.
Norway’s Telenor has invested some $2.3 billion in Pakistan since 2005. What lessons does its success offer to other Norwegian companies and foreign investors?
The lesson from Telenor is that not only can business be done in Pakistan, but that it is possible to make money here. Telenor is on the way to becoming Pakistan’s largest telecom company. Pakistan’s market has tremendous potential. Telenor’s success story should give other foreign companies the confidence to invest in Pakistan. It is, however, necessary to have a long-term perspective and a solid financial foundation.
Does Norway have any plans to assist Pakistan in overcoming its energy crisis?
The investment decisions of Norwegian companies are made on a commercial basis. It is not possible for Norwegian authorities to order them to invest in a given country. On the contrary, it is up to Pakistani authorities to prepare the ground, to develop a business environment that is friendly to foreign investors, and that includes ensuring a stable security environment, implementing the required legislation, and ensuring that the justice system is capable of handling disputes when they arise.
What sort of development assistance is Norway looking to provide Pakistan?
Norway has a long-term development commitment to Pakistan, but our funds are limited. Therefore, we have decided to pool our efforts together with other partners, be it other countries or international organizations. That includes channeling funds through various U.N. agencies. This ensures the best possible use of our resources. Educational projects, in particular education for women and girls, are of particular interest. We therefore welcomed Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel Peace Prize win last year. Her example should be an inspiration to both the authorities and the children of Pakistan. Norway provides free education to children until the age of 19, and there is no discrimination on the basis of gender or ethnicity. This is costly, but it is the best investment you can make in the development of your country.
Norway has been consistent in its support to cultural preservation and promotion projects here.
We support a broad range of cultural projects because we want to help the Pakistani people take pride in their rich culture and heritage. Pakistan has a wealth of history, from the Indus Valley civilization to the Mughals and more. By supporting projects like the restoration of the Walled City in Lahore, we want to help maintain this history so Pakistanis can take ownership of it.
You served as Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Oslo for three years before moving to Pakistan. What did you learn about the region from your experience?
When NATO launched its mission in Afghanistan back in 2001, we did not have an idea of exactly what we were getting into. Our knowledge was limited and there was no long-term plan for stability. NATO and the West have a long-term commitment to Afghanistan. That means we will continue to provide military and civilian assistance. But it is up to the people and the countries in the region to work toward the end of the conflict. In that perspective, strengthened cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan on security issues is definitely a positive sign. We look forward to even closer cooperation between these two countries that share the same security challenges.
As ambassador, have you noticed any change between perceptions of Pakistan in the West and its reality?
I’ve been reading Anatol Lieven’s Pakistan: A Hard Country, and the first thing that struck me was that there is so much more to Pakistan than being just a “hard” country. The soft side is so rich, yet we seldom hear about it. Pakistani people are warm, hospitable, hardworking, and want to make a difference.
From our May 2-9, 2015, issue.
Editor’s Note: Amb. Larsen was killed in a helicopter crash on May 8, along with at least six others, en route to Gilgit-Baltistan for the inauguration of a ski resort at Naltar. He was 61.