The dream of making the port of Gwadar an economic hub has been destroyed by a superpower struggle for influence by Rina Saeed Khan guardian.co.uk, Friday 8 April 2011 11.00 BST
Miles away from the war on terror being fought in Pakistan's north on the border with Afghanistan is another insurgency whose hub is the port city of Gwadar, located near Iran on the Makran coast. Unlike the battle against the Taliban, this uprising receives little international attention, although it is set against the backdrop of competing superpower interests, reminiscent of the Great Game when Russia and the British empire fought for control over this region.
Eight years ago, the dream was for the small fishing port of Gwadar in Pakistan's Balochistan province to be transformed into a duty-free port and a free economic zone. The hope was that Gwadar would become a regional hub of shipping, commercial and industrial activities, providing a link between Pakistan and the vast oil and gas reserves of central Asia.
A real estate frenzy followed as land was bought from locals at exorbitant prices. Billboards proclaiming future housing estates and resorts were put up overnight and work began on the port with Chinese help. A two-lane highway linking Gwadar with Karachi was completed in record time. Today, the port has been finished and is ready for ships but Gwadar looks more like a ghost town than a gold-rush town. Empty plots of land still await the buildings that were promised but never built. Oddly enough, instead of handing the port over to the Chinese government, it was leased out to the Singapore government three years ago. It is only used at half its capacity and the cranes are already getting rusty from lack of use.
Located near an important shipping lane, the deep seaport was built by the China Harbour Engineering Company Group. The Chinese government invested heavily in this project, up to $200m some say, so that landlocked western China could benefit from access to the sea. As an emerging superpower hungry for energy, China needs access to the oil and gas rich Central Asian states. The Chinese have also been keen to assist Pakistan in building other roads to acquire a 3,500km link between Kashgar (near the border with Pakistan) and Gwadar.
They are currently helping the Pakistan government to widen the Karakoram highway that connects Islamabad to China through Pakistan's high mountain ranges. It appears that there is a long-term plan to eventually connect the Karakoram highway with Gwadar. This is upsetting the other emerging superpower of the region, India, who does not want China's security establishment to have safe passage to the Arabian Sea. The fear they have been articulating is that Gwadar might become a naval outpost for the Chinese.
The local people, who hoped to benefit from the construction of the port, are crushed by the disappointing turn of events. "We were expecting change to come," says Asghar Shah, a local resident who works for an NGO. "But it was a big let down – we are victims of the new Great Game." The government of Pakistan was allegedly pressured not to hand the port over to the Chinese. In fact, the Americans eye Gwadar as a potential military base, given the proximity of Iran. The locals are reluctant to criticise their government's handling of Gwadar, though. "People disappear in Gwadar – their bodies are found dumped in a remote area a few days or weeks later. No one knows who is behind it," says Asghar Shah, refusing to speculate further.
There is a more immediate problem at present. The Baloch nationalists are opposed to any development in Gwadar because they say these mega projects will marginalise the local Baloch population. Balochistan's development record is dismal. Covering nearly 350,000 square kilometres, it is by far the largest province in the country but houses less than 7% of Pakistan's population. The basic quality of life indicators are abysmal. On-tap drinking water is available to less than 5% of the population. The female literacy rate is under 15%.
The Baloch people are demanding more autonomy for the province. For decades, Pakistan's Balochistan province has been the scene of sporadic clashes between government troops and guerrillas who are fighting for autonomy. In the past few years, the rebels have again stepped up their attacks. Government troops and installations across the province have come under rocket attack and bombings, especially Gwadar town. Last month, seven army personnel and three labourers building a road near the Iranian border were killed by unidentified gunmen. The Baloch nationalists fear that if Gwadar grows into a modern city, the Baloch people will become a minority in their own province. No one is quite sure who is funding them, but there are rumours that they get support from India.
Gwadar is today a deserted town where outsiders are looked upon with suspicion. Most of the educated young people have moved out to look for jobs in the other big towns and cities of Pakistan. The new and luxurious Pearl Continental Hotel built on a cliff overlooking the port and the town below is empty – it has been closed down for "renovations". The road leading to the small airport outside the town is heavily guarded by security forces. There are no tourists now – most have been scared off by the attacks. Foreigners do not dare to venture here either.
For centuries, Gwadar has also been a smuggler's paradise – it was once infamous for its human trafficking in slaves and it is still a place where illegal immigrants are smuggled into the Middle East and beyond. The idea had been to capitalise on its location, but the dream of Gwadar remains just that. Pakistan's strategic location as a gateway to the oil and gas riches of central Asia means that it will remain a battleground for competing interests for the foreseeable future. The Great Game continues well into the 21st century.
Gwadar Pakistan's new Great Game