Page last updated at 16:52 GMT, Monday, 13 October 2008 17:52 UK

Suez: the supertanker super highway

By Christian Fraser
BBC Middle East correspondent

 Qatari Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) carrier 'Duhail' as its passes through the Suez Canal
The Suez Canal is a strategic route that cuts days from a voyage

Camels may be known as "ships of the desert" but the vast tankers that pass daily through the Suez Canal are the real deal.

From a distance, the heavyweight vessels fill the horizon as they glide effortlessly through the flat dunes. The water that carries them between the Mediterranean and Red seas is concealed by the high sandbanks on both sides.

This thin blue ribbon - just 300m wide at its narrowest point - is one of the world's most vital waterways, a crucial commercial shortcut. A ship that passes along the 162km (101 mile) Suez Canal is saved a 9,654km circumnavigation of Africa; the average journey time cut from 20 days to just 13 hours.

Contrary to popular wisdom, the Suez Canal - rather than the Great Wall of China - is the man-made feature most easily spotted from space. So, not so surprisingly, Egyptians regard the Canal as an enduring symbol of Arab nationalism, pride and independence.

Canal prince

The Suez is open to vessels from every country in the world. And there is one man - he goes by the name "the Prince of the Red Sea" - who has seen it all. He runs a shipping agency and his main client is the British Royal Navy.

The Box
The ship carrying the BBC's container, The Box, travelled through the canal on 2 October

"I have worked on this canal since the age of 18," said the Prince, almost 60 years.

"It has changed so much over that time. We used to get passenger ships from Australia, Britain, America. Now we see very few of them.

"These days it's the supertankers from China, India, Pakistan and Malaysia."

Wars have been waged for control of this aquatic superhighway, embroiling the former colonial powers of Britain and France as well as Israel. Internationally, the canal guarantees Egypt a key strategic role on the world stage, while domestically it is second only to tourism in economic importance.

The canal brought in revenues of $5.2bn (3bn) in the year to June 2008, up from $4.2bn the previous year, and those revenues look set to soar: Beltone, an investment bank, recently estimated that they would reach $6.2bn next year on the back of strong global trade, higher fees and increased traffic.

Length: 192km
Breadth: at water level 300m
Maximum draught of ships: 16.1m
Speed limit: 11-16 km/hr
Average transit time: 14 hours

Some 16,000 vessels already pass through the canal each year, carrying an estimated 14% of world shipping and 30% of world oil supplies. Further work is underway to increase the depth of the canal by 2010, opening it up to fully-laden supertankers with a draught of 22m (72ft) against the current 16m (53ft).

"There are three convoys every day," said the Prince. "Every day, two convoys sail from Port Said to Suez and one comes the other way. It takes them around 16 hours to complete the journey. The convoys meet near the town of Ismailiya. They pass each other in the Great Bitter Lake where there is a long double channel."

Piracy threat

There are, however, concerns that shipping through the canal may be affected by piracy in the Gulf of Aden, at its southern end, and off the coast of Somalia.

The Prince of the Red Sea

A recent report by Chatham House, the London-based think tank, warned: "If the cost of extra insurance becomes prohibitive, or the danger simply too great, shipping companies may... take the long route to Europe and North America around the Cape of Good Hope."

The cost of insuring ships to pass through the Gulf of Aden is 10 times more expensive.

Yet the Suez Canal Authority (SCA), the state-owned body which runs the waterway, has rejected the warning. Earlier this month, the head of the SCA, Ahmed Ali Fadel, said that the number of ships passing down the canal continued to increase - 63 vessels a day since September, the same rate as in August and up from 57 ships daily last year.

"I think it is only a concern for the smaller boats," said the Prince. "The big tankers are hard to stop. They are too quick for the Somali pirates who are often travelling in fishing boats. But we have had yachts that have come through here with damage from small arms fire. One yacht we helped transit arrived riddled with bullet holes."

The present Suez Canal opened in 1869 - an event described as a "triumph of will over apathy, and of water over sand" - but the idea of connecting the Mediterranean and Red seas appears to be as old as the pharaohs themselves. The first man-made channel is believed to have been dug in the second millennium BC, though desert winds soon choked it with sand.

Bloody history

Napoleon Bonaparte's plans to build a canal in the late 18th century were scuppered by his surveyors, who wrongly concluded there was a 10m difference in water level at each end that would require an expensive system of locks to be built. In fact the terrain is broadly flat.

Suez Canal 1956
The importance of the shipping route has led to conflict

It was another Frenchman, the engineer and former diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps, who finally made a deal with Egypt to build the Suez Canal in 1859. Up to 60,000 Egyptian workers were forced to work on it, digging with their bare hands in the absence of tools. Tens of thousands are believed to have died owing to a lack of shelter and food during the 10-year construction project.

The canal opened on 17 November 1869 on a 99-year operating lease, but Egypt was soon ruing its high construction costs. When the price of cotton plunged, the Egyptian ruler, Ismail Pasha, was unable to repay loans taken out from European banks. He was forced to sell Egypt's share in the canal to Great Britain, which in 1882 sent soldiers in to protect this vital route to far-flung outposts of its empire.

While France remained the majority shareholder in the canal, the Convention of Constantinople of 1888 declared it a neutral zone, open to all nations at all times, under British protection. In 1951, however, Egypt repudiated the treaty.

Five years later its president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, seized the canal and declared it the property of the Egyptian people. Britain, France, and Israel invaded Egypt, but the move lacked American support and the United Nations ordered them to leave.

UN peacekeepers - the first time ever they were deployed - stayed until May 1967, when President Nasser ordered them out. After the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War that followed, Israel seized the Sinai and subsequently closed the canal, costing the world an estimated $12bn in higher shipping costs. The canal was re-opened eight years later and Israel finally withdrew in 1978.

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