For Saudi Arabia, Gwadar offers an infinite promise
The visit of a high-powered delegation from Saudi Arabia to Gwadar was long overdue. The Kingdom embracing the Makran coast’s deep-sea port is a testimony to its promise of convergence and connectivity. The agreement to set up a petrochemical city, which will also house a multibillion-dollar oil refinery in Gwadar, will be the first of the many mega ventures pledged by the Gulf nations. More specific details will be agreed to and revealed on the eve of the upcoming visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in February.
Since the late 1950s, Pakistan’s Makran coast has attracted the imagination of oil and gas exporting and importing countries. Japan pondered over setting up oil storage depots in Gwadar to avert the severing of supplies in case of any hostile confrontation along the supply route. The deliberation lasted for quite some time but later stability in the Gulf diminished the significance of constructing storage depots along the shores of the Oman Sea. Islamabad, too, had other important matters — such as domestic and political turmoil and the civil war in East Pakistan — to focus on. Thus, the true potential of the Makran coast could not be realized.
Thanks to US President Barack Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ policy, China looked for prospects of its secure sea lanes to maintain its impressive economic growth. Amongst its string of pearls, Gwadar and Djibouti stood out. Realizing that Pakistan alone can limit the disruptive power of Obama’s doctrine, China requested a safe and efficient logistical corridor which could connect the Arabian sea coast with its western region.
China’s One-Belt-One-Road (OBOR) captured the imagination of the Saudi crown prince who pledged during his Beijing visit in 2016 that the Kingdom would be Beijing’s partner throughout the journey. Saudi Arabia’s own ‘Vision 2030’ is a geo-economic roadmap to realizing the country’s true potential, especially by diversifying its petrochemical sector into a sole source of revenue. Beijing and Riyadh developed greater conformity of views during Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli’s three-day visit to Saudi Arabia in August 2017.
In the larger scheme of things — resulting from the convergence of the OBOR and Saudi’s Vision 2030, Pakistan’s Makran coast emerged as the linchpin of connectivity. Meanwhile, Islamabad-intensive anti-terror operations made clandestine activities negligible. The stage became set for other friendly nations to benefit from the connectivity and promises which the entire Makran coast — particularly the Gwadar deep sea port — offered.
China realized early that the GCC is its biggest import and export partner and would be a natural partner for Pakistan, even as Iran declared the two competing ports as sisters. The desperate move did find some appeal in like-minded circles in Pakistan but delivered nothing tangible. India, however, became Iran’s strategic and economic partner and bypassed Pakistan with Tehran’s full support. Now that Islamabad’s fever for neutrality and Muslim solidarity is over and real politics is the pursuit, Gwadar is open for the GCC states to invest in virtually every sector of commerce and trade.
In the larger scheme of things — resulting from the convergence of the OBOR and Saudi’s Vision 2030, Pakistan’s Makran coast emerged as the linchpin of connectivity.
Notwithstanding the petrochemical complex and refinery project in Gwadar, Pakistan, China, and Saudi Arabia should be working on two different mega pipelines. The first oil-and-gas pipeline must connect Saudi Arabia and the UAE to Pakistan’s Gwadar via Oman while bypassing the volatile Strait of Hormuz to ensure an uninterrupted supply — not only for Islamabad and Beijing but for the East Asian states as well – by way of massive storage reservoirs. The second pipeline must connect Gwadar with the Xinjiang province in western China. Sooner than later, Asia’s deepest port has to become an oil port to reduce the risk of accidents and conflicts from the Gulf and Strait of Hormuz to the South China Sea.
For Islamabad, a dual-supply GCC pipeline via Oman ensures an affordable and reliable provision of hydrocarbons while abandoning the sanctions-marred Iran-Pakistan pipeline.
The presence of India in Chabahar will be a constant thorn in Pakistan-Iran relations, making future geo-economic ventures impossible until the two arch-rivals of the east resolve their outstanding issues which have been pending since 1947. Besides, the 2018 communique between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi further diminishes the prospects of brotherly ties with Islamabad.
For Saudi Arabia, Gwadar’s significance does not end with its investment in the petrochemical sector amounting to millions of barrels of oil flowing to Pakistan, China — and in East Asia to South Korea and Japan — but opens new vistas as well. Riyadh has chosen mineral development as one of its preferred sectors for economic diversification. Notwithstanding the already discovered but unexploited gold, copper and cobalt, Balochistan in particular and Pakistan in general offers endless possibilities of mineral exploration. Several studies put Balochistan’s mineral potential at more than $1 trillion. If Pakistan, China, and Saudi Arabia team up to develop the region’s mineral resources in a successful manner, Gwadar would become a side story.
Likewise, for peace in Afghanistan — where Pakistan, China, and Saudi Arabia are three key stakeholders — the mineral development potential of the war-ravaged country would require investments too. Corporations from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi may not only be able to provide Kabul with much-needed revenue and jobs but also satisfy their own quest for economic diversification. Not to forget the fact that Gwadar, too, will gain from the increased commercial activities in Afghanistan.
China’s OBOR and Saudi’s Vision 2030 will now converge with Pakistan’s quest to realize its true economic potential. The success of such a stratagem lies in the absence of all-out hostilities in three regions — the Gulf, Jammu and Kashmir and to an extent on the South China Sea, too.
• Naveed Ahmad is an investigative journalist and academic based in the GCC with a career in writing on diplomacy, security and governance. Besides other honors, he won the Jefferson Fellowship in 2000 and UNAOC Cross-Cultural Reporting Award 2010. Twitter: @naveed360