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Suez Canal: A vital global waterway

March 26, 2021 at 4:20 pm

Traffic in the Suez Canal [Suez Canal Media Center]

The Suez Canal, blocked by a giant container ship that ran aground on Tuesday, is the quickest sea route between Asia and Europe and about 15 per ent of global shipping traffic moves through it.

The 193 kilometre waterway, run by the state-owned Suez Canal Authority, is a vital source of foreign currency for Egypt. The alternative to the route is to sail around Africa, which can add two weeks and additional fuel costs to a voyage.

Oil transfers

Of the 39.2 million barrels per day (bpd) of crude oil imported by seaborne methods in 2020, 1.74 million bpd went through the Suez Canal, according to data intelligence firm Kpler.

Crude oil and refined fuels flow in both directions.

More crude flows eastwards. In 2020, Asian imports of crude via the canal hit a peak of 1.27 million bpd in June. Europe took 550,000 bpd of crude last year from sources east of Suez of which the vast majority went through the canal, according to Kpler.

READ: Suez Canal blockage costs $9.6bn in trade per day

The 320 kilometre Sumed pipeline connecting the Gulf of Suez with the Mediterranean transports 80 per cent of the oil shipped from the Middle East Gulf to Europe, according to the Sumed website.

The pipeline has a capacity of about 2.8 million bpd but utilisation is often well below capacity. About 1.3 million bpd flowed through the system in 2018, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

Refined products

Just under nine per cent or 1.54 million bpd of global refined product imports flowed through the Suez Canal last year, according to Kpler. Plastics feedstock naphtha makes up a large portion of refined product flows in the canal.


The first canal dug to connect the Red Sea to the Mediterranean dates back to the reign of Senausret III, Pharaoh of Egypt (1887-1849 BCE). A modern artificial waterway was completed in 1869.

Egypt nationalised the canal in 1956, prompting an invasion by shareholders Britain and France along with Israel. The Suez Crisis ended after Egypt sank 40 ships in the canal and the United States, Soviet Union and United Nations intervened, forcing Britain, France and Israel to withdraw.

The canal was badly damaged in the June 1967 Six Day War that pitted Egypt and other Arab countries against Israel. With opposing forces encamped on either side, it remained closed until after the 1973 October War.

Egypt regained full control of the canal after the war and reopened it in June 1975.