KARACHI: The highly awaited move of the US consulate in Karachi to a new, custom-built location is being described as a "symbol of the US's long-term commitment to Pakistan and the mutually beneficial relationship between the two countries".
After decades of being housed on Karachi's Club Road, which is home to Frere Hall, Sind Club and the Marriott Hotel, the consulate has been relocated to Mai Kolachi.
The new consulate will also start processing non-immigrant visa applications for people from Sindh and Balochistan on February 1, a move which will save thousands of rupees in travel costs for hopeful travellers to the US, who would normally have to visit the US embassy in Islamabad.
Non-immigrant visas include those for business travel, tourist visas for senior citizens and renewals of tourist visas, student and exchange visitors as well as for journalists.
Andie De Arment, the information officer for the consulate, told The Express Tribune that there were plans to expand the range of visa services in March, but this would be gauged on how well the consulate can manage the services it is currently offering.
According to a press release issued by the consulate, the building's construction took two years to complete and will also have an American Centre which will include "educational information and cultural programmes".
"It is a gorgeous, modern building and we are now actually able to have a full staff!" De Arment exclaimed. "Before this we weren't working in the consulate building, but in the warehouse. So the move has meant that we have been able to hire more staff and expand in all sections, including public affairs, economics and USAID. We plan on hiring more staff as well."
The new consulate, De Arment explained, will be "more efficient and much more engaged" and will help the consulate work with the community and monitor development assistance effectively. US Consul General to Karachi William Martin was quoted in the press release: "This is a historic and important move. I am looking forward to showing the people of Sindh and Balochistan our new consulate complex. Our relocation enables us to continue building a strong and mutually beneficial relationship between the American people and Pakistanis."
When asked whether the new consulate would translate into more high-profile visits from US officials who would normally only stop in Islamabad, De Arment said that the US consulate has hosted a number of key officials, including the late US Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke and the new US ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter. "It will help that there is more staff to support visits and travel, Karachi is the commercial hub and everything is here, from businesses to the media."
"For me, this is a historic move," De Arment told The Express Tribune. "We were at the old location for 60 years."
The old building, which De Arment believes the US consulate owns, is being retained for now, as is the consul general's residence (which will be used for events, etc.). "This is still under discussion in Washington right now so nothing has been finalised as yet."
The old consulate was attacked three times in the past decade, in 2002, 2003 and 2006. Anyone passing it on Abdullah Haroon Road would have noticed that a few barriers have been taken down already. Clifton Town SP Tariq Dharejo said, however, that the police had not received any orders to remove the barricades. No one could be immediately reached from the foreign security cell.
It is widely believed in Karachi that the land the old consulate was located on is haunted. One of the proposed locations for the new US consulate was next to the Karachi Grammar School, but this plan was met with protests by concerned parents and was subsequently scrapped.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 19th, 2010.