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Russia, Iran propose alternative maritime routes amid Suez Canal blockage

Russia and Iran have called for the need to find alternative maritime shipping routes after a giant vessel was stuck in Egypt’s Suez Canal, blocking maritime traffic for days before it was freed.
The container ship 'Ever Given' is refloated, unblocking the Suez Canal on March 29, 2021 in Suez, Egypt. This morning the container ship came partly unstuck from the shoreline, where it ran aground in the canal last Tuesday, and later resumed its course shortly after 3 pm local time. The Suez Canal is one of the world's busiest shipping lanes and the blockage had created a backlog of vessels at either end, raising concerns over the impact on global shipping and supply chains.

CAIRO — The March 24 accident of the giant Panamanian container ship Ever Given sparked reports about the future of the Egyptian Suez Canal amid talks about alternative commercial transport projects.

The Suez Canal Authority (SCA) managed to free the ship on March 29 after being stranded in the canal for nearly a week, and maritime traffic subsequently resumed.

Along with the SCA and the Japanese company that owns the ship, navigation experts launched on March 30 investigations into the circumstances and causes of the ship’s grounding.

SCA Chairman Osama Rabie told Al-Monitor, “The accident is still under careful investigation to determine its causes.” Rabie explained that “the shipping course of the canal is completely safe now, and all ships that were delayed are now going through the canal.”

As hundreds of ships and tankers were held up, Russia sought to promote its northern sea route. According to a report published by the Russian Moscow Times on March 26, the Kremlin hopes to turn the Suez Canal blockage in Egypt into a long-term gain.

The Russian state firm Rosatomflot enumerated in a series of tweets March 26 (which were later deleted) the reasons that make it necessary to consider the Russian northern sea route as an alternative to the Suez Canal route. He said that Russia is using the most powerful nuclear icebreakers to improve accessibility for maritime traffic in the North Sea at a time when the rapid melting of the Arctic is making it very easy for ships to pass through.

Concurrently, Iranian Ambassador to Russia Kazem Jalali called through his Facebook account on March 27 for the activation of an alternative international corridor to the Suez Canal, namely the International North-South Transport Corridor, which he described as a “low risk” route.

During his visit to the Suez Canal on March 30, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi commented on calls to provide alternatives to the Egyptian Suez Canal by saying that “this accident showed that the Suez Canal is the most important shipping passage capable of competing as a global facility through which 12 to 13% of the international trade volume goes.”

Rabie agreed, saying that “the recent accident gave higher status and bigger importance to the Suez Canal as the most important global trade corridor.”

He also stressed that there were calls to "resort to the Cape of Good Hope corridor despite the additional 15 days needed for transit and the greater use of fuel compared to the Suez Canal route.”

Rabie explained that “the Suez Canal has nothing to do with” the recent accident, adding, “The event will not affect the future of the Suez Canal but rather support its global presence.”

In statements to Al-Monitor, experts and specialists in the field of maritime transport said the recent crisis drew attention to the importance of the continuous modernization of equipment and the navigation path of the SCA, as it showed the world how important this route is and that alternative corridors can by no means replace the Egyptian canal.

Wael Kaddour, the former SCA vice chairman, told Al-Monitor over the phone, “The recent crisis, albeit very severe, has greatly benefited the Suez Canal and has drawn the attention of officials to a number of issues. Chief among these is the need to upgrade equipment and buy new tugboats. The largest tug in the SCA’s fleet has a tensile strength of 160 tons, which is not sufficient to deal with major incidents such as the EVER GIVEN ship incident.”

“It is such a sensitive process for modern container ships to cross the canal, and we must consequently take all precautions in the event of strong winds and probably temporarily stop the transit of such ships with the aim of preserving them and the shipping course itself,” Kaddour added.

He explained, “The recent incident revealed the importance of this economic artery (the Suez Canal), and it is by no means possible to replace it with another waterway enjoying the same level of importance. We must accelerate the completion of the Suez Canal corridor development project in order to benefit from the establishment of logistical areas and services for ships.”

Kaddour talked about alternative projects for the Suez Canal, saying that “any comparison will be in favor of the Suez Canal. For example, 18,800 ships passed through the Egyptian Suez Canal in 2020 with a total tonnage of 1.17 billion tons, while only 62 ships with a total tonnage of 30 million tons passed through the northern Russian sea route during the same year.”

Mohi al-Sayeh, dean of the College of Maritime Transport at the Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport, told Al-Monitor, “The statements that proposed alternative solutions to the Suez Canal are opinions of a political rather than economic and commercial nature, as the Suez Canal is a key artery of global trade linking the East with the West as well as centers of production and distribution.”

Sayeh added, “The presence of a navigation corridor comparable to the Suez Canal in the near future is quite elusive, as the Egyptian canal is not an average navigation corridor but one that has all the safety factors for ships in terms of maritime navigation. The width of the corridor reaches 500 meters at some points. It is a corridor whose depth reaches up to 24 meters. It is also largely straight, and navigation through it is widely safe and easy.”

He pointed out that “there are difficulties facing the Russian North Sea project in order to compete with the Suez Canal, including the fact that it is covered with snow most of the year, and sailing in snow has its dangers as it requires ships of special nature and capabilities. This project is in no way a strong competitor to the Suez Canal, and if it were to compete with the canal, then such competition would be seasonal and weak.”

He stressed “the need to take advantage of the recent incident to modernize the SCA’s rescue fleets and increase the number of tugs used in towing stranded ships in preparation for any possible contingencies."

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