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Regional Implications of Indian Hegemony in the SAARC

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Round Table

“Regional Implications of Indian Hegemony in the SAARC”

Organized by

Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI)

March 8, 2017 



A one-day roundtable on “Regional Implications of Indian Hegemony in the SAARC” was organized at the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI) Conference Hall, Islamabad on March 8, 2017. Lieutenant General (R) Asif Yasin Malik, Former Secretary of Defence was the Session Chair at the conference. Participants included professional experts, practitioners, academicians and scholars. The aim of the one-day round table was to examine the regional implications of Indian hegemony in the SAARC on the growth of regional cooperation in South Asia; highlighting the challenges to regional cooperation and formulating policy recommendations.

The conference had one working Session. Three papers were presented titled: “Dynamics of Indian Hegemony in the SAARC Region”, “Politico-Economic and Security Implications of Indian Hegemony in the SAARC Region” and “Ways and Means for Making SAARC a Win–Win Entity: A Way Forward”.  SAARC’s inability to emerge as an effective regional organization was discussed. It was emphasized that to balance out the Indian hegemonic role, Pakistan will have to empower itself economically and militarily, realize it’s Geo-strategic significance. China’s enhanced regional role was seen as a balance against India. Afghanistan’s SAARC membership was seen in the context of inter-regional connectivity.

Concept Note

The term hegemony is used to identify the actor, group, class, or state that exercises hegemonic power or that is responsible for the dissemination of hegemonic ideas. In view of the anarchic nature of international system, it is in the nature of an emerging power like India to seek hegemony as pointed out by John J. Mearsheimer in his book, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. After analysing the characteristics of international politics, Mearsheimer concludes: “Thus, the claim that states maximise relative power is tantamount to arguing that states are disposed to think offensively toward other states even though their ultimate motive is simply to survive.” In short, a great power has aggressive intentions. Even when a great power achieves a distinct military advantage over its rivals, it continues looking for chances to gain more power. The pursuit of power stops only when hegemony is achieved at the cost of regional peace and cooperation.

The current century dawned with a gloomy picture for the present and future generations of South Asia (SA). The region presents the group of the poorest countries of the world where poverty, water scarcity, population explosion, hunger and illiteracy reflect under-development and backwardness of its people. The South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) came into existence in 1985. It was established to increase regional cooperation in all fields of life so that the socioeconomic problems of the region could be resolved. The objectives of the SAARC were to promote cooperation at the social and economic level and to promote good neighbourly relations among member states.

The SAARC could not become a strong and effective body and could not promote mutual relations among its member countries for the following reasons. First, tension between India and Pakistan is the most fundamental. Their relations are dotted with history of mistrust, wars, conflict and acrimony. Currently, India’s long persisting intransigence to resolve the Jammu and Kashmir issue as per the UNSC resolutions and its increasing military influence in Afghanistan are two most contentious issues impacting their bilateral relations. The second issue is the differences between India and the rest of the member countries such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal, etc. The smaller states are always concerned about border disputes with India and the latter’s unsolicited intrusion into their domestic affairs. India’s other neighbours have – to a greater or lesser degree – some fear of Indian hegemony. The third one is India’s biggest size and military power compared to its neighbours. Consequently, such challenges do not allow the SAARC to become an influential institution, which can weld the member countries in closer cooperation.

In fact, a regional arrangement is a voluntary association of sovereign states within a certain area or having common interests. Such regional arrangements would become counterproductive if any of its members has a hegemonic attitude. As in the case of the SA, since the establishment of the SAARC, India’s role has always remained a matter of concern. It lies at the centre of the originating problems while having a hegemonic attitude towards the SAARC countries. The harmful effects of this attitude are not only likely to shrink economic development of the region, but also reduce the possibility of the resolution of bilateral disputes, including territorial and other ones such as the Kashmir and water dispute, etc.

