Some stories are so improbable that you just couldn’t make them up. This is one of them.
A decade ago there was much speculation about the newly-built port at Gwadar on the bleak coast of Pakistan’s underdeveloped and restive Balochistan province, better known for independently-minded tribes and a Taliban refuge than for maritime trade and commerce. Yet China had paid to transform this obscure fishing town, strategically located at the approaches to the Gulf of Hormuz through which about a third of the world’s seaborne oil passes. I’d been hearing much theorizing among China’s rivals, but never met anyone who’d actually been there. So I went.
In 2008 I’d been invited to speak at a maritime security conference in Karachi and, for a number of reasons, was asked to present two papers instead of one. I was happy to do so, but requested a favour in return; assistance in getting whatever permits would be needed to travel to Baluchistan and visit Gwadar since I was planning to remain in Pakistan for personal travel anyway. My ever-gracious hosts offered to do better than that – they would fly me there, along with another Canadian speaking at the conference if he wished to go.
For more than 200 years Gwadar had belonged to Oman. Pakistan bought it in 1958, partly because of its potential as a commercial port, but then couldn’t afford to develop it. For China, funding a port would not only be an expression of its close relationship with Pakistan and assist with much-needed economic development, but also give China access to the Indian Ocean at the seaward end of a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. It would be “win-win”. What concerned Indian and American maritime strategists, however, was that this looked very much like China adding another link to a so-called “string of pearls” – places of potential naval presence and influence around the Indian Ocean.
The first ship into Gwadar was the “Pos Glory” which arrived on 15 March 2008 with 72,000 tons of Canadian wheat. Lack of bulk-handling infrastructure at the container terminal meant that the cargo had to be manually bagged for unloading and onward transport by hundreds of trucks. When my friend and I arrived two weeks later, the view from our hotel windows included a long line of colourfully decorated lorries still waiting alongside the road.
The next day we explored the container terminal and new fishing port, toured the area, met local authorities and, best of all, visited a boatyard on the sandy beach. Here craftsmen still built beautiful wooden dhows from teak imported from Southeast Asia, using only traditional hand tools, from plans existing only in the head of Hasan, the master boat-builder. For lovers of traditional wooden boats it was paradise.
Throughout the day our local host had kept mentioning a boat ride which he had planned for us after leaving the boatyard. So, late in the day, contentedly strolling barefoot along the sand and optimistically anticipating an evening cruise, we barely noticed a fellow in the water holding a jet-ski on an otherwise deserted stretch of beach until our host stopped, pointed, and said “Boat.” We thought he was joking, but no, this was it! Here we were, fully clothed, being invited to straddle a tiny jet-ski, neither of us having driven one before. I looked at my Canadian friend, he looked at me, then I shrugged, put on a life-jacket and got on, figuring that my faithful old Tilley travel clothes would dry quickly in the warm air off the desert.
A jet-ski is simple to operate, a bit like a motorbike without brakes. As the handler pointed me seaward I twisted the throttle and ploughed straight into an oncoming wave. Perhaps it’s the mind’s exaggeration after the passage of a decade but I still have vivid memories of the taste of seaweed and salt water. Wet already, and believing that the best approach to the inevitable is “In for a penny, in for a pound” I gunned the throttle and headed out to sea, fully clothed on a jet-ski, roaring around what some suspected as a clandestine future Chinese naval harbour. Thoroughly wet, a silly grin on my face, I found the same silly thought kept running through my head: “Bond, James Bond!”
There are moments in life when you just can’t help thinking “Take me now God because it just can’t get much better than this!” That was one of them.
I like Pakistan.