Suez is by far the world’s largest canal. Slicing some 6,000 miles off trips from Asia to Northern Europe and as much as 10,000 to southern Europe, Suez is one of the core features of the global maritime system. Unlike Panama, Suez is a level water canal. It requires no locks and therefore can handle vessels of far larger size and in far larger numbers. Three convoys per day – adding up to more than 15,000 vessels per year – make use of its services.
Suez’s economic value is not simply a modern phenomenon – its importance stretches to the earliest days of recorded history. The pharaohs used their control of the Suez isthmus both to regulate foreign influences and to participate in trade with their peer civilizations in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley. Later, the Suez formed an integral part of the spice trade, providing one of the very few locations where the monsoon-driven trade of the Indian Ocean could interact with the Mediterranean world. More recently, the British and French competed over the fate of the zone as a means of empowering their imperial ambitions across Asia.
Like all other locations dependent upon maritime trade, the Suez faces an uncertain future. As trade becomes more expensive and complicated, transit points such as Suez will see less traffic and consequently less income. But Suez has an advantage that most lack: it is on the way to almost everywhere. Suez’s challenge will not so much be less activity, but an end to the idea to the Americans’ patrolling the sea lanes to make them a public good. Competition over maritime access and shipping makes Suez far more than simply a time-saver, but a juicy target – and the rulers of Suez simply lack the military strength to hold it.
For more on Egypt, the Suez, and the future of trade, see The Accidental Superpower, Chapters 2, 3, and 8.