Furthermore, these effects also gradually damage the social fabric of the affected countries that may evoke violence when the security and welfare of the masses are endangered by the aggressive attitude of the major power. Resultantly, the prospects of faster economic growth, poverty alleviation, increase in employment levels, economic interdependence, infrastructure development, energy cooperation and regional connectivity, effective mechanism for science and technology, education and regional water cooperation, people-to-people contacts, agriculture development, tourism cooperation, global warming and disaster preparedness and cooperation in combating terrorism, are being hampered.

The SAARC has been a victim of Indian domination. India always tries to make decisions according to its own interests and it does not take into consideration the interests of its neighbours. Such an attitude does not bode well for the overall peace and stability of the region. The most recent instance of Indian antagonistic attitude is its attempt to sabotage the 19th SAARC summit that was to be held in Pakistan in November 2016. In fact, it was an Indian effort to isolate Pakistan in the region. In this context, while propagating that Uri attack was sponsored by Pakistan, India influenced Bhutan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, etc. to deny attendance of the SAARC summit because of which the SAARC secretariat had to cancel the summit. In this regard, the Indian effort of creating sub-regional grouping also indicates that India is using its influence to weaken the SAARC forum.

The differences and conflicts among the member countries of the SAARC could not be resolved without strong political relations based on mutual trust. One of the major political implications of cancelling the SAARC summit would be that the South Asian countries would start considering the SAARC as a means of creating Indian supremacy and weakening regional cooperation. This would mean that security and prosperity such as cooperation in counter terrorism and sharing the benefits of regional connectivity in the form of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the Bangladesh–China–India–Myanmar Forum for Regional Cooperation (BCIM) would remain elusive. It is believed that if India had played a leadership role in a positive sense while taking care of the interests of the other smaller countries, the situation would have been different. Instead of encouraging cooperation among the SAARC countries, Indian policy approaches are either to dominate the smaller countries or divide them in the sub-groups.

Conflict between states can induce mistrust; if the conflict becomes violent, it creates hindrances between smooth interstate relations. History tells us that territorial disputes and trans-border conflicts, which India has in the region, are not only Pakistan and China centric rather; other neighbouring states are also affected by Indian hegemonic design. Some of the examples are Sino-Indian border disputes, territorial conflicts (Kashmir and Siachen conflicts, etc.) and water dispute with Pakistan, military intervention in Sri Lanka in 1987, and border conflicts and water dispute with Bangladesh too. Because of these disputes and India’s efforts to establish its supremacy, mutual cooperation among the SAARC member states in the field of energy, trade and dispute resolution is lacking. These factors have acted as a serious barrier to the socio-economic growth of the region. That is why, the trade amongst the SAARC nations is only 3.5 per cent of their total trade volume, which is much lower than in other trading blocks. Similarly, the SAARC countries have been unable to get the benefits from SAFTA.

Indian hegemony based on its size and military dominance has contributed to a mistrust and classic security dilemma in the SAARC region, thus negatively impacting regional cooperation. This has led to an unhealthy arms race, including nuclear weapons development. Since last about eight years, India’s signing of a nuclear deal with the United States and the latter’s declarance of India as a major defence partner, have further added to India’s arrogance. These moves would further expand Indian domination that would create a fear in the SAARC region of New Delhi’s potential expansionism and unsolicited intrusion into their domestic affairs.

The political will and political action can positively contribute towards breaking the vicious circle of conflict, insecurity and underdevelopment in the SA. There is a dire need that India should take several steps to promote peace and cooperation in the region and make the SAARC an effective and influential regional organization such as: First, India should not interfere in any of its neighbouring countries’ internal affairs.  Second, Indian policies should in principle be based towards the SAARC countries on the basis of equality. Third, it should display flexibility in resolving unsettled disputes with its SAARC neighbours. Four, it should avoid using divisive politics at the SAARC level and encourage people-to-people contacts in the region. This will help in leading to greater understanding by removing mistrust and promoting goodwill and mutual cooperation.

