Mohammed Soliman is a Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute’s Cyber Program and a Senior Associate at McLarty Associates’ Middle East and North Africa Practice. His work focuses on the intersection of technology, geopolitics, and business in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Mohammed frequently appears on Arabic- and English-language television to provide commentary on unfolding events in the Middle East.
The history of the Suez Canal in Egypt is quite interesting. Mohammed explains that there was an idea to connect the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea during the time of the Pharaohs but that attempt failed thousands of years ago.There were many other attempts that also failed over the years until in 1859 a French diplomat named De Lesseps worked with the King of Egypt to build the canal over the next 10 years. Later Britain took over the canal for 70 years until president Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized it and made it a local utility.
Samar asks Mr Soliman about how some people interpret the Suez Canal to mainly benefit colonial powers rather than Egyptians and the local economy. The canal was a way for the British and French colonies to reach their countries and their other colonies in East Africa, Middle East and Asia. It gave these European powers easier access to the rest of the world.
The Canal has a strategic importance and was central to political issues in the 50’s and 60’s. France, Britain and Israel tried to occupy the canal during that time but the Egyptians resisted. Furthermore the United States under President Eisenhower and the Soviet Union who were the main superpowers of the time both took the side of the Egyptians and asked the foreign powers to leave. Fast forward to 1967 Egypt lost Sinai to Israel and the navigation to the Suez Canal was stopped from 1967 to 1975. After the Egyptians regained control of Sinai and the Suez Canal in 1973 navigation of the canal resumed in 1975 and has never stopped until the Evergreen ship blocked it in March 2021.
Samar then asks about the incident of the Evergreen ship that had blocked the Suez Canal for a few days and put a strain on global trade. The cause of the blockage according to Mr Soliman is actually not the narrowness of the Suez canal but the current transportation and supply chain structure that has caused the size of ships to increase tremendously. Ships of this size did not exist 10 years ago and therefore such an incident would have never happened until recently. In 2014 Egypt created a second lane in the Southern part that was actually wider than the older lane.
Samar asks how they set it free. Mr Soliman believes that it was an engineering miracle and the Egyptian team did an incredible job. The team excavated around 28,000 cubic meter of sand and rock at 18 meter depths. That is equivalent to 3-4 olympic pools and required 30-40 excavators including the ‘Mashhoor’ which was tied to the Evergreen. Furthermore, the Egyptians had to bring in 28 tugboats to push the ship from different angles to set it free.
Samar asks Mr Soliman what would have happened if the ordeal took longer than the 4-5 days it took to refloat the ship. The Suez Canal is responsible for around 15% of global trade and around 12% of the global energy flow. Every day the canal was blocked meant that $10 billion worth of goods were being prevented from passing through. Some were expecting a paper crisis as a result of the Evergiven blockage. The alternative for the Suez canal is around the horn of Africa, which is a lot more costly, timing consuming and unsafe.
Mr Soliman moves on to explain the level of development along the Suez Canal and the infrastructure built along it. Basically there are 6 major ports along the canal from Sokhna to Port Said. In addition to that there is a project in development along the canal that is currently looking to transform the region into a logistics and manufacturing hub.
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