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.