Welcome Address by President IPRI 

President IPRI Ambassador (R) Sohail Amin welcomed the participants and said that India’s efforts to establish its hegemony in South Asia had negative implications for the region. He highlighted that India’s power politics has not allowed the SAARC to concentrate on implementing socio-economic clauses of the charter of SAARC. He said that Pakistan has been trying its best to resolve its disputes with India peacefully, and is ready to hold dialogue with it, but it is India which refuses to hold negotiations with Pakistan on one pretext or the other. He said that India has been keeping the Kashmir conflict unresolved to maintain the status quo.  He argued that by sabotaging the 19th SAARC Summit that was to be held in Pakistan in November 2016, India has violated the spirit and objectives of SAARC. 

Proceedings of the Roundtable 

Dr. Muhammad Mujeeb Afzal, Assistant Professor, School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-I-Azam University, spoke on “Dynamics of Indian Hegemony in the SAARC Region.” He defined hegemony as a common relationship between a dominant state and a collection of states, in which the dominant state, through its material power, tries to exercise hegemony. He said that states who desire to become the greatest power seek regional hegemony because it ensures their status at international level. He said that SAARC region is claimed to be based essentially on three elements: geographical contiguity, shared Hindu-Muslim civilization and common colonial experience especially British colonialism. He highlighted that India viewed South Asia as geographically interlinked civilizational unit whose security and prosperity was dependent on collectivity and whenever this connectivity did not act as one unit, the region became subject to subjugation from foreign powers. He said that India considered South Asia as a unit that should have a centre, a capital to govern the region.

Dr. Mujeeb highlighted that India exhibited some characteristics of a status inconsistent state which believed that the international community should recognize South Asia as India’s sphere of influence where India’s will should prevail. In this regard, he identified two Indian objectives: one, the South Asian state system should be governed by India and two, outside interference should be avoided. He said that India knows its lack of power and capability to challenge the oligarchy of states at global level so it has been advocating moral principles such as non-violence and peaceful co-existence while at the regional level; it has been using policy of coercion and intervention vis-à-vis smaller states. He said that India has established market dominance in South Asia and Indian cultural norms widely prevails in the region, but Indian political hegemony has always been resisted by smaller states by inviting outside powers – China and United States. He recognized that SAARC has also been a victim of competing agendas where smaller states have failed to come up collectively against India and India has also failed to use SAARC as an instrument to establish its hegemony.

He said that  India has managed to develop a strategy in concert with the West, providing added impetus to its aspirations for acquiring global status, but without Pakistan, it cannot reach those aspirations and Indian attempts to achieve regional hegemony have primarily failed since it was notable to keep third parties, such as China outside the South Asian realm.

Ambassador (R) Fauzia Nasreen, Head, Centre for Policy Studies, COMSATS, Islamabad delivered a presentation on “Politico-Economic and Security Implications of Indian Hegemony in the SAARC Region.” She said that India considers itself an heir of great civilization and the successor state of British empire, thus, dominance is inherent in the Indian psyche, strategy and doctrines. She highlighted that India defines its doctrines in terms of Indian particularism and wants to protect its strategic autonomy as it is evident from “Indira Doctrine.”  She said that post 9/11 alignment with the West provided India an opportunity to gain ascendency in the region. She described Indian hegemonic designs as a source of instability and polarization in South Asia. She said that India wants to shape Indian regional order by denying space to outside powers especially China.

