Gwadar Glimpses

Part 1 – 1973 to 1981

My first look at Gwadar in early 1973, needless to say, was not a pretty one. Heat, dust and despondency hung in the air. As soon as the ship’s boat hit the shallow gradient of the clay and gravel beach and as we waded onto it in knee-deep water, dragging the boat behind us, the stench of rotting fish hit us in the face. The sprawling beach on the Gwadar East Bay, apart from being littered with decaying fish remains, also featured colourful fishing boats hauled up for maintenance and fish of peculiar shapes salted and left to dry in the burning sand. Small fishing craft dotted the confines of the bay. Fish appeared to be the staple diet of the community, as beyond a few snacks and a local bottled drink of some sort, nothing worth eating or drinking could be located in the nearby market. At the entrance to the market was a prominent pan shop presided over by an imperious and imposing lady. The sun was relentless and the area hardly witnessed any rainfall. Water was a scarce commodity, with the British-era desalination plant, which relied on the rays of the sun to cleanse the seawater of impurities, being ill-maintained. Many dug-up wells yielding brackish water, could be seen sealed after expending their utility.

The few months that I was borne on PNS Mubarak, a U.S.-origin minesweeper, as a senior term midshipman, visits to Gwadar were a regular feature. The ship was one of the three minesweepers tasked to carry out round-the-clock patrolling all along our coast. In theory, the ship should have been spending 33% of its time on patrol, with remaining time in harbour. In practice, it was vastly different. Each ship was supposed to go all the way to Gwadar, anchoring there for a day or a part of a day, before plodding its way back and being relieved by the next ship off Ormara. There were three problems that the ship had to grapple with, which it tried to manage as best it could. The ship had a wooden hull to start with, to counteract the effect of a magnetic mine while engaged in its primary wartime mission, sweeping for mines. In the face of an hostile environment, the ship could barely manage a average speed of 4 knots made good through the water. Because of its comparatively high superstructure, the ship gave the impression of bobbing from side to side in the water rather than making any headway, as it continuously collided with the turbulent waves. To deal with the expected water shortages during such prolonged operations(for a minesweeper), the ship’s boat was filled up with fresh water. Strict water rationing had to be resorted to, and the water thus conserved in the boat helped to some extent. Living conditions otherwise were reasonably good, though seasickness was rife, being exacerbated in part by the slow speed and high infrastructure of the ship. Since there were only two Bridge Watch-keepers on board, the Commanding Officer and the Executive-cum-Navigating Officer, they had to work in defence watches(six hours on and six hours off); I used to be attached to the CO as the working component of his watch and thus gained considerable experience along the way.

Surveying the coastal landscape from the vantage point of the ship’s bridge, one couldn’t help but notice that of all the houses visible, only two could be termed as ‘pucca’ or cemented ones, which were presumably the residence-cum- office complexes of Government functionaries. Navigational landmarks were fascinating, with one being aptly listed in the charts as Asses Ears, because of its distinctly peculiar shape.

Gwadar maintained a greater linkage with its former owner, Oman, lying just across the Strait, which even after handing over its possession to Pakistan in 1958, in return for $3 million in cash, remained a major source of employment for the locals. Fishing was the only other major occupation for those who stayed behind.

Because of a complete absence of refrigeration facilities, through which the daily catch could have been preserved, fishermen of Gwadar were forced to either consume the fish themselves or try to sell it across the strait to Oman. The ship could also barter its stock of rice, flour and lentils with fish from the boats passing by. Some categories of fish like eels and stingrays were left to dry, after being salted, on the polluted beach, as a means of preservation. The beach on the western bay however gave a neater and less congested look.

I next visited Gwadar the year after, as an Ag Sub Lieutenant on board PNS Tippu Sultan, wherein some change for the better was apparent. It was however only in 1977 as the Commanding Officer of a Fast Patrol Craft that I got the chance to explore the area in detail. The Navy at that time was considering the procurement of land in all the major coastal sites for establishing an operational foothold and till that came about, a group of Gunboats were tasked to anchor off Gwadar on a regular basis for over a fortnight at a stretch as a show of presence. Leaving behind a few personnel from the duty watch on each craft for safety purposes, the others were landed and expected to fend for themselves as best they can. The Coast Guards by this time was better entrenched in the choicest areas, with its officer’s mess and barracks set up off the main road leading out of the sheltered bay. It was accordingly approached for provision of living spaces and hiring of boats for ferrying of men and material to and from the anchored gunboats. Some assistance was indeed provided but sensing some sort of hesitance on the part of the Coast Guard personnel to be a bit more forthcoming, the ships decided to make it on their own.

In the aftermath of the Martial Law imposed in mid-1977, some Army personnel were posted at Gwadar for carrying out enforcement duties. One of them, Capt Khilji by name, if memory serves me right, was a friendly soul with whom it was easy to strike a friendship with. The officer gave us a familiarisation tour of the area on his official jeep and it was pleasing to see the changes that had occurred over the past few years. A refrigeration plant had been set up, which ensured the preservation of the fish catch and prevented it from being wasted. The hutments and market that were located close to the beach on the East Bay had given rise to a throbbing city on both sides of the main road leading out from the bay towards the main coastal track. A playground had been demarcated where the locals as well as the Coast Guard personnel could be seen playing football and volleyball. The locals appeared to be better dressed and healthier looking than in the past, though many seemed to be suffering from some sort of eye ailments. An open air theatre had been set up, where Pakistani movies were screened once or twice a week. Some motorcycles as well as four-wheelers, presumably smuggled across the border from Iran, could be seen plying on the streets. Other smuggled items like tinned pistachios proved extremely popular amongst the visiting ship’s personnel and were snapped up by the dozen at bargain prices.

One of the trips, during which the Gunboat was made to anchor as close to land as possible, was a particularly memorable one. Not only was the commuting to shore easier, the presence of Zam Zam, the water tanker, anchored nearby, ensured that we had access to an ample supply of fresh water for washing up after swimming in the clear waters of the bay.

Part 2 – 1982-1984

By the time I joined Naval Headquarters as Staff Officer(Projects) sometime in April 1982, a vast tract of land along the eastern side of the ridge and some portions at the bottom of the steep incline had been leased from the provincial government. A makeshift jetty for hosting small craft had been constructed by the Frontier Works Organisation(FWO) along with a road that snaked its way up to the ridge from the western side and traversed right through its centre up to the extreme east side where some naval administrative buildings were coming up. The FWO was then signed up to construct a road from the jetty to the top of the ridge to provide a direct and much more convenient link between the jetty, where small craft were planned to be berthed, and the base personnel above.

As SO(Projects), it fell to my lot to prepare or refine a phased development plan at all the coastal sites. What was essentially needed at Gwadar were some administrative offices, a base workshop, a helipad, wardroom and sailor’s barracks, all of which could be expanded over time to meet newly-emerging requirements. Prefabricated fuel tanks, needed for refuelling purposes, were also planned high above the jetty on the side of the ridge. As an interim measure, it was decided to tow a newly-decommissioned frigate, Tippu Sultan, to provide base facilities to the visiting vessels of the 10th Patrol Craft Squadron. The only problem was that the exposed jetty constructed by the inexperienced FWO by piling up huge blocks couldn’t stand up to the regular assaults of the sea waves. The immediate solution found was to encase it in a strong wire netting which kept the blocks together and prevented them from tipping over. The next step was to construct a breakwater on the seaward side for affording it protection from the incoming waves. An inner shielded portion was later added to enable the safe operation of the small boats used for patrolling and for ferrying men and material from the visiting ships.

The breakwater background makes interesting reading. It is said that when the CNS once visited Gwadar, he was not only apprised of the deteriorating condition of the makeshift jetty, but witnessed it at first hand. On his direction that a breakwater be constructed to afford protection, he was immediately asked by the senior technical member present there as to where it should be built. The CNS picked up a stone and threw it as far as he could manage towards the seaward side. ‘There’, he said, simplistically. Soon after this episode, the official machinery went into overdrive. As SO(Projects), I was entrusted with the task of preparing the Naval Staff Requirements for the project. My request for a feasibility study having been turned down(supposedly on the pretext of paucity of time), I had no option but to put down, under the column of ‘Location’ the following: ‘At the site indicated by the CNS by throwing a stone’. Apart from having the ‘stone’ part deleted, the rest of the NSR was instantly approved and a case forwarded to MoD for release of funds.

With construction activity expected to pick up at Gwadar, it was found necessary to acquire a suitable vessel for the supply of fuel, water, provisions and perhaps some construction material to the coastal sites via the sea. The country’s sole shipyard, KSEW Ltd, had a standard design available of a 700 ton vessel which was more of a coastal tanker than anything else. The Chinese offer of a vessel that was almost double the size, albeit with a single screw, and at a lesser cost(corresponding to the FE component alone of the KSEW vessel) was perhaps better suited to our requirement. It was however decided to patronise a Pakistani product, and after obtaining a commitment of funds from MoD, the construction of the vessel at KSEW was given the go-ahead. This ship, on being commissioned, was appropriately named PNS Gwadar. The second of the class, PNS Kalmat, came much later.

