Wednesday, March 31, 2021
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At the gates of the Suez Canal, it’s always the big traffic jam

Ever Given still blocks the Suez Canal (March 26, 2021). (- / AFP)

The awe-inspiring images of this tiny backhoe digging through muddy earth in the shadow of a ship as high as a 15-story building have been widely circulated in the press and on social media. Well it hasn’t budged! TheEver Given and its 220,000 tonnes of containers, full to the brim with goods from China, the length of four football fields, has not budged an inch in two days.

The Egyptians play the Coué method on us. “En 48 to 72 hours maximum “ we will settle all that, said yesterday one of the advisers of President al-Sisi. “I have experience of several such rescue operations and, as the former chairman of the Suez Canal Authority, I know every inch of the canal“says Mohab Mamish, who oversaw the recent expansion of the seaway.

Except that according to maritime rescue experts who arrived on site Thursday, March 25, from Japan and the Netherlands, the beaching operations could take not a few days … but rather a few weeks. In the meantime, like the ship, it is world trade that is bogged down, because things are starting to stop seriously at both ends of the canal, the Mediterranean Sea on one side, the Red Sea on the other.

Every day, around fifty boats use this very practical link between Asia and Europe, container ships but also freighters, bulk carriers, oil tankers, for a cumulative value of nearly 10 billion dollars. The Suez Canal is one of the busiest trade routes in the world, accounting for around 10% of international maritime trade.

For the moment, oil prices are resisting (prices which jumped up to 6% on Wednesday fell quite quickly). But a shutdown of several days is bound to have cascading effects on prices and the entire global supply chain. European factories could run out of electronic components and semiconductors, which one uses in computing or health.

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So much so that some are considering following a deviation: this is the case of the largest shipowner in the world, the Danish Maersk. With another German freight giant he is studying the possibility of bypassing the Suez Canal. This means going through the Cape of Good Hope, at the tip of South Africa, before going up along the African coast. In other words 6,000 kilometers to add to the meter, one or even two additional weeks of navigation, but savings, because the passage of the canal is about 400,000 / 500,000 dollars per boat. If the blockage of the channel lasts, it is an option which is tried.

Another possibility is to take the northern route, the preferred route of the Russians. This road, which runs along the coast of Siberia, links the Bering Strait to the Norwegian Sea. As we are very close to the North Pole – and that, I am not telling you anything – the earth is a sphere, it is inevitably the shortest distance between Asia and Europe. One or two weeks less than going through the south and the Suez Canal.

Vladimir Putin has long promoted this route, which for the moment is only practicable during the summer months, when the sea ice is thin enough for icebreakers to open the passage. But global warming opens up prospects and the Russians are counting on commercial exploitation within fifteen years. The unfortunate episode of the Suez Canal obviously gave them food for thought. The Russian nuclear agency Rosatom, responsible for overseeing this northern route, posted several messages on its Twitter account: “We, if a boat is stuck in the ice, we send icebreakers” (implied: it will never get stuck for several days).

The agency even published a photomontage in which we see an animated GIF from the series “Austin Powers” where the main character is blocked askew in a tunnel, he moves forward, backward, forward, backward and can’t seem to stop. ‘to disentangle. His vehicle has been replaced by a photo of the container ship. It’s very funny but not very nice. Whether we favor the northern route or the Cape of Good Hope, in this story there is for the moment only one loser, Egypt, which has to give up phenomenal cash flow. The Suez Canal is its third source of income.

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