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Official Sees A Future In Chinese-Funded Port In Balochistan

Chairman of Pakistan's Gwadar Port Authority Dostain Khan Jamaldini (R) and chairman of China Overseas Port Holding Company (COPHC), Zhan Baozhang (L) sign a document during a ceremony in the Gwadar in November.
Chairman of Pakistan's Gwadar Port Authority Dostain Khan Jamaldini (R) and chairman of China Overseas Port Holding Company (COPHC), Zhan Baozhang (L) sign a document during a ceremony in the Gwadar in November.

For now, Gwadar is a city in name only. Most of the estimated 80,000 residents of this impoverished coastal town still eke out a living by fishing in the blue waters of the Arabian Sea.

In this remote part of Pakistan's southwestern Balochistan Province, those who stick to the land earn a living by making or repairing colorful wooden boats for fisherman.

Gwadar's sandy streets are dominated by single-story houses and the trappings of modern coastal cities; large expatriate communities, shiny skyscrapers, wide avenues, and massive, air-conditioned shopping malls still only exist in government-planning documents.

The most senior civilian port official in Gwadar now sees a splendid future for the impoverished fishing town as billions of dollars in Chinese investments are likely to turn Gwadar into a key commercial, energy, and transport hub.

Dostain Khan Jamaldini, the chairman of Gwadar Port Authority, says the town is a lynchpin in a Chinese strategy that aims to link its western Xinjiang region to the Middle East and Africa through a network of road and rail links across Pakistan.

"Gwadar Port is the backbone of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor," he said, referring to $46 billion in Chinese investments that Pakistani officials hope will revitalize the country's sluggish economy. "It is the starting point for connecting [the western Chinese city of] Kashgar to the Arabian Sea," Jamaldini added.

Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea.
Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea.

The bureaucrat says it took Islamabad and Beijing two years to plan all the Pakistan-China Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects. The implementation of these massive infrastructure and energy projects will gradually transform Gwadar.

"CPEC is not only a plan for regional connectivity; it also heralds regional development," he said, pointing to plans that envision connecting industrial and commercial regions across Pakistan and western China to the corridor, which is viewed as part of Beijing's efforts to revive the ancient Silk Road in the modern era.

Jamaldini says he expects to see hundreds of millions of dollars in Chinese investments to start pouring in January after construction work on a massive airport in Gwadar and the construction of the East Bay Express road, which will connect the town to Pakistan's biggest city and commercial hub, Karachi, 500 kilometers to the east.

"Pakistan's biggest airport will be in Gwadar. Even the giant Airbus A380 airplanes will be able to land here," he said. "It will be a regional transit point."

For now, Gwadar remains a provincial backwater in Pakistan's poorest and most underdeveloped province. Most of its residents still do not have running water. Like elsewhere in Pakistan, electricity and gas supplies are intermittent at best. Healthcare and education levels match those of Sub-Saharan Africa, the worst in the world.

Jamaldini, however, says there are plans to build power plants and import electricity and gas from Iran to meet the city's growing energy demands. A new dam near the city is expected to ensure uninterrupted water supply.

A much bigger concern for Gwadar residents and the rest of Balochistan is that the mega projects in the port city will attract so many investors and skilled workers from the rest of Pakistan that the largely unskilled locals could end up an oppressed underclass in their hometown.

Jamaldini, however, says Gwadar is not expected to be overwhelmed by the arrival of traders, government officials, or laborers from the rest of Pakistan in the short term. The government is planning in the long run to prevent such a scenario, he said.

"We are ready to welcome anyone, but we are looking into models employed elsewhere to preserve locals’ rights and a demographic balance," he said. "Everywhere in the world, locals and minorities have such concerns. Gwadar is not going to transform into a mega city of 15-20 million people overnight. We have a long way to go."

Jamaldini counts the relative peace in Gwadar as a good omen. He says the town’s crime rate is among the lowest in Pakistan.

But in Gwadar's neighboring districts in Balochistan, thousands of civilians, soldiers, and Baluch nationalist guerillas have been killed in a decade-old simmering separatist insurgency. "Even that insurgency seems to be ebbing with the improvement in security. The traffic between Gwadar and Karachi has not met any problems lately," he observed.

Pakistan first began developing the Gwadar Port in 2000. With nearly $150 million in Chinese investment, Gwadar now has a deep sea port, but it has yet to attract investors or commercial traffic because the port is not linked to inland ports or markets.

Residential areas of Gwadar town.
Residential areas of Gwadar town.

In addition, by occasionally attacking Chinese workers and Pakistani security forces since 2004, the Baluch separatists have prevented a large-scale migration to Gwadar.

Islamabad is keeping its hopes for Gwadar alive with giant posters depicting luxury hotels, marinas, and affluent suburbs.

Pakistan sees Gwadar as being a competitor to Dubai within decades despite the fact that the city's only five-star hotel is never able to fill its 200 rooms. Massive construction cites -- a hallmark in Dubai -- are nowhere to be seen in Gwadar.

In the meantime, few in Pakistan are daring to ask how Gwadar will compete in a region where countries like Iran, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates have poured billions of dollars into making their ports and coastal cities a commercial success.

But Jamaldini sees a promising future for the city. In addition to catering to China, Gwadar will be the favorite port for Afghanistan and its landlocked Central Asian neighbors because it offers them the shortest access to the sea.

However, he adds a note of caution. "Its future depends on the long-term consistency of our planning and policies, "he said.