In early 1983, I was deputed to accompany the concerned Garrison Engineer to all the major coastal sites of Ormara, Pasni, Gwadar and Jiwani to formally take over the land transferred to the Pakistan Navy by the provincial government. The jeep trip on a ‘kutcha'(gravel) track all the way to Jiwani and back was quite a memorable experience. On the Gwadar hammerhead, we had quite an interesting discussion over lunch on the on-going construction work with the FWO officers engaged in undertaking the said activity, in their tented mess, with hot rotis fresh from the oven, on the side. The major reason for entrusting this work to FWO was that contractors based at Karachi found it difficult to mobilise men and material there, let alone work in such an inhospitable terrain.

Come to think of it, five factors aided the rapid transformation of Gwadar from a sleepy little village to a vibrant township: Pakistan Navy’s presence in the area and its regular interaction with the locals, the scheduling of regular subsidised flights to/from Gwadar since the early eighties, the running of public transport along the coastal route, access to daily use items and even luxury ones from neighbouring Iran through smuggling and the institution of periodical PN-sponsored free medical camps.

Part 3 – 1985 – 2006

My visits to Gwadar resumed in mid 1985 when I was appointed Executive Officer of PNS Tippu Sultan, a Gearing class destroyer. A little later, while onboard PNS Shamsher as Ececutive Officer, I spent as much as eight weeks at the Gwadar anchorage within a span of six months. The first trip was an exploratory one, the second was as a precursor to the operational phase of the Annual Naval Tactical Exercise Seaspark ’88, while the third was timed with a medical camp set up ashore by the Pakistan Navy for the benefit of the locals, who didn’t have much access to medical care. After a hard day’s work, the medical staff were once invited onboard for dinner. The team leader, a gynaecologist, was thrilled to learn over dinner that the wardroom was in possession of a certain video cassette of the hit play ‘Bakra Qiston Pe’, which was all the rage those days. A special VCR screening was accordingly staged for her benefit which, though it considerably delayed the team’s departure back to shore by boat, they felt it to be worth it.

My time as Fleet Operations Officer was a beneficial one in that I was thrice part of Compak’s Inspection Team which carried out the Annual inspection of PNS Akram, the newly-commissioned establishment at Gwadar, in 1990, ’91 and ’92. It furnished a clearer insight into the developments that had taken place over the years and future plans on the anvil. The unit was generally found to be neat and tidy, as can be expected during an inspection, with its aesthetics being visibly enhanced by the greenery that had come up.

The Gwadar harbour project, though deemed important for transshipment of containers to the Gulf and to the western provinces of China via the land route through Pakistani territory, had a number of false starts, with virtually all its Head of States presiding over inauguration ceremonies and unveiling plaques. One plaque replaced another till such time that a formal agreement was signed with China in 2002 for development of Phase 1 of the project, consisting of four multi-purpose berths along with a channel dredged upto 13 metres. When a formal ceremony was being held at Gwadar for the formal inauguration of the project, I, as the Commander of the 25th Destroyer Squadron, was present off the coast onboard a ship of the Squadron, which along with some other warships, were patrolling to safeguard the attendees from seaward threats. The Chinese got down to business straightaway, but first set up a desalination plant there for meeting the water needs of the project, prior commencing the process of mobilisation.

I next visited PNS Akram in 2003 while serving as the Flag Officer Sea Training and was pleased to see further greenery taking root in the harsh terrain. The establishment’s water needs were being met through bowsers bringing in water daily from an inland storage site. The CO was gracious enough to show me around the demarcated site of the provincial government sponsored popular housing scheme which went by the name of Singhar. Despite the fact that construction work there was likely to be very expensive due to the transportation of all construction material from Karachi and labour from Punjab, the process being further hampered by the acute scarcity of water, such trivialities did not prevent the plots changing hands at a frantic pace. I also visited the site where Mr Hashwani, the hotelling magnate, was planning the construction of the Zaver Continental at the express request of the President of Pakistan, and which was envisaged to be the jewel in the crown of Gwadar. The Hotel, once constructed, did not prove to be commercially viable, as the hype generated by the construction of the port soon dampened down in the face of practical realities. Another hotel, a much smaller one though, Marjan by name, whose distinguishing feature was its unique location at the edge of the cliff, which afforded a wonderful bird’s eye view of the entire harbour down below, had been functioning for the past few years, despite incurring losses, in anticipation of the likely boom in the wake of the expected harbour development. Though the brief period between the announcement of the harbour construction and the completion of the first phase was good for business, occupancy rates flattened out thereafter.

