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11 January 2018, Gateway House

Gwadar: challenged strategic asset

Gwadar has lain in relative obscurity since 1958 when Oman sold it to Pakistan. It was only 50 years later that the Chinese ‘rediscovered’ it. Pakistan and China have much to learn from the British experience of this strategic asset

Visiting Professor, Department of War Studies, King's College, London

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In Islamabad last month all talk was of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and of Gwadar. Pakistan views the project as a form of national salvation following all the setbacks of recent years; the problems with power outages (“load-shedding”), the challenges of extremism, the tensions with Afghanistan, and above all, the rapid erosion of trust in its relationship with the United States. The widespread belief is that China, the “all-weather friend”, has come to the rescue with a plan of breathtaking proportions and ambition.

The scale of expectation is in inverse proportion to the depth of knowledge. Few people know anything of Gwadar’s past nor realise that the tiny port on the Arabian Sea has previously been of strategic importance. Chinese interlocutors were clearly excited by the prospects, but still unsure about how to confront the challenges ahead.

Gwadar’s location on Balochistan’s Makran coast is inherently important; close to the Straits of Hormuz and stretching westwards to Iran and north to Afghanistan and (in theory) to the Central Asian Republics. However, as a vast expanse of harsh and hostile territory, with only a small and fractious population, Balochistan’s strategic potential has mostly lain unexplored. The British handled the province with some skill following the humiliation of the First Afghan War and Sir Robert Sandeman was one of their more enlightened colonial administrators. The key to his success was to only get involved when essential and leave the local chieftains, notably the Khan of Kalat, to rule the majority of the province.

And so Balochistan remained in isolation until the Indian Mutiny of 1857 (now often known as the First War of Independence) when the British came within a whisker of annihilation. The post mortem identified the central importance of the electric telegraph. The news of rebellion at Meerut and Delhi had been flashed to Lahore and Peshawar and had enabled the Punjab government to plan its response. However, although the telegraph could reach Calcutta, Bombay and Madras (as they were then known), there were few international connections and, of course, no link with London.

After a failed attempt in 1859 a second project began in 1861 to link India to the Arabian Gulf and thence via Baghdad to Constantinople and London. In India the Director General of the Indo-European Telegraph, Colonel Patrick Stewart, argued for a submarine cable between Gwadar (administered by Oman since the early 1790s) and the Musadam peninsula in Oman, thence to Bushire (now Bushehr) in Iran and Fao (Al-Faw) in Iraq, then part of the Ottoman Empire. By the time Stewart died in his Constantinople hotel in January 1865 he had succeeded and lines had also been extended to Karachi.

The telegraph turned Gwadar from an insignificant fishing village into a strategic asset for British India. A British political officer was established there in 1862 to advise the Omani administrator, known as the Wali. In 1871 an agreement between India, Kalat and Iran defined the Iranian border, just 73 km to the west of the town. Although it only had a population of 5,000 its importance required additional services; so, for example, the British India Steam Navigation Company began a weekly service between Gwadar and Karachi, delivering mail, provisions and drinking water. The value of Gwadar as a harbour had already been noted, with the rocky outcrop into the sea providing protection from inclement weather.

Protection of shipping lanes from India to the Red Sea and the Gulf had long been a priority for the East India Company’s Bombay Marine and for the Royal Navy, but Gwadar was never developed as a British naval base because of the existence of adequate alternatives in Bombay, Karachi, and Aden. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, and the discovery of oil in Persia in 1908, Bahrain in 1931 and Kuwait in 1938, only further increased British interest in the region. In 1914, and again in 1938, the Burmah Oil Company searched for oil in Gwadar, but without success.

In 1927 Imperial Airways began a regular air service from London (Croydon) via Cairo to India which was later extended to Australia. By 1932 Gwadar was a regular stop (between Sharjah and Karachi) on this service with two flights per week of the large Hannibal-class airliners. Imperial Airways posted a superintendent at Gwadar as did the Anglo Persian Oil Company and there were three employees of the Telegraph Office. Much of the population was Hindu and Ismaili, protected by a small contingent of Muscat levies. There was frequent concern about the attitudes of the Baluch and large sums of money were budgeted annually for paying tribal leaders.

Just before quitting India in 1947 the British tried to persuade the Sultan of Oman to cede Gwadar to the Khan of Kalat, but without success. By 1958, Britain, worried that Pakistan might seize the port by force, negotiated its sale for £3 million. Gwadar was to experience over half a century of obscurity until its strategic importance was ‘rediscovered’ in gradual stages by China between 2002 and 2013 when it became a key part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

So what can Pakistan and China learn from the British experience? Certainly that Gwadar is located in a strategic position close to the Iranian border and the Straits of Hormuz. But also that it is very remote: 650 km from Karachi, 930 km from Quetta (the provincial capital), 1160 km from Kandahar, and 2000 km from Kashgar. For Gwadar, and CPEC to achieve its objectives, Pakistan and China must first learn how to control Balochistan. With potential opposition from Balochi insurgents and the Taliban that will not be an easy task. Sandeman espoused the minimum use of force and the payment of ‘allowances’ to tribal leaders to deliver security. With exposed roads, railways, pipelines and fibre-optic cables the alternative of repression is surely destined to fail.

Tim Willasey-Wilsey is Senior Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College London, a former British diplomat and a member of the Chatham House Council. 

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Further Reading:

Goldsmid, Sir Frederic. Telegraph and Travel: A Narrative of Telegraphic Communication between England and India.  London; MacMillan, 1874.

Frater, Alexander. Beyond the Blue Horizon: Imperial Airways. London; Picador, 1986.

Gwadar. India Office papers. Qatar Digital Library online.

Stiffe, Lt A W. The Persian Gulf Pilot. Coast of Baluchistan. London; J.D Potter 1875.

Willasey-Wilsey, Tim, “Gwadar and the String of Pearls”, Gateway House, 23 January 2016, <>

Willasey-Wilsey, Tim, “Balochistan: all sides may lose”, Gateway House, 6 October 2016, <>

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