She stated that the SAARC region’s strategic significance has increased considerably since India’s attempts to determine the South Asian order have been resisted from nationalist forces within the member countries. She said that deep Indian involvement in domestic situations is paradoxical as, on the one hand, it provides room for India to exercise regional hegemony while on the other hand, it generates anti-India feelings among smaller South Asian states.  She provided a detailed view of India’s relations with regional states.  She highlighted that Indo-Bangladesh relations reflect the complexity of domestic politics since Awami League is deeply indebted to India and supports the Indian policies on regional issues. She defined Indo-Sri Lanka relations as tension ridden and Indian hegemonic designs vis-a-vis Sri Lanka were often resisted by it.  She highlighted that Sri Lanka has a strategic location in the Indian Ocean and is important for both China and India. She added that the Tamil issue provided the pretext for Indian interference in Sri Lanka. She said that Indian interference in Nepal is a constant factor in bilateral relations as India has managed to exercise its dominance in the political, economic, and security spheres through complex linkages. She further stated that Nepal-China relations are expanding in all fields, Nepal is part of “One Belt One Road” project and a route through China would reduce Nepal’s dependence on India.

Ms. Salma Malik, Assistant Professor, Defence and Strategic Studies, Quaid-I-Azam University, spoke on  “Ways and Means, for Making SAARC a Win-Win Entity: A Way Forward”. She said that SAARC is economically one of the least developed regions that have little intra-regional connectivity. She highlighted the inclusion of Afghanistan into SAARC and its implications as well. While describing the positive side, she identified the inclusion of Afghanistan into SAARC as an opportunity to link South Asia to Central Asia, but unfortunately, given Kabul’s unfriendly ties with Islamabad, it supports India against Pakistan. She stated that each country in the region has a grudge against India, but due to India’s market dominance in these countries, they have little choice to find an alternative. She suggested that only Pakistan can become an alternative and help its neighbours stand up against Indian dominance. She emphasized that Pakistan needs to internally strengthen itself and develop its economy, as well as enhance its soft and smart power. She said that unless Pakistan itself develops a futuristic, forward thinking vision for South Asia vis-a-vis SAARC, it cannot play any significant role within this regional body. She stated that there is a need to reform SAARC, as this is the decade of intra-regional as well as inter-regional connectivity, and if SAARC does not wake up to this reality, it will remain far behind.

Discussants and Participants

Following experts offered brief comments at the Roundtable:-

  1. Ambassador (Retd) Ali Sarwar Naqvi, Executive Director, Centre for International Strategic Studies
  2. Nazir Hussain, Director, School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad
  3. Khalid Banuri, Director General Arms Control & Disarmament Affairs, Strategic Plans Division, Rawalpindi
  4. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal, Associate Professor, School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad
  5. Tughral Yamin, Associate Dean, Centre of International Peace and Stability (CIPS), National University of Science and Technology (NUST), Islamabad
  6. Muhammad Khan, Former Head of Department, Department of International Relations, National Defence University, Islamabad
  7. Najam Rafique, Director Research/Programme Coordinator, Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI)
  8. Mavara Inayat, Associate Professor, School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad
  9. Rizwan Nasser, Assistant Professor, International Relations Department of Humanities, COMSATS, Islamabad

Panel Discussion

The salient points of the talk of each speaker on the subject are given below:-

Ambassador (Retd) Ali Sarwar Naqvi

  • The idea of SAARC was deferred when it was initially conceived because of India’s reservations. It was believed that the creation of SAARC would give smaller South Asian countries the opportunity to gang up against India.
  • Mindful of India’s reservation, SAARC was created with the sole objective of concentrating on social, economic and cultural issues. To this end, the organization concentrated on encouraging connectivity, trade and cultural exchange, but unfortunately, it has failed to achieve any breakthrough in these areas.
  • After three decades, the very issue of including ‘political problems’ in the Charter of SAARC has returned to haunt the organization. The future of the organization depends on SAARC’s structural changes and resolution of Indo-Pak issues.