As I mentioned earlier, a large stretch of the Gwadar hammerhead, consisting of almost 40% of the total area, commencing from its South eastern edge, had been obtained on lease by the Pakistan Navy for operational purposes. When PNS Akram was commissioned as an independent entity, it was thought fit to set up a security checkpoint some distance away from the existing base. Since these few buildings constituted the only built-up area there, the rest being barren, this security checkpoint was set up well inside the outer limit of the naval land. It later came to light that the land on which the Marjan Hotel was built, on which the Zaver Continental was envisaged, and on which a part of the Singhar Housing Scheme was planned, were all on naval land, which had been inadvertently, or perhaps deliberately, leased twice. Some sort of a compromise therefore had to be struck, as the Presidency also appeared keen on an amenable resolution.

The resolution of the issue of some 584 acres of land in possession of PN at Shambha Ismail adjacent to the port area, which formed part of the 923 hectares of land, which GoP had committed to transfer to the Port Control Authority under the agreement for the Free Trade Zone, proved to be more intractable. While PN was understandably peeved at the idea of the Gwadar Port Authority bartering away its rights without even consulting it, it still agreed for the sake of national interest, to surrender this vital piece of land in lieu of land at an alternate site. I believe some sort of compromise has recently been reached under Chinese pressure. PSA, which till recently was managing the port, had kept using this as a pretext for not investing the $525M it was required to do under the agreement.

Anyway, the first phase was completed by Feb 2007 within the stipulated period of five years. The facilities developed during the initial phase were by itself insufficient to make Gwadar into a commercially viable port. For one thing, the dredged depth of 13.5 metres was insufficient to permit large post-Panamax vessels to enter for transshipment purposes. For another, hinterland infrastructure, namely road and rail transportation as well as oil & gas pipelines, was non-existent, severely curtailing the prospects of transit trade to Afghanistan, China and CARs.

Part 4 – 2007 onwards

Port of Singapore Authority was subsequently awarded the port management contract, with the Chinese firm offering the most competitive bid, allegedly withdrawing or being made to withdraw under supposedly external pressure from the process. The agreement subsequently signed with PSA was disappointingly one-sided. Apart from being granted full autonomy in respect of fixing port tariffs and its collection and fully guaranteed leasehold rights, PSA was allowed extensive tax exemptions. In short, PSA was enjoying all the benefits, while GoP was required to undertake all the work associated with the project. So while GPA was supposed to transfer all the existing facilities along with 923 hectares of adjacent prime land to PSA for for establishing the Free Zone, the former was additionally bound to pick up the tab for all the services associated with the operation and maintenance of the port. So what was Pakistan expected to get from the deal? Just 9% of the gross revenue from terminal services on commencement of commercial operations and 15% of the gross revenue from income derived from the Free Zone Area set up on the land transferred to it under the agreement, although the Free Zone Company of which PSA would be a stakeholder, would be charging sub-lease fees from users, which would in turn be enjoying a 20 year tax holiday at GoPs expense.

Due to the incomplete status of the project and absence of essential facilities/utilities, it was therefore not surprising that hardly any revenue could be generated over the coming years. The few ships that were diverted to Gwadar port were more for propaganda purposes than anything else, as it was obviously more expensive to transship the cargo to Karachi via the coastal highway than for a ship to directly offload its cargo there. One can’t avoid a sneaking suspicion that the move to have some ships touch base at Gwadar could have been initiated to facilitate PSA in encashing its $2M performance bond, which was dependent on it picking up its first commercial cargo. The past three years have hardly witnessed any commercial activity in the port.

The Pakistan Navy, needless to say, was not happy with the prevalent state of affairs, which was preventing the realisation of the immense strategic potential of Gwadar port, and agitated through the auspices of JSHQ and MoD to rescind the agreement with PSA and offer it to some other management agency which would take interest in and undertake investment in the project to make it commercially viable. If the Govt of Pakistan had attempted to directly intervene in the matter, PSA would have quite rightly demanded requisite compensation as envisioned in the formula outlined in the agreement. An interested Chinese company, Overseas Port Holdings Ltd, was thus asked to deal directly with the Port of Singapore Authority and once the contours of a deal were finalised between the two, GoP signalled its approval to the transfer on disappointingly, if news reports of the time are to be believed, the same uneven terms and conditions.

