The Suez Canal, 140 years on

Sabah Hamamou
7 Min Read

CAIRO: In the middle of the Sinai desert on April 25, 1859, Ferdinand de Lesseps, a French vice-consul in Egypt, told Egyptian peasants, “You will dig with your pickaxes, and you will bring prosperity to your families and your country.

Ten years and 163 km later, the Suez Canal was complete; an artificial waterway connecting the Mediterranean and Red Seas together and paving the way for trade for years to come.

In November 17, 1869, the Suez Canal was officially inaugurated by Khedive Ismail in a lavish ceremony.

The Suez Canal Company – in charge of constructing and moderating the canal for 99 years – was owned by France as the biggest shareholder.

However, external debts forced Ismail Pasha to sell Egypt’s share to the United Kingdom.

The canal was eventually nationalized by former president Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1956 who transferred it to the Egyptian Suez Canal Authority (SCA).

Forty years later, the Suez Canal still serves as one of the most important waterways in the world, allowing sea transportation between Europe and Asia without navigating around Africa.


In fiscal year 2007/2008, the Suez Canal’s revenues hit a new record of $5.1 billion (LE 28.05 billion) to remain one of the main sources of Egypt’s income, after tourism.

However, the canal faced several hurdles, the most prominent of which is piracy off the coast of Somalia. According to a Pentagon report issued November 2008, there were 95 pirate attacks on ships passing through the Gulf of Aden to or from the Suez Canal in 2008 alone.

The Suez Canal has also been hit by the slowdown in world trade, in the wake of the global financial crisis. The number of vessels using the waterway decreased to 1,313 in January 2009, from 1,690 in January 2008, official figures show.

The canal authority is taking several measures to overcome these challenges.

By the end of 2009, a project to increase the depth of the 120-mile canal so that ships that draw up to 66 feet can seek passage will be complete. By then, 64 percent of international oil cargo and 99 percent of shipping cargo will be able to go through the canal.

In addition, the authority decided to keep transit fees for crossing ships and tankers unchanged, after raising it in the beginning of 2008.

However, Heba Gala, economics professor at faculty of commerce, Suez University, foresees other challenges to face the Suez Canal.

“The ongoing development of the Panama Canal, in addition to several projects to be implemented on international trade routes in Asia and Europe – supported by the UN and other international organizations – will pose a real threat to the Suez Canal’s future, she said.

The UN-backed project to develop more terrestrial routes particularly between Asia and Europe will help improve trade between the two regions.

In 2008, 53 percent, or 422.5 tons, of the total goods passing through the Suez Canal came from Asia.

In her research titled “The International Financial Crises and their Consequences on the Suez Canal, Gala said the canal’s crossing fees should flexible, taking into account the unstable oil prices.

A report in Al-Alam Al-Youm predicted that Egypt might ask for a loan from the International Monetary Fund to compensate for the drop in Suez Canal’s revenues in 2009.

It’s all politics

The Suez Canal has always had political clout. During the 19th century, the United Kingdom, that was controlling the Cape of Good Hope, tried to impede the project, out of concern it would lure world trade away from that route.

In 1956, when President Gamal Abdel Nasser decided to nationalize the canal, France, the United Kingdom and Israel launched the 1956 war, which resulted in the blocking of the canal until it was reopened in 1957 under the Egyptian administration.

It was blocked again during the 1967 war, and reopened in 1975.

Most recently, a proposed project that would connect the Red Sea to the Dead Sea is expected to create political instability.

The proposed canal, dubbed the Two Seas Canal, would provide electricity and potable water to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

While the project does not pose a commercial threat to the Suez Canal – because it would not allow ships – it is still not sitting well with Egyptian officials.

“The Two Seas Canal will lead to strong seismic activity in the region because of the rush of water, Ahmed Ali Fadel, chairman of authority, told the press when the project was first proposed in 2005.

The proposed project will be funded by the World Bank, which is currently conducting the feasibility study, due to be completed 2011, according to CNN.

At the same time, environmental organizations sent a strongly-worded warning to the Israeli government, not to begin work on the project before environmental studies are complete.

Suez Canal statistics:

– Overall length: 190.25 km- From the fairway buoy to Port-Said lighthouse 19.5 km- From the waiting area to the southern entrance 8.5 km- From Port Said to Ismailia 78.5 km- From Ismailia to Port-Tawfik 83.75 km-The length of doubled parts 78 km- Width at water level (North/South) 345/280 m- Width between buoys (North/South) 215/195 m- Depth of the canal 22.5 m- Maximum permissible draught for ships 62 ft- Cross sectional areas 4800/4350 m2- Maximum dead weight tonnage 210,000 tons?- Permissible speed for loaded tankers: 13-km/hr* Source: Egypt State Information Service

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