Pakistan’s two main maritime ports — Karachi and Port Qasim — are the lifeline of its global trade. It’s through these ports that Pakistan imports energy, edible oils, electronics and other consumer products, as well as raw and intermediate goods for its 220 million-plus population and local industries.
Given Pakistan’s location — it neighbors China, India, and Iran — one would think that a sizeable amount of its trade is conducted over land. But that is not the case. Due to geopolitics and the low costs of maritime shipping, most of Pakistan’s trade is conducted over sea.
While China is Pakistan’s largest trade partner, most goods are transported between Pakistan’s two Karachi-area ports and China’s eastern seaboard. China and Pakistan have expressed a desire to expand overland trade through the Karakoram Highway from western Xinjiang to northern Pakistan. But these areas are distant from their countries’ respective industrial hubs.
Pakistan has long had dreams of serving as a gateway to landlocked Central Asia and even eclipsing Asian transshipment hubs like Dubai and Singapore. But it’s fallen short of these aspirations. Few countries use Pakistan’s ports for transshipment. And none of Pakistan’s ports rank among the largest ports in the world.
How Many Ports Does Pakistan Have?
Pakistan has two major ports, the Port of Karachi and Port Qasim, that account for nearly all of its maritime trade. The Gwadar Port, located in Balochistan, has marginal levels of traffic and is located far from major population centers.
Pakistan also has three additional small Arabian Sea ports: Ormara, Pasni, and Jiwani. Like Gwadar, these three ports are located in the Balochistan province on the Makran Coastal Highway that connects Karachi to the border with Iran.
The provincial government in Sindh also plans on developing a commercial port in Keti Bandar, east of Port Qasim, which could service Pakistan’s growing coal power industry.
Gadani, located in the province of Balochistan roughly 30 miles from Karachi, hosts one of the world’s largest ship demolition yards. Like Keti Bandar, various Pakistani governments have considered developing the Gadani port with an eye on the coal industry. Both ports are located along existing national highway networks that connect to the country’s major population centers.
Who Runs Pakistan Ports?
Pakistan’s ports fall under the Ministry of Maritime Affairs. Its three operational ports, Gwadar, Karachi, and Port Qasim, are administered by individual port authorities: the Gwadar Port Authority, the Karachi Port Trust, and the Port Qasim Authority. Operations for terminals at these ports are run by leading global third-party port management firms, including Hutchison and DP World.
Hutchison Ports Pakistan operates a relatively new deep-water container terminal in Karachi with a depth of 16 meters. This is Pakistan’s deepest container terminal by far. Port Qasim has seen an expansion in the past decade with the construction of LNG import terminals.
The fledgling port of Gwadar was previously run by PSA International, previously known as the Port of Singapore Authority. Since 2013, it has been run by the China Overseas Ports Holding Company or COPHC. Due to silting, the depth of the Gwadar Port has receded to 11 meters from 12.5 meters. The port has the potential to be dredged as deep as 20 meters.
DP World, formerly known as Dubai Ports World, has operated the main container terminal at Port Qasim: the Qasim International Container Terminal (QICT) — also known as DP World Karachi.
In 2015, the multinational firm Engro opened Pakistan’s first LNG terminal in Port Qasim. Another consortium opened its second LNG terminal in 2017. There is potential for the addition of more LNG terminals, but these projects have lagged.