My last visit to Gwadar and my first to the port of Gwadar was in early 2012 when I accompanied a group of journalists on a DPR-sponsored coastal tour. The harbour, though impressive, was devoid of a humdrum of activities normally associated with a vibrant port and gave a dull, lifeless look.

All this may change however with the recent decision of the Chinese government to invest something like $46 billion in the aptly named China Pakistan Economic corridor, which has the potential to convert the stagnating port of Gwadar onto a fully functional and commercially viable enterprise. It is only when road and rail connectivity is established with China through the Korakaram highway and with CARs through Afghanistan can Gwadar really become the linchpin of regional transit trade. Similarly, it is only through the up-gradation of Gwadar port, as being envisaged, including increase in the dredged depth, can Gwadar hope to become a transshipment hub.

The once desolate landscape of Gwadar has gradually worked its way into the national consciousness. Each Head of State has accordingly thought it fit to preside over a ritual inauguration ceremony. It was however only when a formal agreement was inked with China for providing the bulk of the $248M needed for the first phase of development did the inauguration of 2002 carry any meaning. During the construction work and sometime after, till it became clear that the second phase did not seem to be materialising and the port itself was not exactly flourishing, the only people who made tons of money were the speculators and the real estate agents who descended on Gwadar in droves.

A number of analysts, mostly of the non-maritime variety, keep perpetuating the hype about Gwadar being the next Dubai, and perhaps even overtaking it. The fact is that Dubai is not just a port. It has world class facilities of all kinds, a booming real estate business, a thriving expatriate community, a huge international airport catering to most international airlines, a profitable airline of its own which ensures stopovers at Dubai, a supposedly tax-free haven, and an extremely safe security environment that tends to attract tourists and investment on a grand scale. Dubai, in the context of the diversity of services that it provides, would thus be difficult to rival. Instead of day-dreaming, our primary focus should first be on ascertaining as to why, eight years after completion of Phase 1, the port has neither attracted any shipping nor any investment in its Free Zone. The reasons are simple: construction costs are comparatively much higher than say the Industrial Zone at Bin Qasim( which itself has room for further investment), much-needed facilities like public utilities and accommodation are non-existent, security environment is abysmal, a decent international airport is nowhere in sight, and hinterland access in terms of road and rail connectivity is still a pipe dream. Let alone Dubai, with its vast array of services, Gwadar cannot even compare with Salalah as a transshipment port, or Sohar for that matter, which has had an head start. Even the nearby Iranian port of Chahbahar has established road and rail linkages with Afghanistan and with the Central Asian Republics, and once the nuclear-based sanctions are lifted, it will be better poised, albeit with the necessary investment in ship berthing facilities, to take up the trade slack. Pakistan, in denying the use of its land route for transit trade between India and Afghanistan, much to the latter’s chagrin, forced India to look for alternate routes. India has by now already invested in the road infrastructure within Afghanistan from the western side and is apparently waiting for the sanctions on Iran to be lifted prior investing in upgrading the berthing facilities at the port of Chahbahar.

Instead of letting the port of Gwadar remain idle for well nigh eight years, Pakistan should have undertaken further dredging to enable it to host large Post Panamax container vessels for onward transshipment of containers and to enter into an MOU with China for privileged access of its vessels. This can still be done now. The two major advantages which Pakistan enjoys lies in providing the most convenient trade conduit to the easternmost Chinese provinces and in facilitating trade to and from the Afghan city of Kandahar in particular. This needs to be capitalised upon and if the Chinese promise of massive investment in the China Pakistan Economic corridor materialises, it will prove to be mutually beneficial. My humble recommendation yet again is that instead of making castles in the air, our efforts should be focussed on what actually is required to convert Gwadar Port into a vibrant entity and on how to get there by gainfully utilising the massive investment that the Chinese have promised.

2 Comments

  1. Avatar Faisal Shabbir October 11, 2015 at 12:16 PM

    A very informative and balanced article. The discourse covering the gradual development and hiccups in reaping the full benefits is outstanding. A must read for those who would like to have an unbiased overview of the past.

    A glimpse on the future developments vis a vis envisaged CPEC and Gwadar Port.

    1. pervaizpervaiz October 11, 2015 at 2:24 PM

      Thanks for the feedback. I’m glad that you found it useful.

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