Published April 28, 2024
Illustration by Sarah Durrani
Illustration by Sarah Durrani

It was in 2009 that American author and traveller Robert D. Kaplan visited Gwadar and described its significance in these words, in his article Pakistan’s Fatal Shore, published in the Atlantic magazine: “If we can think of great place-names of the past — Carthage, Thebes, Troy, Samarkand, Angkor Wat — and of the present — Dubai, Singapore, Tehran, Beijing, Washington — then Gwadar should qualify as a great place-name of the future… an exotic 21st-century placename.”

He even went to the extent of tying Pakistan’s fate with the future of Gwadar, “whose development will either unlock the riches of Central Asia or plunge Pakistan into a savage, and potentially terminal, civil war.”

Though his observation could be dismissed as an act of excessive exaggeration — as the future of a country of 250 million people cannot be logically tied to the development or otherwise of this or that seaport — it nevertheless underscores Gwadar’s immense importance for Pakistan’s development.


The importance of the Gwadar port primarily emanates from its location. It is located on the Makran Coast in Balochistan, close to Pakistan’s border with Iran. The city has a hammerhead shape, with two semi-circular bays on each side. The western bay is known locally as Paddi Zirr, with a maximum depth of 30 feet. The eastern bay is known as Deymi Zirr, which is far deeper and fit for development as a deep-water port.

Aside from its economic and commercial potential for Pakistan, the port city of Gwadar has great strategic value, which has resulted in development and investment, particularly from China. But the ground situation and sentiment suggest that benefits haven’t trickled down to the residents, and a new approach is required for this ‘crown jewel’ to sparkle…

In addition to being adequately deep, Gwadar is located at the gates of the Strait of Hormuz, which is the only passage from the oil-rich Persian/ Arabian Gulf to the open ocean. It is through the Strait of Hormuz that most of the oil and the liquid natural gas produced in the Middle East passes through. A deep-water port at the doors of the strait promises great economic opportunities, in addition to a set of strategic advantages.

Adding further value to Gwadar is the fact that it is located at the confluence of South Asia and the Middle East. In terms of distance, it is very close to important Middle Eastern centres of commerce and energy. For instance, it is just 223 nautical miles (413 kms) from Oman’s capital Muscat, while its distance from Karachi is around 287 nautical miles (533 kms). Moreover, Gwadar is 383 nautical miles (700 kms) from Dubai and about a hundred kilometres from the Iranian border.

In addition to its close proximity to the Middle East, Gwadar has the potential to be connected through road and rail links to several landlocked countries of Central Asia, through infrastructural facilities planned under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

It was in this context that Kaplan observed: “So now imagine a bustling deep-water port at the extreme southwestern tip of Pakistan, equipped with a highway, and oil and natural-gas pipelines, extending north all the way through some of the highest mountains in the world… Another branch of this road-and-pipeline network [going] north from Gwadar, through a stabilised Afghanistan, and on into Iran and Central Asia… in this way, [Gwadar] becomes the hub of a new Silk Road, both land and maritime.”

Besides its economic and commercial significance, Gwadar has tremendous strategic value, too. Pakistan’s two prime ports, Karachi and Bin Qasim, are both located close to the border with India, and hence are vulnerable in case of tensions between the two countries.

“Karachi, the principal operating base for the Pakistani Navy, was subjected to an Indian blockade in 1971 and there was the serious prospect of a repeat in 1999. Blockading Gwadar, 645 kilometres further along the coast would be a more difficult proposition,” remarked Andrew Small in his book The China-Pakistan Axis.

The question, then, is why Pakistan has yet not been able to tap the potential of Gwadar? The answer remains in its history.


For centuries, Gwadar remained an abode to local fishermen, who built a village nearby to live. They caught various varieties of abundantly available seafood, such as trout, snapper, tiger prawns, perch, bass, sardines, etc, through their primitive

boats and nets and sold them locally to earn their livelihood.