Mr. Khalid Banuri

  • In recent times, international politics is fuelled by ultra-nationalism. This kind of environment suits an ultra-nationalist and populism driven leader like Narendra Modi.
  • India’s hegemonic designs are old as SAARC was evolved on the notion that politics will not be allowed to disrupt development. To this end, India has played the role of spoiler by getting the SAARC Summits cancelled six times.
  • Indian arrogance has increased substantially. The case of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) is the perfect example. India considers NSG membership its right, which has irked many other NSG member states.
  • SAARC should be utilized to the extent of its existence. The United States’ and China’s interest in SAARC is a silver lining. China’s strategic interest and rise can act as a natural balancer to India.
  • Pakistan should also give financial support to its neighbours. While Pakistan’s feeble economy may not make this strategy, sustainable right now, nonetheless, planning should be given due consideration. Pakistan should also endeavour to become a member or observer in other regional groupings such as the African Union. Pakistan should also balance out India’s soft power by investing in its youth.

Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal

  • India’s hegemonic intentions have been given impetus due to three important developments: its strategic alignment with the United States, its Indo-Pacific strategy and the creation of Agni-V which is an intercontinental ballistic missile. These developments have given India the kill power. Ironically, no country is taking India’s capabilities seriously.
  • There seems to be more evidence of cooperation between India and China rather than competition. This is evident through the huge volume of bilateral trade between two countries and the existing border dispute mechanism that has so far yielded results.

Dr. Nazir Hussain

  • India’s hegemonic intentions are old. Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi all share the same ambitions, but Pakistan’s own shortcomings has made it easier for India to pursue its hegemonic goals.
  • Pakistan is required to give serious and consistent attention to its economic development to ensure its security and prosperity.

Dr. Tughral Yamin

  • SAARC is a good forum, but the member states have not been able to use it to their advantage. SAARC Charter includes sixteen different areas of cooperation which can be used to revive the organization and ensue cooperation between the regional countries.
  • It would be desirable to focus on issues which are less controversial. This would help in building confidence between the member states and bring them on the same page.

Dr. Muhammad Khan

  • SAARC was created for socioeconomic reasons, but it has proved counterproductive. Smaller countries are exploited by larger countries like India. Resultantly, there has been a clash between the expectations associated with SAARC and the manifestations on the ground.
  • India has been the main spoiler in making SAARC ineffective. India needs to get serious in resolving its issues with Pakistan and other smaller states in South Asia.
  • SAARC is overshadowed by other organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and BRICS. The way forward would be to broaden the base of SAARC membership. China and Iran should be included in SAARC.

Dr. Mavara Inayat

  • SAARC is a good idea. From a realpolitik point of view, one should keep their friends close and their enemies closer. SAARC is given this opportunity to get an insight into other countries’ policies and worldview.
  • While India has been using its soft power to create a rosy picture for the entire world, there is a stark difference in reality. Pakistan should evolve an appropriate strategy for dealing with India.

Mr. Najam Rafique

  • Pakistan needs to stop fixating on India. It needs to diversify its thinking and look beyond SAARC.
  • So far, there have been no positives of SAARC. It is not going to work with the historical baggage that it has in the shape of complex bilateral relations of smaller states with India. Pakistan can harness its potential through other regional organizations such as SCO.

Dr. Rizwan Nasser

  • For SAARC to work, countries need to change their behaviour and thinking.
  • SAARC can be rejuvenated through people to people contacts.

Concluding Remarks by the Chair

General (R) Asif Yasin Malik, former Defence Secretary in his remarks, said that initially India was not enthusiastic to establish a regional organization due to the fear that smaller states may get together against it but it never happened and Pakistan was and still is worried about its regional implications. He said that this region is a turmoil prone region so bilateral contentious relations as well as security relations were kept out of the charter. He said that it must be remembered that Pakistan is the only country which is not under the Indian dominance. He highlighted that Prime Minister Modi and the overall Indian attitude are supported by the West but India already faces resistance from neighbouring countries and there is also a realization in India that military subjugation of Pakistan is not possible.

