Safe Behind Their Walls

It's easy to forget about political assassinations, fears of loose nukes and the specter of Islamic militancy from a bench in Hill Park. Nestled in an idyllic neighborhood where children play in the streets and homeowners stroll to the local health club or mini-mart, the park and its manicured grass overlook a sliver of a vast gated residential development of the sort you might see in southern California. But the area, named Bahria Town, is located just outside Islamabad. At 45,000 square acres it is, according to splashy international ads, the largest private development in Asia, and despite Pakistan's well-publicized political and security problems, people are signing deals for six-figure houses, condos and apartments faster than they can be built. "These are changing times for Pakistan," says Salman Ahmed Khan, the development's director of marketing and operations, whose main job is to court prospective buyers away from Dubai and to Bahria Town. "Pakistanis are traveling, they're seeing nice things abroad and we want to provide that for them at home."

This unlikely playground for wealthy Muslims is the vision of Khan's boss and father-in-law, Malik Riaz Hussain, a 59-year-old billionaire Pakistani contractor. Set between the capital Islamabad and its sister city Rawalpindi, Bahria Town is the "masterpiece" of his 40-year career, a $6 billion project he has funded solo to avoid having to deal with outside investors. Its nine phases, too vast to fully appreciate without standing on one of the plateaus that overlook them, will one day mesh together into a planned residential city for 1 million people. The project broke ground in 1996, and already, many of the 50,000 luxury properties in the development are owned by wealthy Pakistan expatriates who swooped into Bahria Town after 9/11 to buy second homes amid fears they would be driven out of places like London, New York and Los Angeles. Equally important was the security and serenity that Bahria Town provides, which drew Pakistan expats and a smattering of wealthy Arab Muslims away from places like Dubai.

The complex offers amenities (24-hour armed security, schools, hospitals, a fire department, retail shopping, restaurants and entertainment centers) that go above and beyond those in many of the gated communities that have become so popular in countries from the United States to Brazil. Given the nation's security issues, it's especially easy to understand why the rich here want to cloister themselves. Rival Pakistani developers, including one owned by the military, have begun copying Hussain's vision, constructing their own gated communities in the suburbs of major Pakistani cities such as Karachi. Hussain himself is developing a second such site in Lahore, where former prime minister Nawaz Sharif already lives in a gated community called Model Town.

Hussain's original inspiration for the mega-community came from the pre-planned town of Reston, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. Materials and design inspiration have been imported from everywhere. In the center of roundabouts sit giant Spanish fountains costing $500,000 a pop; the main streets are lined with palm trees brought in from Thailand; grass for the local golf course comes from the U.S. state of Georgia; the education expert for the 1,100-acre university being built is from Seattle. "When I see America, when I see Britain, when I see Turkey, when I see Malaysia," Hussain says, "the only thing I think is, 'Why not Pakistan?' "

This is Hussain's key notion—that Bahria Town is a world away from Taliban and Qaeda militants, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and weekly suicide bombings. "This is the real Pakistan," Hussain told NEWSWEEK.

But the real Pakistan also has violence. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, at least 1,523 civilians were killed in terror-related violence in 2007 and more than twice that number injured. An additional 441 Pakistanis were killed in sectarian violence last year. While most of the carnage occurred in the volatile North-West Frontier Province, where Islamic militancy is strong, there were also suicide bombings in Islamabad and Lahore that killed dozens of innocent bystanders. It's no wonder those who can afford it are drawn to places like Bahria Town, which has retired Army officers as security advisers and former foot soldiers on its police force. And independent power supply and private street cleaners also save residents from maddening daily electricity shortages in cities like Islamabad and garbage fouling the streets.

Hussain's focus and energy toward providing all this are limitless. He's up at his Islamabad residence by 6 most mornings, receiving project managers, local politicians and friends for breakfast before driving out to the project site in a heavily armed motorcade. He spouts off facts and figures about the development with encyclopedic knowledge, and says he frequently changes plans for the phases still being developed to make them better. He added an exact replica of Trafalgar Square at the Bahria Town development in the city of Lahore.

Hussain is familiar with reinvention. Although born into a wealthy family, his father's contracting business collapsed, and he was forced at the age of 19 to start his career as a lowly clerk in Islamabad. He remembers vividly, three years later, having to sell some family silverware just to buy medicine for his sick 2-year-old daughter. "I've never forgotten being poor," Hussain says, pointing out that Bahria Town also includes thousands of low-cost prefabricated houses. Still, there's no missing the fact that Hussain's dream city is mainly for upper-class Pakistanis who "want the good things in life," says Khan, the marketing manager.

Hussain says Bhutto's death has only increased his motivation to push forward his groundbreaking development projects. He claims that Pakistan's instability has not affected sales at Bahria Town. Pakistani economists like Qaisar Bengali aren't so sure: "There are many housing schemes stuck in the middle because real-estate prices have dropped in the last year or so." Nonetheless, Hussain says he's optimistic about the future, especially given that last week's national elections were more peaceful and transparent than people had expected. A new civilian government will take charge in the coming weeks after more than eight years of military rule, which has stymied Pakistan's economy (it grew about 7 percent last year, trailing neighboring India by nearly two points). Corruption, kickbacks and red tape are rife.

Hussain himself maintains close ties to the military establishment; his early business success was due in large part to construction contracts with the Pakistan Navy. ("Bahria" is Urdu for "naval.")

But he and others hope the country is at a turning point—one that will fuel private projects like Bahria Town. Pakistan certainly has no shortage of natural resources or cheap labor; now that elections are settled, economists believe FDI will flow back into the country. Investors from the Middle East (including regional giant Damac, based in Dubai) have already been knocking on Hussain's door, looking to put money in joint ventures here. With the return of civilian government and the removal of the shackles of stringent, military-led development, Hussain is free to ponder his next megaproject: digging a traffic tunnel through the Margalla Hills on the northern outskirts of Islamabad, and putting up a new bedroom residential community in the valley on the other side. If he builds it, says the developer confidently, they will come.