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Izzat Majeed – entrepreneur, poet, philosopher

Sad how the prisoners of time
Live in the prison of the future
Sad how the present is dead
Even before it becomes the past

                                            – Izzat Majeed

Dynamic and multi-faceted, Izzat Majeed’s success as one of Pakistan’s most prominent investors is just one aspect of his diverse career. Based in London as the CEO of Alyph Limited, a leading investment company, Izzat Majeed is widely acknowledged for his philanthropic initiatives and his patronage of Pakistani music and culture.

He is famed for his landmark investments in Pakistan, most notably the purchase of Union Bank which was transformed into one of the top seven banks of the country. After establishing Union Bank as a leading player in Pakistan’s banking sector, Izzat Majeed sold the bank to Standard Chartered.  “I must give credit to Shaukat Tarin for that because he took that bank and made it a significant player in Pakistan,” says Izzat Majeed. 

As an advisor to leading Saudi entrepreneurs on energy, he gained renown for his honesty, reliability and trustworthiness. He has also spearheaded a $40 million energy project in Pakistan where he brought in parties for oil and gas exploration. He has also invested in the petrochemical industry with leading German companies. 

After completing his PPE from Oxford in 1972, Izzat Majeed began his career as a lecturer at the Punjab University where he taught for seven years. However, the dictatorship of General Zia ul Haq in the 1970s and 1980s led to disastrous changes in the national curriculum and Izzat Majeed was compelled to abandon teaching: “Zia ul Haq had come in. The curriculum was being destroyed. The reality of Pakistan, the historical process and the history of Islam were all being manipulated to suit what we have today: a retrogressive interpretation of history and an obsolete interpretation of Islam. That is the time when I left,” he explains. However, he still lectures in Europe and the United States on Islam. 

Passionate about music, Izzat Majeed set up Sachal Studios in Lahore, dedicated to reviving Pakistan’s tradition of classical music.  Sachal Studios is now one of Pakistan’s premiere musical institutions, bringing to life classical music of a bygone era in a contemporary context which has powerfully resonated with Pakistanis. In 2009, Sachal Studios released Tarang, a compilation of music by Pakistan’s greatest musicians to rapturous acclaim. 

His book titled Random Prose is a testament to his gift for writing. Filled with lyrical passages on life, love and longing, Random Prose has received much praise in Pakistan and the United Kingdom. 

An ardent patriot and radical intellectual, he is unflinchingly realistic in his assessment of Pakistan’s problems.  He talks candidly to Blue Chip about his career and his views on Pakistan.

You have been one of Pakistan’s most prominent investors, what has your investment experience in Pakistan been like? Do you recommend Pakistan as an investment destination?

Izzat Majeed: “I certainly do. I have been a significant investor in Pakistan over the years. However, Pakistan is currently in a ‘go slow’ investment environment. But this does not mean that there are no opportunities – many companies have projects but are hesitant to go to Pakistan and start implementing them.

Pakistan has so much potential and is blessed with significant natural resources which have not been properly utilised. Most importantly, we have water – nowhere on planet Earth will you find five rivers flowing together. We have not managed our water resources efficiently. More than half of our freshwater goes into the sea unused.

So while currently there are many projects that can be entertained by foreign investment, the environment is such that people have to put them on the back burner. It is a tragedy. To sum up your question, Pakistan is an investment destination for me and always was. Even under the current circumstances, one is still active.”

The recent floods in Pakistan have also had a devastating impact on the people of Pakistan and the economy, what are your views on this?
IM: “We are suffering from an even greater calamity which is the sheer extent and the destruction and devastation of the floods, as well as the agrarian loss. The news channels tell you all the time that one fifth of Pakistan is under water but they don’t tell you that that one fifth is the agrarian sector – the Indus basin. So when you say one fifth of Pakistan is under water, the reality is that all that can be cultivated is destroyed. It will take a lot of effort and a lot of sacrifice from people like us who are well off to share the losses and the tragedy of the poor people. If we don’t do that then shame on us, we will never be forgiven.”

Over the years, what factors do you feel have contributed to your success?

IM: “Pure luck! Apart from perseverance and sweat, an ability to see what is profitable is a matter of pure luck. I would attribute most of my activities to pure luck: being at the right place at the right time. I have been very lucky as far as that is concerned.”

What are your views on the current problems with Islam particularly in the West and the rise of Islamophobia?

IM: The issue is not what the West does. The issue is about what we do. If you go to somebody’s house and live there, you have to behave yourself according the values of that house. You cannot start imposing your own culture. We cannot take refuge behind the so-called Islamophobia of the West and regress further and further as Muslims. Instead of learning from the West we are going backwards. I don’t care about the Islamophobia in the West; I care about the lack of understanding among us Muslims.”

What about the rise of militant Islam in Pakistan?

IM: “That started with President Zia ul Haq and was state sponsored and I think still it is state sponsored. There has been no change in the school curriculum and no budgetary shift in emphasis towards education. Pakistan is the most illiterate country in the world. It ranks at a dismal 183 out of the 190 that the United Nations assesses every two years. We have a very dangerous demographic situation where the under 25 population is more than 60% of the population; of that 60%, 90% are uneducated. So can you imagine, what is going to happen? The critical issues are education and governance. Just to make the west happy we talk about democracy and how we have to propagate democracy, but the central issue is really about governance.”

Your project Sachal Studios aims at promoting classical music and has been a great success, what prompted you to set it up?

IM: “Sachal Studios is a labour of love. I started it about six years ago and now it is probably one of the finest music centres in Pakistan at least if not in the subcontinent. It brings together the musicians of Lahore and we create our own music which I believe is dying and is not being promoted or supported by the relevant institutions. Our classical music doesn’t exist any more. Those who are practitioners of classical music have gone to Bollywood to sing pop songs because there is no demand for it in Pakistan. So there is no younger generation carrying out the traditions of classical music. This applies to India also; I haven’t come across many practitioners of classical music that are keeping up the tradition. The name is inspired by the saint Sachal Sar Mast. I love his poetry and I named my son after him. The name is so beautiful and musical, it means truthful. All these great poets and saints have the same message of love.”

You are an avid reader, what are you reading at the moment and what are your favourite books?

IM: “I just finished Pride and Prejudice. I have little time for current fiction because I am too engrossed and enamoured by Islamic history. I go back to classics; I could spend a lifetime reading the classics. I am also reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which I love. We are not aware of the fact that Islamic history is extremely well documented and our powers that be don’t let it be translated properly. Throughout Islamic history, Muslims have mainly killed Muslims. So the idea of the Ummah is actually non-existent.”

Despite the problems in Pakistan, are you optimistic about the future?

IM: “I think the federation is dead.  I think it will be renegotiated which will be good for Pakistan because we cannot have the ancien regime doing the same thing again and again. We forget that there are four nations living in Pakistan: the Pathans, the Balochis, the Sindhis and the Punjabis. This is swept under the carpet as if it doesn’t mean anything but it actually means a lot. Balochistan is about 60% of Pakistan’s territory and its population is less than Lahore and its resources are unimaginable. The whole world is looking at Balochistan and vying for its resources. I hope that the federation is renegotiated in a more civilized and egalitarian manner; only then will Pakistan have a real future.”

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