Administratively, Gwadar was part of the Makran state, whose rulers handed it over to the Sultan of Oman, across the sea, in 1784.

With the advent of British rule in the Subcontinent, the state of Makran came under British suzerainty. The British allowed Gwadar to remain with the sultanate of Oman after obtaining certain concessions, such as the right to establish telegraph and post offices there, as well as designating it as a ‘port of call’, where British ships could stop for supplies and repairs, etc. This arrangement went well till 1947.

After Pakistan’s independence, the state of Makran, along with other Balochistan states and areas, became part of the new country, while Gwadar remained under Omani control. In 1954, Pakistan took an initiative to survey its coastline through the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

The survey highlighted the potential of Gwadar for its development as a deep-water port. The idea of having an alternate port to Karachi, that too some 1,100 kilometres away from Indian borders, caught the imagination of planners, resulting in the initiation of negotiations with Oman to get Gwadar back.

The Omanis were initially reluctant, as Gwadar was not only a port for them but an important recruitment centre for their armed forces. Nevertheless, in September 1958, after long negotiations, duly assisted by the UK government, Oman agreed to hand over Gwadar to Pakistan against a payment of $3 million.

This was a proud moment for Pakistan. The prime minister at that time, Malik Feroz Khan Noon, came on the radio on September 7, 1958, to announce his government’s accomplishment.

“The administration of the port of Gwadar and its hinterland… was today taken over by Pakistan with full sovereign rights. The people of Gwadar have joined the people of Pakistan and the whole of Gwadar now forms part of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan,” the proud prime minister announced.

“I welcome the residents of Gwadar into the Republic of Pakistan and I would like to assure them that they will enjoy equal rights and privileges… [and] will have their full share in the glory and prosperity of the Republic to which they now belong,” he assured.

However, exactly a month after this announcement, on October 7, 1958, Feroz Noon’s government was dismissed and martial law was imposed in the country. His departure also resulted in the shelving of the plans for the development of Gwadar. Whenever they reappeared, the scarcity of resources resulted in them being shelved again.

The next people interested in Gwadar were not Pakistanis, but Russians. In the words of Tim Marshall, in his book The Prisoners of Geography: “Many analysts believe this strategic asset [Gwadar] was the Soviet Union’s long-term target when it invaded Afghanistan in 1979: Gwadar would have fulfilled Moscow’s long-term dream of a warm water port.”

Kaplan too endorses this viewpoint. He states: “Gwadar was the ultimate prize denied them [Russians] during their decade-long occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s — the fabled warm-water outlet to the sea that formed the strategic raison d’être for their Afghan adventure in the first place. From Gwadar, the Soviet Union could have exported the hydrocarbon wealth of Central Asia. But Afghanistan proved to be the graveyard of Soviet imperial visions. Gwadar… was like a poisoned chalice.”

Their eventual departure from Afghanistan ended their interest in Gwadar.


After the Russians, the Chinese took interest in Gwadar. The background to their interest was related to China’s “Malacca Dilemma.” The Chinese apprehended that rise in tensions between them and their rivals, particularly the US, could result in the blockade of the Strait of Malacca, the shortest sea route between East Asia and the Middle East.

It is a vital waterway for the shipment of hydrocarbons, of which China is the biggest importer. To escape such an eventuality, China looked for alternatives and found that one of the most plausible solutions would be to route them through the Gwadar port, for onward transportation to China through land routes.

Pakistan was already in search of a partner who could invest and help develop Gwadar. Accordingly, the two countries agreed to develop Gwadar port and related facilities, at a cost of $248 million, of which China contributed $198 million and Pakistan $50 million. The work was successfully completed in 2006 and the port was opened in January 2007 with great fanfare.

Initially, in 2007, the contract for the handling of the port was entrusted to the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) for a period of 40-years. However, their performance proved to be unsatisfactory, and they were eased out of the contract, which was then awarded to the China Overseas Ports Holding Company in 2013.

