The development of the port city has been the subject of debate in economic geographers’ and urban planners’ circles. Whether it is London, New York, or Karachi, major cities all over the world originated and flourished initially as a result of port-related operations. Many, however, have expanded through time to include services other than port-related operations due to the increasing role of agglomeration and concentration of advanced producer services such as finance, insurance, accountancy, and advertising in the new urban economy. On the other hand, the maritime sector is losing blue-collar jobs as a result of port automation and containerization.
As a result, the share and the importance of maritime services in port cities’ overall economy have been dropping since. And the role of the advanced producer services is growing while being supported by the city’s position in the world city network – a form of social network with economics at the core. Such connectivity and global-ness of the cities are captured through indicators like GaWC (Globalization and World Cities). Dubai was ranked Alpha+ alongside Hong Kong, Singapore, and Shanghai in 2020-22. Certainly, London and New York, with Alpha++, stand out as more integrated than all other cities in the world city network.
Lessons from Dubai’s Port City Model
Dubai’s rapid rise in the world city network cannot be attributed simply to its geographical location, as many economic geographers refer to Dubai as a “gateway global city”, rather than a “hub port city”, as Singapore and Hong Kong are. Despite its relative disadvantage, Dubai’s rise from a port of pearls with only 20,000 inhabitants in 1950 to a globally integrated city with a population of over 3.49 million now holds significant lessons for many nascent port cities and can serve as a laboratory for port-city development like Gwadar.
Many questions have been raised regarding the pace of work and the success or failure of CPEC and its related projects by the political parties, provincial governments, and people of Balochistan and other provinces through which the CPEC routes have to pass as part of the main corridor. But Gwadar Port, being the starting point of CPEC, has emerged as the most questioned part of the megaproject as it was still not fully functional by the mid of 2022. Major protests of November-December 2020 and havoc due to natural calamities of January 2021 appear to validate weak governance at Gwadar as well. As discussed below, lessons can be drawn from Dubai’s port city model to address some of such challenges.
The first lesson is the flexible urbanism approach employed in Dubai’s development. In 1960, British architect John Harris created the first master plan for Dubai, which was updated to the Dubai Development Plan Review in 1971 to accommodate port and ancillary infrastructure. The earlier plan was replaced with the Comprehensive Development Plan 1985-2000 to guide Dubai’s spatial and economic development into a 21st-century post-oil city.
Other plans that followed included the Dubai Strategic Plan 2015 and the Dubai 2020 Urban Masterplan, both of which aimed to make Dubai’s development more sustainable and environmentally friendly, with a focus on economic and social development, infrastructure, land and environment, safety, security and justice, and governance. Trade openness, port and airport rankings, financial center competitiveness, and tourist flow are just a few of the indicators on the agenda for improvement.
On the other hand, while the Gwadar Smart Port City master plan was approved in 2019, its physical implementation and subsequent transition into developmental stages are still pending.
In the case of Dubai, an efficient and lean governance system has been put in place to facilitate the implementation of the development plans. “Speed” has become a defining feature of Dubai’s governance system and “bureaucracy is a locomotive rather than a drag” a statement that reflects the efficiency of the bureaucracy in Dubai.
Conversely, in the case of Gwadar, there is no central government agency to look after Gwadar as a mega project and there is a requirement of instituting a better governance model ideally suited for a port city.
Flexible urbanism combined with a mix of state-led and corporate governance systems has undoubtedly simplified doing business in Dubai and created an environment conducive to economic diversification and growth. Dubai’s 25 free zones with expanded hinterland have aided in economic diversification. Jebel Ali Free Zone, which spans 10,000 acres of land, alone is home to over 8,700 businesses and has created 135,000 direct jobs.
Contrarily, while there is some headway at Gwadar Free Zone, the non-availability of essential utilities like electricity, water, gas, 4G coverage and hinterland connectivity are causing delays in achieving true potential from Gwadar free zones.
