I was delighted as I received the call from the Public Relations office of the Pakistan Navy (PN) seeking my availability for a two-day International Maritime Conference on CPEC and Gwadar Port being held in Gwadar in collaboration of PN, Pakistan China Institute, National Centre for Maritime Policy Research and Ministry of Planning, Development and Reform. How could anyone in my position ever say no to such a fascinating offer?
The conference was scheduled to be inaugurated by the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on December 13, 2016 and its concluding session was to be chaired by a visiting dignitary. The itinerary provided to us by PN staff required us to reach Karachi on Dec 11. So we took a flight to Karachi and from Jinnah Terminal, we were escorted to Services Mess of the Pakistan Navy behind the famous Metropole Hotel in the heart of the city.
We were briefed by a smart Naval Officer Lt Commander Adnan about our travelling plans to Gwadar on the morning of Dec 12. Journalists and anchorpersons from Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi were to leave Mehran Naval Airbase in the morning. As we reached the base, two things struck our eyes. Firstly, four Fokker Friendship aircraft were parked of which two were to carry guests for the conference to Gwadar and secondly five ATR-42 were also parked of which two were being re-fueled, most probably to fly the Prime Minister to Gwadar early next morning.
It is to be noted that Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) had grounded their fleet of Fokkers seven years ago after having flown them for well over 27 years. Surprised to the core, I inquired a Navy officer standing next to me: “How come the Navy is still using Fokkers while they have since been declared obsolete”, He smiled back at me saying: “May be we are better user of this wonderful flying machine than by others”. About my query about ATR-42 that Navy is using the most controversial aircraft following the ATR crash near Havelian killing all the passengers onboard, another officer quipped: “it is a perfect flying machine and we are making multiple uses without any operational issues”.
A little later, we boarded a Fokker plane and the flight took off at 10 a.m. As the aircraft came to a cruising state, beneath we could see very impressive view of Gaddani Port. Gwadar is located around 700 kilometres to the west of Karachi. It is 120 kilometre from the Iranian border and 380 kilometres from Oman. It took us one hour and 40 minutes to reach Gwadar and the entire journey was full of fascinating sights and overview of some beautifully located islands.
While our aircraft was hovering over the Gwadar city, we could see the views of the coastline that could only be termed as a miracle of nature. It appeared as if God Almighty had bestowed our motherland with not only a marvellous deep water port but also blue seascape.
Our flight landed at a Gwadar Airport which is in use to cater to the current pressure of passengers flying to this port city from across the country, China, Iran and some European countries. The new international airport is being built 40 kilometres off the main city. This airport will connect Gwadar with Karachi, Turbot, Quetta, Peshawar, Islamabad, Lahore, Dubai, Qatar, Kuwait City, Riyadh, Tehran, Mashhad, Bahrain and Muscat. The cost of this gigantic airport is estimated at 250 million dollars. The Civil Aviation Authority has since earmarked 3,000 acres of land, 26 kilometres north-east of the existing airport. To facilitate passengers emanating from adjoining Omanese city and Chahbahar, a three-dimensional ferry service is being launched in the near future. This ferry service will connect Gwadar with Karachi, Oman and Chahbahar.
From the airport, we were rushed in a motorcade to the beautifully located Pearl Continental Hotel on a mountain top that could be seen from miles. The PC was also venue of the international moot for which we had assembled here. The road to Gwadar City is four-lane each side and is a good testimony of modern international road-building standards.
Soon after our arrival in Gwadar city, we were led by a Naval Squad to a quick trip through the Gwadar port facility where two Pak Navy ships were already parked. What a fascinating sight it was. I had recently been to Chinese port city of Guangzhou which is major link to Chinese One-Belt One Road and Maritime Silk Road Project. It may be pointed out that 1.13 billion dollars worth of infrastructure would be invested in Gwadar.
The International conference was a big success because many global personalities made their presentations in presence of the elites of Pakistan’s Armed Forces including the three services chiefs. A Chinese Vice Minister Dr Zhao Baige, and former Iranian ambassador, Alireza Bikdeli were among the foreign key-note speakers. The Iranian diplomat said: “Gwadar is Chahbahar and Chabahar is Gwadar” dispelling all propaganda that the Iranian port is rival port in any sense of the word.
Due to heavy smog in Lahore the Prime Minister could not fly out and the launching ceremony of the Task Force-88, assigned for CPEC maritime security had be performed the Chief of the Army Staff, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa. The entire ceremony was witnessed by all participants of the conference as well as selected people of Gwadar.