Egypt hopes Suez Canal tunnels will jump-start Sinai’s development
CAIRO - Egypt is nearing completion of four tunnels expected to revolutionise economic development in the Sinai by easing the movement of people and merchandise to the peninsula and increase trade with Arab Gulf states.
Egypt has invested more than $1 billion in building tunnels under the Suez Canal to connect the Egyptian mainland with Sinai for the first time.
Construction began in June 2016, almost a year after Egypt dug a parallel channel to the Suez Canal to allow two-way traffic in the strategic maritime passageway.
The plan for connecting Sinai with the Egyptian mainland through tunnels is part of Egypt’s strategy to turn the Suez Canal region and Sinai into the country’s next investment hub, said Hesham Emara, a member of the Economic Affairs Committee in Egypt’s parliament.
“Easing the movement of goods to and from Sinai is important for the execution of the strategy,” Emara said.
Sinai suffered neglect by the central government since its liberation from Israeli occupation in 1973. The 60,000-sq.km territory, which shares borders with Israel and the Gaza Strip, has been fertile ground for extremism, including a branch of the Islamic State.
Cairo has prioritised military engagement in the peninsula with an aggressive campaign to cut off militants operating there. The next stage is to increase infrastructure in the region and provide greater services for residents.
In February 2018, Egypt unveiled a $15 billion development blueprint for Sinai, to which Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait are contributing.
Before construction of the tunnels, vehicles headed to the Sinai had to wait for hours on the west bank of the Suez Canal to be ferried across the canal.
“Agricultural crops travelling to Sinai used to rot before they could reach their destination inside the peninsula,” Emara said.
The tunnels will shorten travel between the west bank of the Suez Canal and the east bank to less than 20 minutes.
Egypt bought four tunnel boring machines from Germany to construct the tunnels. The two tunnels to be used by road vehicles, which start in the northern part of the Suez Canal city of Ismailia, are approximately 4km long, mostly below the Suez Canal. They emerge south of Port Said.
Intense work is under way in the Suez Canal region to create a major logistical and industrial hub. China, India and Russia are among countries that have reserved space in the region and planned major industrial zones there.
Egypt wants to ease the movement of products manufactured in the Suez Canal region into Sinai and then onward to Jordan, Syria and Iraq or to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.
The four tunnels — two for vehicles and two for rail traffic — were to open last October but the inauguration was delayed by Egypt’s Armed Forces Engineering Authority, which supervises the tunnel construction, because the project slipped behind schedule. The tunnels will likely be inaugurated by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi later this month or early in March, local media reported.
The tunnels are being constructed by four major Egyptian construction companies. Hundreds of workers and engineers are working on the tunnels day and night.
Egyptian economic planners said they could not attract investment to the Suez Canal region unless they developed the needed infrastructure to ease the movement of goods to markets in Africa, the Arab Peninsula or the Levant.
“The cost of transport is a determining factor for the attraction of investments,” said Rashad Abdo, an economics professor at Helwan University. “The presence of these tunnels will highlight the huge investment opportunity in the region, especially with the wonderful location of the Suez Canal area and Sinai.”
Egypt is also yet to tap Sinai’s natural wealth. Economists said resources include phosphates, manganese, iron ore, marble and uranium. The peninsula has thousands of hectares of land that could be used for agriculture.
Apart from attracting investments and developing Sinai, Egypt aspires to relocate millions of people from the densely populated Nile Delta and Valley to the Sinai Peninsula.
The relocation of citizens would speed up development in Sinai, observers said.
“It will also put an end to the presence of the terrorists,” said retired army General Mohamed al-Shahawi. “Development is the best counterterrorism strategy, in fact.”