Big boots to fill
Today marks a new chapter at the Pakistani Consulate in Jeddah. It is the start of the fresh tenure of a new Consul General who has replaced Mr. Aftab Khokher the outgoing diplomat who is on his way to Beirut, Lebanon as Pakistan’s new ambassador to that country.
The new diplomat, Mr. Shehryar Akbar Khan, will face many challenges in his posting at Jeddah. With more than a million Pakistani nationals, primarily in the western region of the country, the magnitude of the task is enormous. And the numbers don’t end there.
Every year thousands of Pakistani pilgrims make their way to Jeddah on their journey to the two holy shrines to perform Haj and Umrah. Some, unfortunately, meet their death through natural means and formalities have to be conducted with the Saudi authorities for the burial of the body.
Families and dependents of the dead back home have to have someone here to follow up with regard to compensation and due benefits. Some are victims of traffic accidents whose dependents are waiting for the judicial process and insurance investigations to be completed before final dispensation of benefits.
There are also Pakistanis who go missing for one reason or the other, raising concern from their families back home who are in constant touch with the diplomatic mission to ascertain the whereabouts of the missing family members.
Then there are those who still remain in jail even after completing their term of punishment, or are detained pending judgment. There are those being held for whom legal aid has to be arranged even after receiving favorable judgment to expedite their release. It is no secret that some immoral Saudi employers declare such workers as fugitives to avoid paying salaries or end-of-service benefits.
Over the years, I have received a fair number of letters from residents in the Kingdom complaining about how they felt that they were being marginalized by their respective diplomatic missions. In many, but not all cases, the writers felt neglected by their country’s diplomatic representatives.
Many complained about the treatment they were being subjected to by their sponsors and complained that their embassies and consulates were often not interested in hearing about their complaints. The majority of those who chose to share their frustrations were from Asian or African countries.
I remember one instance over 10 years ago involving some fishermen from an Asian country whom I learned had drifted into our country’s waters while fishing and were picked up and jailed. They had been languishing in prison for a considerable length of time without any legal representation. When I learned of the case, I sent off an angry letter to the ambassador of the Asian mission in Riyadh which represented these foreign nationals. An NGO assisted in their eventual release.
But such was not the case with the outgoing diplomat, Mr. Aftab Khokher. In his three years in Jeddah, he made a significant difference for many of his countrymen. I remember that early on in his tenure a controversy broke out in the Pakistani school over the leadership of that educational institution. Mr. Khokher stepped in and soothed the ruffled temperaments of many parents by arranging for the appointment of a new principal and a new board.
He worked tirelessly to resolve the cases of Pakistanis in jail in the western region and ensured that they received the due process of law. He faced perhaps one of the biggest challenges of his career during the government’s amnesty program which sought to correct the legal status of some 10 million guest workers in the Kingdom. With the size of the Pakistani workforce, it was a monumental task that necessitated extraordinary efforts working 16 hours a day seven days a week, and with Mr. Khokher’s leadership at the helm, the task was eventually completed.
Mr. Khokher’s tenure here was more than simply cultivating commercial ties and attending festivities. It was one of sincere concern for the welfare of his countrymen, as well as cultivating good relations with Saudis. He was a true diplomat in every sense of the word. I feel fortunate to have been acquainted with him and wish him all the best in his new post. His are indeed big boots for any incoming diplomat to fill.