Major Recommendations

In the light of the views expressed by the eminent participants, the following recommendations were put forth:-

  • To neutralize India’s hegemony, Pakistan can play a useful role. Pakistan, despite its smaller size is a nuclear power. Pakistan’s strategic capability is a balancer against Indian hegemonic domination. To balance out Indian hegemony, Pakistan needs to become strong economicaly and militarily.
  • SAARC as a region has failed to grow. The lack of cooperation among the regional states due to the perception biases has been a major impediment. In the prevalent era of globalization, conflict and military approaches are not the order of the day rather economic prowess determines the standing of a regional actor in the comity of nations. In line with the present day realities, there is a need for a paradigm shift to focus on economic cooperation and energy connectivity. If SAARC countries want to emerge on the world stage as an economically prosperous region, cooperation at regional level is a must. Economic integration under SAARC needs to be pursued vigorously.
  • The emerging regional architecture, in view of the energy connectivity projects between South and Central Asia is an optimistic move, likely to have a positive impact on regional cooperation. Pakistan would emerge as a regional pivot in view of its  geographical location, the Gwadar port and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Therefore, Indian efforts to isolate Pakistan would remain futile. It is an imperative for India to give up its efforts to isolate Pakistan and join the CPEC to draw related economic benefits of regional connectivity.
  • SAARC Charter includes sixteen different areas of cooperation which can be used to revive the organization and ensure cooperation among the regional players. It would be desirable to focus on issues which are less controversial. This would help in building confidence among the member states.
  • The traditional and non-traditional security issues are common to all the South Asian players. Nearly 40 percent of the world’s malnourished children and women live in poverty-stricken South Asia. To bridge the ideological differences and to enhance trust that prevails at the regional level, there is a need to address the common problems of poverty, education, environmental degradation through a unanimous regional approach at the SAARC level.
  • To ensure security and stability of the South Asian region, there is a need that SAARC countries should develop a mechanism to counter terrorism and the differences on the issue should be addressed through dialogue.
  • Afghanistan was made a member of SAARC on the pretext that the country’s entry into the organization can act as a regional link between Central and South Asia. However, the Indo-Afghan nexus has damaged the efforts towards inter-regional cooperation. Afghanistan should not become a part of India’s power politics as it is hampering Afghanistan’s role in regional connectivity.
  • The foreign power’s role in South Asia has negatively impacted the regional balance of power. The US tilt towards India, and concessions to the latter by offering strategic partnership has accentuated Indian hegemonic aspirations. Pakistan needs to gear up its regional standing by participating in other regional organizations, like the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and African Union (AU) etc.
  • Pakistan, other than cooperating at the regional level also needs to look towards the East. In this regard, Pakistan’s economic partnership with China could yield dividends. Pakistan should back China’s entry into SAARC as its permanent member. This would not only neutralize Indian domination, but would also bring in China for economic development of the region.
  • In order to strengthen SAARC, there is a need to enhance educational, cultural and people-to-people contacts. Further, think tank interaction and Track-II diplomacy should also be encouraged.
  • To enhance tourism, and promote economic and trade cooperation, there is a need to have leniency over visa issuance and people’s movement.
  • The Indian movies reflect India’s self-centred mindset, thinking highly of themselves and view other South Asian states as satellites or subservient. Pakistan’s strategic capability makes it a strong regional player, likewise, our dramas and movies should deter the Indian hegemonistic mindset. Historical dramas highlighting the true facts should be aired. This will not only educate the youth but will also address the biases.


The speakers and discussants reached at the conclusion that Indian attempts for political hegemony in the region have been continuously resisted by smaller states by inviting outside powers such as China and United States. It was highlighted that Pakistan is the only regional state which can become an alternative for regional states to counter the Indian dominance. In this regard, Pakistan has to strengthen itself internally by developing its economy, as well as by enhancing its soft and smart power. Pakistan needs to develop a futuristic, forward thinking strategy for South Asia vis-a-vis SAARC, to play an effective role in this regional body. This is the decade of intra-regional as well as inter-regional connectivity, and to become a viable organization SAARC has to keep pace with new realities and developments.

Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the speakers and are not necessarily reflective of IPRI policy.

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