Gwatar Bay to Sir Creek: The Golden Coast of Pakistan — History and Memoirs
By Vice Admiral Iftikhar Ahmed Rao (Retired)
IPS Press, Islamabad
ISBN: 978-9694488103
327pp.

Gwadar, a remote coastal town in Balochistan, became the focus of media attention in 2015 when it was chosen as the centre stage of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Since then, there has been a repeated demand by the people of Balochistan that they should have a greater say in decision-making about Gwadar’s future.

In order to counter these demands, some quarters started arguing that, historically, Gwadar was not part of Balochistan; they claim it was purchased by Pakistan from the Sultanate of Oman. Hence, Gwadar should be dealt with as a federal subject, without the involvement of Balochistan’s political representatives.

However, once in a while a book comes out to set the record straight. One such book is Gwatar Bay to Sir Creek: The Golden Coast of Pakistan — History and Memoirs, authored by retired Vice Admiral Iftikhar Ahmed Rao. Although mainly the memoirs of a naval officer, the book describes in detail how Gwadar was handed over by the Kalat State — forerunner of current-day Balochistan — in 1783 to Oman and how it was bought back by Pakistan in 1958.

The author was the first commander of Coastal Command (COMCOAST) and retired from the Pakistan Navy as a vice admiral, equivalent to a three-star lieutenant general in the Pakistan Army. Of the 15 chapters in his book, 10 are about Gwadar town and the history of the Makran coast, from the times of the Arab naval commander Muhammad bin Qasim, to the present-day Chinese.

A treat for researchers, a book by a former vice admiral offers deep insight into Gwadar and Pakistan’s coastline for casual readers as well

The remaining chapters are about his own experiences and the coast of Sindh. It will not be wrong to state that this book is a detailed description of Gwadar by someone who served in that region for several years.

Coming back to Gwadar’s history, Rao describes that the Khan of Kalat took control of Gwadar in 1778. In 1783, Omani prince Sultan bin Ahmad sailed to Gwadar after a failed coup against his father. Noori Naseer, then Khan of Kalat, allotted Bin Ahmad control of Gwadar and a half share of Gwadar’s revenue as maintenance allowance. Bin Ahmad became sultan of Oman in 1792, but did not return Gwadar to Kalat State. In 1903, the then Khan of Kalat officially for the first time laid claim to Gwadar via the British Indian government.

Fast forward to 1947. Oman retained control of Gwadar after the Partition of the Subcontinent. The following year, writes Rao, Pakistan started efforts to regain control of Gwadar. Pakistan’s case for acquiring Gwadar was that the port town had historically been part of Kalat State, which was now part of Pakistan.

The book describes the negotiation process for regaining Gwadar in detail. The author terms Sultan Said bin Taimur, then ruler of Oman, a hard bargainer who delayed the transfer process as long as he could to attain maximum concessions. The sultan refused to directly negotiate with Pakistan and, therefore, the British government acted as an intermediary.

In September 1958, Pakistan finally bought back Gwadar from Oman. According to the 14-point agreement of transfer — shared by the author — Pakistan paid Oman three million pounds for the loss of revenue. This deal was carefully crafted so that the Sultan of Oman could avoid technically ‘selling’ Gwadar.

Moreover, Pakistan also agreed to pay 10 percent of profits to Oman for 25 years on oil discovered from Gwadar any time in the future. This reveals the very important fact that Oman still has a technical stake in Gwadar’s natural wealth.

I find anecdotes shared by an author who has served in a position of significance one of the most interesting elements of a book. Such anecdotes allow us to have an alternative view of history. Rao’s book contains some really interesting anecdotes, which add to the understanding of those readers who are interested in Gwadar or the coast of Pakistan.

The author recalls that, in 2003, then prime minister of Pakistan Zafarullah Khan Jamali visited Gwadar. He was given a briefing on the development of the area. Once the briefing was over, some people brought out an architectural model of a building for another briefing, which was not scheduled. Later, it was discovered that it was the model of a five-star hotel to be constructed atop the Koh-i-Batil mountain in Gwadar.

The navy objected to the location of the hotel because it had a direct view of the port and was considered a security risk. However, construction at that location was not only approved, but the hotel was actually built and became functional even before the completion of Gwadar port.

On May 11, 2019, the same hotel was attacked by Baloch separatists which, according to the author, vindicated his fears that building it atop a mountain overlooking Gwadar port was a mistake. This episode speaks volumes about the problem of ill-planning, which is a main reason preventing the success of Gwadar so far.

The book also narrates a visit of the former governor of State Bank, Ishrat Husain, to inspect the site for a local office of the State Bank in Gwadar. The author reveals that Husain was shown land far away from the city because it was offered free of cost by a real estate developer. The governor rejected the location and, even today, there is no State Bank sub-office in Gwadar.

Later, it was revealed that the real estate developer had offered free land because he planned to launch a housing scheme adjacent to the site and cleverly wanted to use a State Bank branch to boost his land’s value.

After Gwadar, the book’s second area of focus is the four decades of the author’s experiences of serving in the navy, beginning from the rank of midshipman and retiring as vice admiral. Rao writes that he served for the first time in Gwadar in 1972 and, back then, there were severe problems of shortages of drinking water and accommodation amid the scorching heat. A visit to Gwadar in summers even now reveals that nothing much has changed there, even after 50 years.

Given the power dynamics in the country, the job of a naval officer is less romanticised in Pakistan as compared to an army officer. However, both jobs are equally difficult, especially in a remote place such as the coast of Makran. Rao describes in vivid detail the tough conditions he lived in in Pasni while the naval site was under construction. The former vice admiral also shares the story of building the Marines Canal in the Rann of Kutch, to prevent Pakistani fishermen from mistakenly sailing into Indian waters, and getting arrested or killed in the process.

All the chapters of Gwatar Bay to Sir Creek are very well-referenced, especially the content about the region’s history. There are plenty of illustrations, too, which are very useful in understanding tricky naval jargon and the context of different incidents, as explained by the author.

In short, the book is a treat for researchers. For casual readers, it offers deep insight into Gwadar and the 1,059-kilometre-long coast of Pakistan. After finishing the book, all readers will surely be better informed about Gwadar, the so-called future of Pakistan’s economy.

The reviewer is an independent journalist and a researcher.

He tweets @iAdnanAamir

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 11th, 2022

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