Harnessing the GCC’s Baloch pedigree

The writer is an investigative journalist and academic with extensive reporting experience in the MENA region. He tweets @naveed360

The writer is an investigative journalist and academic with extensive reporting experience in the MENA region. He tweets @naveed360

Darwish Bin Ismail Al Balushi holds the portfolio of Oman’s minster for financial affairs while Dr Fatima Al Balushi is Bahrain’s human rights and social development minister. They are obviously no ordinary folks in their countries. However, they are equally special for Pakistanis too. They are two of the many distinguished Baloch living in the Gulf Arab nations, who belong mainly to the Kalat and Makran regions of Pakistan. Oman’s ambassador to Pakistan, Riyadh bin Yusuf bin Ahmed al Ra‘isi is yet another proud Baloch by ethnicity and loyal Omani by nationality. Major General Sharafuddin Sharaf, also a Baloch, used to be the intelligence chief of the UAE. Talib Miran Ra‘isi is the former air chief of Oman.

Not many Pakistani politicians, civil servants and academics know the achievements of this community that is largely stereotyped for being ‘backward’ and ‘impoverished’. It’s anybody’s guess as to why such stereotyping exists in their own homeland and who is responsible for their dismal state of affairs. While over 70 per cent of Baloch live in Pakistan’s Balochistan, they remain a distinct community in countries such as Iran, Afghanistan, Oman, Bahrain, the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Somalia.

The word ‘Baloch’ is largely understood to mean nomad. It is also spelt as al-Baloshi and al-Balooshi in the Gulf region. Some Baloch claim to have migrated to present-day Balochistan in the 12th century from Aleppo (the Halab region of Syria), sharing an ancestry with Kurds. Legend also has it that they travelled all the way from the shores of the Caspian Sea centuries ago.

The ethnic Baloch comprise approximately 35 per cent of Oman’s population. Over the past two centuries, the Balochi tribesmen have taken to the high seas in search for a better way of life. They settled as far as Zanzibar and the Republic of Congo, mostly migrating to Muslim-dominated regions of Asia and Africa. They integrated exceptionally well by adopting local cuisine, marrying within the local communities and learning their languages too. There was a conscious effort to preserve their own culture and cuisine as well that met with a varying degree of success.

The state of Kalat gave the Baloch a political identity in the 18th century, lasting till the British advent in the region. Throughout the Gulf, all the way into eastern Africa, the traditional Baloch economy and migration patterns are based on a combination of factors that involve farming, semi-nomadic shepherding and acting as askaris (mercenaries). The emerging oil economies became a factor too after the First World War. When Sultan bin Ahmad was forced to flee Oman in 1783, he was given refuge in the Makrani coastal fishing village of Gwadar by the then Khan of Kalat. The ousted sultan used Gwadar to launch attacks on the Omani coast till the death of his belligerent nephew in 1792. Thereafter, the sultan never returned it to the Khan, but sent a governor to administer Gwadar. Oman exercised influence over this area until 1958 before handing it over to Pakistan. Conservatively speaking, around three million Baloch tribesmen — the majority of whom maintain some degree of contact with their kin in Balochistan — are citizens of virtually all the Gulf nations.

Last year, Oman selected some 350 Baloch youth for various military cadres. The number of applicants from Gwadar, Kech and Panjgur districts ran into thousands. Today, Baloch soldiers and policemen are easy to find in most of the Arab Gulf nations. The Baloch are no economic migrants but citizens of the GCC. Pakistan’s diplomats in the Gulf need to proactively connect with this diaspora. India and Iran have gone to great lengths to reach out to their indigenous people separated by time and distances in countries as far as Fiji in the Pacific, and in Central and South America. Through state-level efforts, prominent Balochis of the Gulf can help build bridges for the prosperity and development of the remote districts of Balochistan. They can help attract enormous foreign investment for the Makran and Kalat regions, and also integrate Pakistan deeper into the GCC economy. Why can’t there be economic zones – factories, refineries and warehouses — for the Gulf Arab nations in Gwadar and Kalat?

Though the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has become the favourite topic of politicians and analysts, few have pondered on its importance for the GCC economies. The CPEC will essentially be a Chinese highway running across the Strait of Hormuz, which largely guarantees the sheikhdoms’ economic and political stability via two-way trade. Thus, the Gulf states will be preserving their own interests in the region by promoting development and stability in Balochistan. Islamabad has not invested enough effort in attracting more financial support from the Baloch living in the GCC region and who still have links to Balochistan. This is an area that needs to be looked into seriously. 

Published in The Express Tribune, February 11th,  2016.

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