The hinterland, a key factor driving port competitiveness, is undeniably important for a city’s port-centric development. To achieve the desired results, it must, however, be seamlessly integrated with the port and airport. Dubai has also done exceptionally well in this regard. The Jebel Ali Free Zone, the port, and Al-Maktoum International Airport operate as a single bonded customs zone.
However, in the case of Gwadar, the major impediment is its aerial connectivity with the rest of the country. The New Gwadar International Airport (NGIA) is under construction with a soft opening planned around 23rd March 2023 but considering the pace of work, its operationalization is likely to be materialized by 2024. Except for Karachi, from where PIA flies two flights per week, one cannot reach Gwadar from anywhere else including Islamabad, Lahore, or even Quetta, the provincial capital. Unless businessmen can freely traverse from major cities like Islamabad, Lahore, Peshawar, or Quetta to Gwadar, neither the free zone nor Gwadar Port City is likely to flourish as Dubai. The same necessitates the formulation of a comprehensive marketing strategy for NGIA’s economic viability.
Big names, no doubt, spell credibility and Dubai is ensuring its success by developing and operating free zones in collaboration with big names. Healthcare City in Dubai, for example, has partnered with Harvard Medical School to conduct collaborative research and training to improve global health delivery. It has also attracted entities in the health sector such as AstraZeneca, the Mayo Clinic, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, and others.
Such kind of concepts needs to be considered for Gwadar as well. There is ample space/land available just across the NGIA that can be developed as a modern city to achieve such objectives.
Another important factor driving Dubai’s rapid development is its flexible workforce. Each stage of development necessitates a different skill set and Dubai’s lucrative labor market has little to no difficulty in attracting the necessary labor force from the international market to meet its development needs. Because labor is brought in and then returned to its respective homeland, Dubai has the flexibility and leverage to meet each stage of development goals efficiently.
In the case of Gwadar, three vocational training institutes have been established and their optimal usage in unison with organizations like Dubai Port can be an avenue to look for.
In terms of infrastructure financing in Dubai, oil revenues were used to fund the early stages of trade-related infrastructure. Later flagship projects, ranging from the Palm Island to the Burj Khalifa as well as Al-Maktoum International Airport with a capacity of 120 million passengers per year, were financed during the real estate boom period through a combination of financing modes, including aid from Abu Dhabi. It should be noted that these projects were built with overcapacity and against expert advice, based on the economic principle of “supply creates its demand”. The long-term viability of the projects, however, is an issue that needs to be investigated further.
In short, there is more to the Dubai model than can be explained here. Certain lessons, however, are unquestionably important for the future development of Gwadar. The flexible urbanism of the Dubai model, a mix of state-led and corporate-like governance of the city, and its strategies for economic diversification are worthy of imitation. Moreover, the development and operation of the hinterland in tandem with the port and airport have aided in the transformation of Dubai over time from an entrepôt city in the 1970s to a transportation hub and now an exemplary logistic corridor in the region.
Furthermore, the development of tourism and thematic industrial and trade parks and the creation of a conducive business environment therein, with emphasis on advanced producer services, all hold lessons for Gwadar’s development. Although manufacturing still contributes a fair share of Dubai’s overall economy, the emirate is still regarded as a service economy with a focus on financial services and tourism. Indeed, each development path is unique and separated by time and space. However, the similarities between 1950s Dubai and current-day Gwadar provide us with some aspirations for Gwadar’s economic development and insights into how to leapfrog into the future.
While the Chinese are working on the development of Gwadar Port City as the CPEC flagship project, Pakistan needs to orchestrate its documents indicating the unique selling proposition of Gwadar Port City, if it needs the world to invest here. Dubaization provides an example to follow. With a focus on the above policy suggestions, it is believed that Gwadar’s development strategy could be refined for the purpose for which it is ordained.
The writer is a maritime affairs and public policy expert
This content was originally published here.