Dire straits

Published March 29, 2021
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

YOU know how annoying it is when traffic gets jammed because a giant truck or trailer somehow manages to wedge his vehicle in the road? There you are, watching with a mixture of helplessness and growing rage as car upon car joins a long line of stalled vehicles that seems to stretch on to infinity. Meanwhile, people gather around the wedged truck with advice and possibly forklifts, trying to restore the flow. This is pretty much what’s happening in the Suez Canal right now, where a giant ship was blown off course during a sandstorm and managed to wedge itself diagonally in the canal, blocking all traffic.

The crew of the ill-fated Ever Given, now the living embodiments of the ‘you had one job’ meme, get to watch and listen to the silent curses of all those thus inconvenienced by having billions of dollars of trade brought to a standstill as Lilliputian excavators and tugboats try desperately to move this metal Gulliver.

Meanwhile, international trade goes back to the ways of Bartolomeu Dias, having to detour 8,900 kilometres around Africa and the Cape of Good Hope like its 1488 AD, though with less scurvy and better oral hygiene.

The idea of connecting the Mediterranean to the Red sea, and thus linking East to West, is a powerful and ancient one given the advantages it would accrue to the power capable of such a feat. History suggests that the first imperial power to attempt doing so was Ancient Egypt, under the Pharoah Senusret III around 1850 BC.

In its history, the canal has been blocked several times.

Another attempt was made, centuries later, by another pharoah named Necho II. This one is recorded to have been successful, linking the Red Sea to the Nile Delta, and was later re-dug (or completed, depending on which historical record you choose to believe) by another imperial power: Persia, under Darius the First.

However, a problem that plagued Darius’ engineers was the difference between the height of the seawater and the river, and so it is said that the project was eventually abandoned for fear of spoiling the river water by allowing the ingress of seawater.

That problem, it seems, was solved after the Ptolemaic dynasty took over Egypt following the death of Alexander the Great. Ptolemy II’s engineers apparently came up with the idea of using water locks to prevent this ingress, resulting in a fairly serviceable canal that the Arab general Amar ibn al-Aas discovered, de-silted and revived during his conquest of Egypt in the seventh century. However, the passage didn’t stay open for very long and a rebellion in the Hejaz in around 767 AD forced the local authorities to close the canal so as to prevent supplies from reaching the rebels.

While strategic imperatives forced the closure of this proto-Suez, it was also grand strategy that forced the famous Ottoman grand vizier Mehmed Pasha to seriously contemplate the need to link the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, at least partly in response to increasing European naval presence in the Indian Ocean. Had that plan actually gone through, the history of the world would likely be quite different.

Then comes Napoleon Bonaparte on his Eastern adventure — the invasion of Egypt — which he intended as the first step towards carving out an empire like that of Alexander’s, and fantasised about riding an elephant at the head of his army as he marched all the way to India. He too contemplated the idea of a canal, but was discouraged due to an error by his engineers.

The Suez Canal we know was opened for navigation on Nov 17, 1869, and while it was nominally owned by the Egyptian government, it was actually operated and controlled by a company dominated by British and French shareholders. That lasted until Gamal Abdul Nasser came around and nationalised the canal, leading to the Suez crisis and igniting an already smouldering Cold War.

In its history, the canal has been blocked several times with the longest such event being after the 1967 Six-Day War between Egypt and Israel, in which mines and scuttled ships were used to block the canal on either side, leading to 15 vessels being stranded in the canal. These stationary ships, caked as they became with sand blown in by the desert winds, became dubbed the ‘Yellow Fleet’ and remained stuck there for close to nine years. One hopes, of course, that the current blockage won’t last nearly as long.

For thousands of years, narrow maritime passages like the Bosphorus, the Dardanelles, the straits of Gibraltar, Hormuz and Malacca — all the way to the South China Sea — have been and remain crucial and contested choke points, the importance of which has only increased with time and technological advancement.

For one thing, this reminds us once again that international trade can easily be held hostage by the blocking of a few crucial waterways and that, in short, he who controls the straits controls the world.

The writer is a journalist.

Twitter: @zarrarkhuhro

Published in Dawn, March 29th, 2021


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