In the meantime, both the countries had been negotiating on the development of an economic corridor, connecting Gwadar with Kashgar in China, through an upgraded Karakoram Highway, which finally translated into the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The programme was formally launched in 2013, under the umbrella of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

It was argued in international circles that, through CPEC, China’s presence at Gwadar, a port “sufficiently deep to accommodate submarines and aircraft carriers” in proximity to the Persian Gulf, would not only solve China’s oil transhipment matters, “but it would also offer something unusual for the Chinese navy: a permanent, reliable facility for ships needing support points close to the Middle East, North Africa or East Africa,” wrote Small.


However, during this time, several gross mistakes were made, which created several serious problems later.

The first in the series of mistakes was the creation of the hype promising to turn Gwadar into a “New Dubai”, with a projected population of two million residents. For the people of Balochistan, who in terms of population make only a tiny minority in the country, this meant a huge influx of an external population, creating the fear among them that “they will become a minority in their own land,” wrote Small.

With this hype, black money in Pakistan found its way to Gwadar, to be parked in the real estate sector. The now-defunct monthly Herald published a cover story on “The Great Land Robbery” in June 2008, in which it highlighted how the poor people of Gwadar were being denied rights over their ancestral lands by investors and developers from Sindh and Punjab.

It stated that this was done through manipulation in revenue records, with the help of corrupt government officials. This further alienated the local populace.

In these conditions, the Baloch nationalist groups, who already had a history of armed struggle, intensified their attacks on the port, allied facilities and Chinese nationals working on these projects.

In response, “[Pervez] Musharraf took large-scale clean-up operations” wrote Chinese academic Dr Yuhang Xie, about the military strongman who was in power till 2008. But these measures failed to “suppress the Baloch nationalist movement by military means, further stimulating the spread of the movement,” she continued.

Here, it is pertinent to state that, despite such confrontations, an overwhelming majority of Balochs prefer to stay within the federal framework of Pakistan. In this regard, Dr Xie has referred to a Gallup survey, commissioned by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) in 2012, which revealed that 67 percent of the local people, including both Baloch and Pashtun, supported remaining part of Pakistani federation, though with more provincial autonomy.


There is no doubt that Gwadar still remains Pakistan’s great asset, a jewel. There is an urgent need to create a stake of the people of Balochistan in the development of Gwadar and other CPEC projects.

Local people should be engaged and told in clear terms what would be their share in the benefits coming out of the projects. They have to be assured that they would have first right in all the development projects being undertaken in their respective areas and in no case would they be converted into a minority.

But this does not sit well with the current situation in Balochistan — it sits at the bottom of socio-economic devel­opment indicators compared to other areas of Pakistan.

As Dr Xie highlighted, “Balochistan was lagging far behind other provinces in aspects of employment rate, health condition of children, net enrollment rate of primary schools, adult literacy rate, proportion of people with access to clean water and medical and health service, etc… The standing backwardness and poverty were then.” This needs fundamental reasons for the dominance of separatist forces in Balochistato be reversed.

China, being an important stakeholder in the project, should contribute more in the socio-economic development of local people. China should help the federal, provincial and local government of Gwadar in the development of public service facilities, such as schools, hospitals and skill development centres, as well as measures aimed at the provision of clean drinking water, among others, to the local population, creating their stake in the projects.

The universities in Balochistan should be geared up, in collaboration with Chinese universities, to come up with degree programmes in the disciplines related to present and future job opportunities under CPEC projects. The employment of the residents of Balochistan in the projects would enhance their stake as well as save the Chinese currently working in their place from security risks, till the situation improves.

The fact remains that Pakistan’s prosperity and development is closely related to the development of Gwadar. Let this jewel not be lost due to our negligence.

The writer is an independent consultant on development communication and human resource development. He can be reached at

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 28th, 2024



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