Ship crisis revives Russian, Israeli talk of alternatives to Suez Canal

The fact that the Ever Given blockage of the Suez Canal was resolved within a week does not mean an end to speculation about the sea routes.

Tuesday 30/03/2021
An Egyptian waves the national flag after Panama-flagged MV ‘Ever Given’ container ship was fully dislodged from the banks of the Suez, March 29, 2021.(REUTERS)
An Egyptian waves the national flag after Panama-flagged MV ‘Ever Given’ container ship was fully dislodged from the banks of the Suez, March 29, 2021.(REUTERS)

CAIRO -  The crisis of the “Ever Given” container vessel, which ran aground in the Suez Canal and was freed after it had completely blocked all other shipping for six days, has  revived talk about alternatives, including Israel’s  Ben Gurion canal project that would link the Red Sea to the Mediterranean.

Experts say every time the vital Suez canal, which is used by some 19,000 vessels a year carrying up to ten percent of global trade, is clogged for whatever reason, alternatives automatically resurface .

The Israelis are promoting their projected Ben Gurion waterway  as a rival to the Suez Canal.

They say that the distance between Eilat and the Mediterranean is not long, and is in fact similar to the distance of the Suez connection between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.

Tel Aviv plans to turn this canal into a multi-faceted project, in addition to having it play a commercial role challenging the Suez Canal.

It aims to build small towns, hotels, restaurants and nightclubs around the waterway.

Analysts say that the Egypt’s downplaying of the importance of the Israeli project does not conceal the risk it poses to the Suez Canal’s $6 billion annual revenues.

It is also possible that the alternative canal could win regional backing from countries such as Jordan, which is facing social and economic difficulties.

Amman may find in this project a way out of its crises after having failed to garner sufficient Arab support to shore up its economic situation.

It is not unlikely that the Israeli canal project will also win the approval of countries such as Saudi Arabia whose mega-project on the Red Sea, aims to turn the city of Neom into a tourist attraction.

The Saudi project may be a short distance away from the proposed Israeli southern end of the Ben Gurion canal at Eilat.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi sought to calm Egyptian fears about the alternatives that the  world shippers could be compelled to seek after the Suez Canal blockage and the subsequent disruption that lasted for days.

“The Egyptians have succeeded in ending the crisis of the ship that ran aground in the Suez Canal, and brought things back to their normal course. This reassures the whole world about the transportation of its goods and its needs through this pivotal shipping artery,” Sisi said.

Sisi seemed to be hinting at the Ben Gurion Canal project, especially since Israel used the Suez Canal crisis to announce the start of work on its project.

This has increased the pressure on Cairo and pushed it to issue reassuring statements.

The idea of an Israeli canal linking the Mediterranean and the Red Sea is not new.

The US newspaper Business Insider published Thursday the content of a classified memo stating that the United States had studied a proposal to build an Israeli waterway to rival the Suez Canal by detonating nuclear bombs in the Negev desert decades ago.

According to the US 1963 memorandum, which was declassified in 1996, the plan would have meant the use of 520 nuclear bombs to carve for “excavation of Dead Sea canal across the Negev desert.”

It said that an “interesting application of nuclear excavation would be a sea-level canal 160 miles long across Israel.”

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The use of conventional means for digging  the canal would have “prohibitively expensive,” it added.

The newspaper quoted  historian Alex Wellerstein that the plan would have been a “model proposal for the Suez Canal situation.” After the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the canal was closed for eight years.

The canal would have opened a pathway to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, thus ending the shut down of the Suez Canal.

In Cairo, both the government and media have been echoing real public concern  at the prospect of an Israeli canal.

Egyptian specialist in Israeli affairs, Ahmed Fouad Anwar, told The Arab Weekly: “The reports that questioned Egypt’s ability to solve the ship’s crisis were accompanied by Israeli gloating and unofficial speculations regarding the necessity of building the canal, but these speculations receded after Cairo’s success in prudently dealing with the crisis.”

Anwar added, “The Suez canal was closed to the Israelis and the international community for years and an alternative path was never initiated, because energy exporters were not enthusiastic about it and would doubt its ability to compete with the Suez Canal, not to mention security concerns.”

The 1960s US memo pointed out at the time that one of the problems that the authors of the proposal did not take into account was the  “political feasibility, as it is likely that the Arab countries surrounding Israel would strongly object to the construction of such a canal.”

The Secretary-General of the Egyptian Seaports Association, Major General Issam Badawi, said this week, “Talk about an Israeli canal is old. It depends on the nature of the soil in the projected location and the sea level, which are two of the things that have hindered the project’s emergence so far.”

Talking to The Arab Weekly, Badawi admitted that “talk about alternatives has intensified as a result of the incident in the Suez Canal. Incidents are a usual occurrence in international shipping lanes.”

“The Egyptian Canal will remain the most important global shipping corridor. In the near future total trade passing through this waterway may reach 12 percent of the global trade volume, an increase of 2 percent over the current volume.”

Israel is currently talking about extending a railway connection to link the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. However, this  project is seen as an unlikely substitute for the Suez Canal considering that shipping containers would take twice as long to be transported by land as on giant sea vessels.

Meanwhile Moscow is majoring on its plan for  the Northern Sea Route along Russia’s Arctic coast as an alternative to the Suez Canal. The idea had been promoted by President Vladimir Putin for some time.

Russia took advantage of the 380 vessel Suez Canal  traffic jam caused by the Ever Given grounding to re-market the Russian scheme internationally, promising adequate guarantees of safety, movement and low cost.

The Russian “Rosatom” company underlined the importance of the North Sea Route as a magic solution for last week’s maritime traffic jam on the Suez Canal.

The distance along the northern sea link from China to European ports is about 40 percent shorter, cutting by 15 days sailing from Asia to Europe compared with transit via the Egyptian waterway.  With climate change, the Arctic route is increasingly free of ice and Russia is promising to send icebreakers for any vessels that become stuck. It is already planning to use the route to export is own oil and gas.

The Iranian ambassador to Moscow, Kazem Jalali, called for activation of the Russian sea route, and tweeted Saturday, “Accelerating the completion of infrastructure and activating the north-south corridor is more important than ever, and is a better option as a transit alternative to the Suez Canal.”