The emerging markets of Central Asia require that a sea-land (south-south) dimension to support the north-south axis be added for expansion, otherwise all facilities and opportunities are likely to be clogged because of unplanned urban population expansion. The long coastline with stretches of virgin beaches and adjacent vast empty hinterland require well-planned commercial exploitation. It is personally satisfying that recommendations made in my articles of nearly three decades ago, ‘Economic Exploitation of the Coastal Areas-1 and 2’ (January 16 and January 23, 1990) and ‘Pakistan’s Gold Coast’ (April 10, 1999) are now being implemented. Better late than never.
With oil discovered in vast quantity in the Gulf, Pakistan lost a golden opportunity due to a lack of bold and visionary planning for exploiting its coast to serve the Asian mainland. Land access to the whole of Central, South Asia and China with comparably (except for the Karakorams) easy enhancement of existing communications infrastructure makes it a tremendously viable proposition. Of particular commercial interest would be to have supertankers offtake oil from staging points along the Pakistani coast with smaller vessels shuttling from the Gulf. Consider the savings in supertanker operating fees alone.
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Developed as a major port in sync with Dubai, Gwadar would have matched Dubai’s commercial success. For trade and commerce, Gwadar has many natural advantages that the Gulf ports lack. It is a land access port to Asia. The southern side of the Gulf has to ferry across everything, involving logistics, time and money. Compared to vast areas of land available for expansion, commercial exploration of the Gulf has this in short supply.
Imagine huge tracts of solar panels and wind turbines. A lateral road connects the Pakistani coastline to the Iranian port of Chahbahar (and the Iranian road network), the RCD highway gives it access to not only the whole of Central Asia, Kyrgystan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan but to China’s Sinkiang province served best from ports along the Pakistan coastline. A rail line connecting it to the Zahidan-Quetta existing rail line would add to its accessibility to the whole of Central Asia.
The Karakoram Highway (KKH) forms the core of the CPEC initiative, making the transit more economically feasible for China for land access to Kashgaretc through Gwadar. This will influence economic and military direction in the region. On the domestic front, the ports will (1) open new markets (2) generate more income for the people as a service industry and uplift standards for the whole population of Pakistan (3) become a global synchronised trading hub and (4) concessions to neighbouring countries will contribute to geographical stability in the region.
Great cities and towns (both industrial served by residential owner) can come up along the highways in the totally desolate areas of the country, the beaches serving not only commerce and industry in the hinterland but tourism as well. For the poverty-stricken rural backward areas along the route this will be God-sent. The vast undeveloped area can host many large inland fish and shrimp farms, coconut and date cultivations, even fruit farming under controlled conditions, etc.
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The investment opportunities in the ports are tremendous: (1) warehouses and cold storages (2) cargo handling and trucking yards (3) development of commercial and residential areas, with hotels and motels, hospitals, colleges and schools (4) wide stretches of sun-swept beaches a possible tourist destination (5) shipyards and dry docks (6) marine fuel depots (7) large oil storages and farms as well as an oil refinery and (9) export processing zones on the lines of Dubai’s Jebel Ali, etc.
Unless we effect drastic change along our coastline, at best our economic planners will be hoping for miracles. Bold steps must be taken to open up Pakistan’s coast for economic exploitation in a careful and planned manner. Otherwise we will be strangled by our over-population as well as slowdown of job creation. Visionary planning coupled with effective implementation is required. The number of jobs that will be created for the next 30-40 years is by itself staggering.
On a safe assumption, we may even have to import manpower. All this must happen under a single authority to avoid bureaucratic confusion. Why not make the Ministry Of Maritime Affairs (MoMA) the overall authority? With young dynamic Ali Zaidi at the helm as the ‘Coastline Czar’, duly assisted with people with expertise and no personal motivation whatsoever, new ideas supporting Imran Khan’s vision of Pakistan can be implemented.
Pakistan stands to become the hub of economic activity in the region. And we must guard against giving up control of our strategic assets to the competition. Pakistan’s economic destiny lies along this seashore, does the PTI government have the vision and the courage to meet with this challenge?
The writer is a defence and security analyst.