Gwadar is the crown jewel of CPEC. The Port not only entails economic incentives for China, but massive dividends for Pakistan as well. However, the U.S.-China rivalry and the Indo-Pacific strategy providing India a greater role in Indian Ocean poses serious challenges.
Pakistan is blessed with scenic sites in abundance spread all across the country and our coastline is no exception. Gwadar, a city on our west coast, is one such striking place with immense geopolitical and geostrategic significance. It is famous for being a part of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and is termed as a jewel in its crown. With the introduction of U.S.’ Indo-Pacific strategy, its importance has increased multifold.
History of Gwadar
The word Gwadar is a combination of two Balochi words, Guad meaning wind and Dar meaning gateway or door, thus Gwadar means “the gateway of wind”. Gwadar has witnessed some memorable events like the arrival of Alexander the Great, Muhammad Bin Qasim, Portuguese pirates and European invaders through the Indian Ocean which is locally known as “Baloch Sea”.
On September 8, 1958, Pakistani Prime Minister Malik Feroze Khan Noon broke the news of the purchase of Gwadar from Oman. Pakistan Navy has the honor of taking over Gwadar from the Sultanate of Oman through a naval platoon led by Lieutenant Iftikhar Ahmed Sirohey (later Admiral Iftikhar Ahmed Sirohey NI (M), SBt, Chief of the Naval Staff and Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee), who raised Pakistani flag at Gwadar for the very first time. Every year on December 8, Pakistan Navy celebrates Gwadar Day to commemorate its return to Pakistan.
Gwadar is recognized by its prominent mountainous feature, the Hammerhead, which has had different names for its different locations. However, the local fishermen usually called it Koh-e-Bateel (front portion of a boat in Balochi) due to its peculiar shape as a small boat when viewed from sea. As the time passed, the name Koh-e-Bateel became Koh-e-Batil which is still used, especially by the locals.
It is said that people of Gwadar used to celebrate Nowruz festival at Koh-e-Batil every year. It was an event where they all used to gather, pray, sacrifice a healthy cow and push together a newly built boat into the sea in an inauguration ceremony. However, this festival has faded into the history and a small boat construction industry has been established at the base of Koh-e-Batil. Still, on the second day of both Eids, locals participate in a festivity organized at Koh-e-Batil to celebrate the occasion.
Interestingly, Koh-e-Batil has caves in its foothill, the origin of which is uncertain, but they provide an exciting challenge to the visitors. These are interconnected through the labyrinth of natural tunnels which can only be traversed while bending low. Some locals opine that these caves might have been used for living or hiding in previous times. Temperature inside the caves remains very moderate, both during summers and winters. As per the geological studies, there is a subduction zone that lies south of Gwadar which is a potential hazard. In order to save the population from Tsunami, if it occurs at all, more than 700 stairs leading to the top of mountain have been constructed to provide them escape from the calamity. Climbing these stairs is a mesmerizing experience as different sights of Gwadar can be viewed at every stage of the climb.
Koh-e-Jumbeel is located on the eastern edge of Koh-e-Batil. The peaks of Koh-e-Jumbeel vary in height with red sand, once believed to be the habitat of rare turtles or ducks. There used to be a tomb of a saint on Koh-e-Jumbeel. It was known to be of a scholar from Baghdad who was traveling with Iraqi merchants, became sick and died during the voyage. As per the accounts of the old fishermen, he was buried here and a minaret was constructed on his tomb. Fishermen and boatmakers used to visit the tomb in the later part of Fridays and burn benzoin. The name Koh-e-Jumbeel, as the legend has it, is the combination of words Jum derived from Jumma or Friday and Beel is the later part of the day.
History suggests that when Portuguese and Europeans invaded the area in 15th century, they named Koh-e-Batil as Hammerhead due to its apparent shape like the one. However, the locals kept calling it Koh-e-Batil as they did in the older times due to which the ancient name is still alive and is being used by the locals. The easternmost edge of Hammerhead was mentioned as Ras Nuh on the British Admiralty charts dating back to the year 1938. Accordingly, when naval setup (PNS AKRAM) was established on this part of the Hammerhead it was called Jabl-e-Nooh. Since then, this name is also popular, especially in naval circles and PNS AKRAM's official address actually includes it.
Gwadar has been a trade transit between east and west. For instance, ships going to and from Mumbai (then Bombay) to the United Kingdom (UK) would stop at Gwadar for replenishment. Availing this opportunity, merchandise would also be sold here. According to some accounts, seaplanes had been landing at Gwadar and the people of Gwadar would frequently travel by air to Bombay, Oman, the UK, Europe and had more international exposure than the people in the rest of Pakistan. Post-independence, the Government of Pakistan commenced its efforts to acquire Gwadar from Oman.
Gwadar lies on our western coast, also called Makran coast, approximately 250 nautical miles from Karachi to Gwadar and from Gwadar to Gwatar Bay (maritime boundary between Pakistan and Iran) is 45 nautical miles. It is a district headquarter as well as tehsil of Makran Division of Balochistan. It is connected with Karachi via Makran coastal highway, a 650 kilometers metaled road which affords the most exciting travelling experience with its scenic beauty. Situated at a significant geostrategic location and sitting on the mouth of Gulf of Oman from where 40 percent of world’s trade passes through, it serves as a site which is of both economic and strategic significance to Pakistan. Gwadar’s hinterland is barren with semi-mountainous region of Siahan Range, also called Siaji, locally. There is scarcity of water for which three rain dependent dams have been built.
