On Tuesday, the Ever Given, a 224,000-ton which measures 400 meters long and 59 meters wide, ran aground inside the Suez Canal after being caught in 40-knot winds and a sandstorm that caused low visibility and poor navigation. The ship is operated by Taiwanese transport company Evergreen Marine and is one of the world’s largest container vessels. With a maximum capacity of 20,000 containers, it is currently carrying 18,300 containers.
As of Sunday, there were 369 ships stuck on either side of the blockage. Although part of the length of the canal is paralleled by an older narrower channel which can still be used to bypass obstructions, this particular incident happened in a section of the canal with only one channel. By Monday, that number grew to 450. Roughly 30% of the world’s shipping container volume transits through the 120 mile Suez Canal daily, and about 12% of total global trade of all goods. It is estimated that the blockage is costing the Suez Canal Authority (SCA) $15 million in revenue every day.
Over the weekend, 14 tugboats pulled and pushed the Ever Given at high tide to try to dislodge it and were able to move the ship “30 degrees from left and right” and on Monday, the SCA issued a statement saying that the Ever Given had been “successfully refloated”.
It is expected that the canal would reopen to traffic on Monday.
The incident underscores the need for an alternative to the 150-year-old canal. The decade-long construction project began in 1859 as a way of connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea. The route is a shortcut, reducing the journey from Europe and the US to the Middle East and the Far East by approximately 5,500 miles. Around one million barrels of oil and roughly 8% of liquefied natural gas pass through the canal each day.
This current crisis underscores an aspect of the Abraham Accords in which the Arab Gulf states agreed to transport oil from the United Arab Emirates to Europe via a pipeline that connects the Red Sea city of Eilat to Ashkelon on the Mediterranean Sea. The original pipeline from Eilat to Haifa was constructed in 1959 in the wake of the 1956 Suez crisis. Its goal was to safeguard the flow of oil in case Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser decided to close the Suez Canal again. Following the completion of the pipeline, the Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company (EAPC) was originally formed in 1968 as a joint venture between Israel and pre-revolution Iran to transport crude oil from Iran to Europe.
Crude oil can be transported 158 miles from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean via the 42-inch pipeline at a relatively low cost and in high volume. A parallel 16-inch pipeline carries gasoline or diesel.
Even before the Ever Given crisis, the Suez Canal was seen as being an impediment to the traffic of natural gas and petroleum from the Gulf States. The canal is limited in size. Supertankers docking in Israeli ports have a capacity of double the size of oil tankers that can fit through the canal. Known as VLCCs, or very large crude carriers, the ships can transport as much as 2 million barrels of petroleum. The 150-year-old Suez Canal is only deep and wide enough to handle so-called Suezmax vessels, with just half the capacity of a VLCC. One-way passage through the Suez Canal for a single Suezmax can cost $300-400,000.
Other possible links between Israel’s ports in the Meditteranean include rail-lines and canals. In addition to bypassing the Suez Canal, a major benefit would be bypassing the Hormuz Strait which can be easily threatened by Iran. The Strait of Hormuz is a vital shipping route linking Middle East oil producers to markets in Asia, Europe, and North America. It has been the focus of regional tensions for decades. 21 miles wide at its narrowest point, the shipping lane is just two miles wide in either direction and is highly susceptible to attack. About one-fifth of the entire global consumption of oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz. It is also the route used for nearly all the liquefied natural gas (LNG) produced by the world’s biggest LNG exporter, Qatar.