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Suez Canal shipping backlog ends, days after giant vessel freed

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CAIRO: All ships stranded by the grounding of the giant container ship Ever Given in the Suez Canal in March had passed through the canal by Saturday (Apr 3), ending the backlog that built up during the blockage, the canal authority said.

The last 61 ships, out of 422 ships that were queuing when the vessel was dislodged on Monday, passed through the vital trade artery on Saturday, the Suez Canal Authority (SCA) said.

READ: Investigator boards ship at start of probe into Suez Canal blockage

International supply chains were thrown into disarray when the 400m-long Ever Given ran aground in the canal on Mar 23, with specialist rescue teams taking almost a week to free her after extensive dredging and repeated tugging operations.

In total, 85 ships had been due to pass through the canal on Saturday including 24 ships that arrived after Ever Given was dislodged, the SCA said.

An SCA investigation began on Wednesday into what caused the vessel to run aground in the canal and block the waterway for six days, the canal authority’s chairman, Osama Rabie, told the MBC Masr private TV late on Friday.

“The investigation is going well‮ ‬and will take two more days, then we will announce the results,” he added.

Rabie has acknowledged that the blockage, which began when the ship veered off course in a sandstorm, left Egypt’s international shipping and wider reputation on the line.

READ: Commentary: Suez Canal incident reveals why global trade depends heavily on shipping with few alternatives

Egyptian authorities have presented the freeing of the mega-ship as a vindication of the country’s engineering and salvage capabilities.

“Ninety-nine per cent” of personnel who worked to refloat the giant vessel were Egyptian, according to Rabie.

Ever Given container ship is pictured in Suez Canal
FILE PHOTO: A view shows Ever Given container ship in Suez Canal in this Maxar Technologies satellite image taken on March 29, 2021. Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies/Handout via REUTERS

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has pledged investment to ensure no repeat of the episode, and the SCA has called for new tugboats and dredgers are needed.

Maritime data company Lloyd’s List said the blockage had held up an estimated US$9.6 billion worth of cargo each day between Asia and Europe.

The canal is economically vital to Egypt, which lost between US$12 million and US$15 million in revenues for each day the waterway was closed, according to the canal authority.

Nearly 19,000 ships navigated the canal in 2020, working out an average of just over 50 per day, it says.

But the president and port authority have ruled out any further widening of the southern stretch of the canal where the boat became diagonally stuck.

Sisi oversaw an expansion of a northern section, which included widening an existing stretch and introducing a 35-kilometre parallel waterway, to much fanfare in 2014-15.

But that was achieved at a cost of more than US$8 billion, without significantly increasing revenues from the canal.

The Suez Canal earned Egypt just over US$5.7 billion in 2019/20, little changed from the year before, and similar to the US$5.3 billion in revenues earned back in 2014.

“Economically … (further expansion) would not be useful,” Sisi declared this week.

The costly blockage is likely to result in litigation, according to analysts, with the ship’s Japanese owners, Taiwanese operators and Egypt itself all under the microscope.

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