Gwadar’s Prominence in CPEC
When China conceived Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), they perceived Gwadar as a jewel in the crown of CPEC because of its unique locus. And rightly so; time is proving that it is suitably located to checkmate U.S.’ Indo-Pacific strategy as well as the arrangements instituted therein. Chinese trade from the Gulf of Oman, Gulf of Aden and Horn of Africa flows via Malacca Strait. If there are attempts to strangulate Chinese trade at Malacca Strait, Gwadar offers China a very viable reroute. Essentially, the sole idea of CPEC is strictly grounded in the existence of Gwadar and its seaward approaches. The visionary leadership of Pakistan is worth lauding here as they could visualize the importance of Gwadar very early and started making efforts to acquire it. One must appreciate the fact that had there not been Gwadar, where would CPEC be?
Gwadar reduces the distance considerably for China. For instance, it takes 13000 kilometers and more than 40 days for a ship to reach Shanghai from the Gulf of Oman, which is on the eastern edge of China. It is reduced to 3000 kilometers and only ten days to Kashgar on the western edge of China via Gwadar. As of now, the port has three functional cargo berths and one working LNG terminal. The port has been connected with Makran coastal highway bypassing the city of Gwadar. While the work on South Free Zone has been completed, the development of North Free Zone and New Gwadar International Airport is in progress. The western route of CPEC, when completed, shall provide impetus to Gwadar Port’s operations and cargo will be swiftly transported to and from northern Pakistan.
Gwadar in Geopolitics
The U.S.-China rivalry is now very obvious and the USA via its Indo-Pacific strategy is trying to impede China’s political, economic and military influence worldwide. For that, Indo-Pacific is the new theatre, whereas Quad, AUKUS and, to an extent, I2U2 are the arrangements that have been established in this regard. There is an effort for China’s influence to be restricted or hindered so that its rise is curtailed. Gwadar, therefore, is in the limelight and under sharp focus. Mainly, Gwadar’s positioning is of real interest to the world at large and regional countries in particular. There are many functional and vibrant ports in close proximity of Gwadar which belong to Oman, the UAE, Iran and Bahrain. Good business by Gwadar can be competitive for them.
India is envisioned to play a leading role in the Indian Ocean under the overall construct of Indo-Pacific strategy. It very well understands the value and significance that Gwadar embraces and has therefore been pursuing a strategy to impede its development. Its malicious network was unearthed with the capture of a serving Indian Navy officer, Commander Kulbushan Jadhav, and its vehement support to the dastardly acts against CPEC by the terrorists are obvious demonstrations of the same. Indian political leadership has been repeatedly asserting their stance on fanning insurgency in Balochistan which is basically aimed at derailing CPEC besides various other reasons. With the stature India is eyeing through joining various arrangements in Indo-Pacific strategy, its nefarious activities against Gwadar in particular and CPEC in general are likely to intensify.
What is Gwadar to Pakistan?
Gwadar sits at a place which is overlooking the marine traffic entering and leaving the Gulf of Oman and if developed with the maritime vision, it can accrue considerable dividends for Pakistan. It has an unchallenged potential to add to our Blue Economy and likewise plays an important role in the maritime defense of the country and provides leverage to Pakistan Navy along the western seaboard. Gwadar lies in contiguity to West Asia and arranges connectivity via sea to Iran, Oman, the UAE, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), Qatar and Bahrain.
With the development of Gwadar under CPEC, Pakistan will have a developed port on the western coast hitherto, not available. It can boost Pakistan’s trade with Central Asian Republics besides facilitating Afghan Transit Trade. With its operationalization, spinoffs to the local community are just automatic. Contributions are already being made in uplifting socioeconomics of the area by the Government of Balochistan, China Overseas Port Holding Company (COPHC), Pakistan Army, Pakistan Navy and other governmental and non-governmental organizations. These are in the form of health, educational, employment and entertainment opportunities for the locals. The scenic and splendid grandeur of Gwadar provides an opportunity for tourism. Sparkling water, virgin beaches, muddy mountains and the serene environment are all there, awaiting our attention to develop it as an attractive tourist destination, not only for the domestic but foreign visitors also. Places like Marine Drive, Gwadar Cricket Stadium, Shahi Bazaar and exclusive shopping arena for women called Jannat Bazaar inside the old city, Omani Fort and museum, Ismaili community’s Jamaat Khana, Zaver Pearl Continental Hotel (named after Sadruddin Hashwani’s mother who was from Gwadar), pre-fabricated China Business Centre (built in five and a half months), Akra Kaur Dam, historic British-made wooden structured Dak Banglow on east bay, Army Public School (APS) & Bahria Model School, Gwadar Development Authority (GDA) Hospital equipped with state-of-the-art facilities and newly built resorts by Pakistani businessmen are worth visiting in Gwadar.
Due to its geography, Gwadar has always enjoyed an important position in the eyes of domestic, regional and international actors. It is more conspicuous now because of the upcoming challenges in the backdrop of U.S.-China rivalry. Its picturesque beauty is unparalleled. The most beautiful sunrise, sunset and sandy beaches are the hallmark of Gwadar. We must invest in the development of Gwadar expeditiously so as to accrue the benefits. Its defense and security are likewise important factors for the successful operationalization of the port.
The writer is a freelance columnist and currently working at the Institute of Regional Studies.
E-mail: [email protected]
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