An idea first explored at the time of the Pharaohs 3,000 years ago, the canal was finally built by a French diplomat, but its strategic importance and ability to generate revenue saw it become a flashpoint for influence and power.
One of the world’s most important shipping lanes is celebrating its 150th anniversary. The Suez Canal links the Indian Ocean, through the Red Sea, with the Mediterranean making it a key node for global trade.
The canal was excavated between 1859 and 1869, a mammoth task at the time which involved drafting 20,000 men every 10 months working long hours, poorly paid and often in dangerous working conditions.
Before the French diplomat-turned-developer of the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps, convinced Mohamed Said Pasha, the then governor of Egypt, into giving him the concession to build the canal, historically, the idea dates back more than 3,000 years to the time of the Pharaohs.
Since then, there have been several attempts to build a canal that would connect the Red Sea with the Meditteranean. The expansive Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire also conceived the idea, however, it was often deemed too expensive.
When the Suez Canal was opened, it was a cause for celebration, but for Egypt, the cost of the project would lead it to, slowly but surely, cede power to imperial European powers.
The cost of the project in today’s money was more than $1.5 billion, a significant amount for the time. Ultimately that cost led to Said Pasha selling most of his shares to the British in 1875 for about $50 million in today’s money. French interests owned the majority stake in the Suez Canal.
For the British and French empires, the Suez Canal was of significant geostrategic and economic importance. The canal, as well as being a feat of engineering, also cut the time for ships to traverse to Asia.
The only other route would entail going around Africa or by train overland in Egypt and with the British Empire already enjoying imperial possessions in Asia, such as India, the Suez Canal route was more important than ever.
But the waterway’s geostrategic importance also resulted in foreign powers attempting to exert control over the canal which Egyptians resented. It became a nationalist cause in the 1920s with many Egyptians arguing that the British and the French should leave the country.
It was not until Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal in 1956 that the Egyptian state could finally control it for the first time.
For Egypt, the canal has not just been a source of national pride it has also brought in hard currency that the country has sorely needed. In 2018-19 the Suez Canal brought in almost $6 billion for the cash-strapped Egyptian economy.
Shortly after toppling Egypt’s first democratically elected president in 2013, the late Mohamed Morsi, General Abdel Fatah el Sisi announced an expansion of the Suez Canal, making it a two-lane sea highway, as a means of stamping his authority on the poverty-stricken country.
The project finally got off the ground in 2015, opening in 2016 at a cost of more than $8 billion.