The experts and technicians at the Suez Canal Authority have worked a miracle. They freed the Ever Given, the mammoth containership that kept the world on edge for six days after it ran aground. The blockage created queues hundreds of ships long at either end of the canal, as maritime shipping firms and insurance companies stared at huge losses ticking up by the minute. International markets breathed a huge sigh of relief at the news that the ship had been re-floated. Neither the hull nor its cargo had sustained any damage.
The Egyptian authorities, rightfully pleased with the success, said the incident involving what is perhaps the largest containership in the world has imparted some important lessons. One such lesson is the need to raise the level of preparedness for such situations that can impair operations of the shipping lane though which 12 per cent of world trade passes. This was the first crisis of its kind since the Suez Canal reopened in 1975, two years after the 1973 War. However, the increase in the size and tonnage of containerships in recent years has generated new requirements for ensuring smooth shipping through the commercial maritime artery linking east and west.
Its “genius of geography,” to use the term coined by the famous Egyptian historian and geographer Gamal Hamdan, has kept the Suez Canal a focus of worldwide attention throughout its 150 year history. Today this “genius” has just thrown into relief, more than ever before, the canal’s significance to global trade and to the interdependence of East and West at the height of globalisation. Recently we have seen attempts to belittle the importance of the Suez Canal in order to promote alternative maritime routes. The immense media coverage that the Ever Given has occasioned in the last few days has put paid to such notions. It has shown how the geographical location of the Suez Canal wins the day.
The Egyptian experts and technicians at the Suez Canal Authority worked around the clock in order to free the mired ship and open the canal again. Officials at the authority have said that there are plans to launch additional projects to widen the shipping lane. The New Tafria (branch) project that was inaugurated some years ago has greatly shortened the time it takes for shipping convoys to pass through the canal. According to the strategy announced three years ago, work will continue on developing and maintaining the maritime route through dredging operations to preserve the depth and width, developing and equipping 16 navigation guidance posts along the length of the canal, enhancing emergency response capacities and building the canal authority’s fleet. Two Egyptian dredger ships helped re-float the Ever Given, in the first test of their skills without assistance from foreign agencies.
Apart from lessons learned, another benefit of the crisis was that it drew attention at home and abroad to the Suez Canal Corridor project. Launched in 2015, this service, logistic and industrial development promises to stimulate a boom in national revenues and transform the canal zone from a commercial passageway to a global industrial and logistic hub for transportation and commerce. It will be home to projects that draw investments into numerous economic and industrial sectors. “The Great Egyptian Dream,” as it has been dubbed, is one of the national mega projects the government has set into motion in recent years. The infrastructure has already been installed on both sides of the canal during the past five years. More than $18 billion have been invested by 250 companies and 14 industrial developers, creating more than 100,000 job opportunities according to Suez Canal Economic Zone (SCZONE) statistics for 2020. These are promising figures by all standards.
The successful dislodging of the Ever Given marks the true beginning of the development operations for the most important maritime route in the world. Further details will emerge in the coming days as to that the freeing of a registered containership has elevated the profile of the Suez Canal Authority which, after passing numerous tests since the nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956, including this latest test, has proven its efficacy in managing the shipping lane and keeping international commercial trade flowing in both directions.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly