Member only
Episode
91

The Suez Canal

Sep 22, 2020
How Stuff Works
-
20
minutes
Egypt
The Middle East
Oil
The Cold War
The Victorian Era
Napoleon

It's the 193km long canal that links the Mediterranean and the Red Seas.

The Ancient Egyptians dreamed of it, the Venetians did too, the French engineered it, the British bought it, the Egyptians nationalised it, it caused a Cold War crisis, and now it's a hugely important stretch of water for global trade.

It's time to tell the story of The Suez Canal.

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Transcript

[00:00:04] Hello, hello, hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about The Suez Canal, the stretch of water that links the Mediterranean and Red Seas, and is crucial for global trade.

[00:00:35] This was actually a request from one of your fellow members, Jáchym, who I believe is the youngest member of Leonardo English, at 17 years old. He is an awesome guy who I know has a very bright future ahead of him.

[00:00:49] So Jáchym, if you are listening, this one's for you, and thanks for this request.

[00:00:56] Ok then, let’s get started.

[00:00:59] The Suez Canal, in case you need a reminder, is the 193km long canal on the eastern side of Egypt. 

[00:01:09] Its purpose is obvious. It allows ships to travel between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, so they don’t have to go all the way around the coast of Africa.

[00:01:22] This, naturally, reduces the distance that ships have to travel by a huge amount. To be precise, going through the Suez Canal reduces the distance between the Arabian Sea and London by 8,900 km.

[00:01:40] So why it exists might seem obvious. 

[00:01:44] It isn’t just obvious to us, in the era of global trade. It has been obvious for millennia.

[00:01:51] Indeed, there have been attempts to connect the Red Sea to the Mediterranean that can be traced back to the pharaohs, traced back to ancient Egypt.

[00:02:03] The ancient Egyptians were, as the pyramids are testament to, pretty accomplished engineers, and they actually managed to create a system of canals that connected the Red Sea with the River Nile, which ends up in the Mediterranean. 

[00:02:21] So they did manage to connect the two back in the early second millennium BC, so almost 4,000 years ago.

[00:02:31] These early canals were quite basic, but lasted right up until the 8th century AD, so the Suez Canal needs to last about another 2,700 years or so to outlive its predecessors.

[00:02:48] In any case, the benefit of joining up these two bodies of water was clear. Carrying goods, soldiers, oil, or whatever it is, is normally easier and cheaper on a ship, and being able to link together Europe and Asia would be beneficial for pretty much everyone.

[00:03:10] The idea of creating an actual canal though, as opposed to small canals that link up to the Nile, has attracted merchants throughout the centuries.

[00:03:21] As European countries started to colonise parts of Africa and Asia, especially the British in India, this idea of having a ‘shortcut’ to bring goods back from its crown jewelwas understandably attractive. 

[00:03:39] The Venetians, the merchants from Venice, were also very excited about it, as it would have given them a big advantage over the Dutch or the British, as Venice would have suddenly got a lot closer to the Orient.

[00:03:56] However it wasn’t until Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign in Egypt in 1798 that the idea of actually doing it started to gain traction

[00:04:09] Engineers were shipped over from France, studies were carried out, and measurements were taken. If the French could have created this canal, it would have meant that access to the East was opened up, and it would have been easier for France, and other European powers, to compete with Britain. 

[00:04:31] However, when the French engineers conducted their surveys, they came to the conclusion that the water level of the Red Sea was 10 metres higher than the Mediterranean. This meant that they would have had to build locks, the sort of gate systems that allow ships to climb up, and this would have made construction more difficult and much more expensive.

[00:04:57] So the plan was abandoned.

[00:05:00] However, it turned out that the French engineers had made a mistake. The Red Sea was higher than the Mediterranean, but not by as much as the engineers had thought. It was only 1 metre higher, which meant that no locks would need to be constructed. 

[00:05:19] Unfortunately this was only discovered decades later, in 1846, but the Egyptians didn’t immediately like the sound of the project, and it took another 8 years for them to agree to it.

[00:05:34] So, in 1854 all systems were go

[00:05:39] A company was to be set up, and it would be jointly owned by the French and the Egyptians. 

[00:05:47] The idea was that this company would own the rights to operate the canal for 99 years, and then it would be handed back over to the Egyptians.

[00:05:59] Construction of the canal started in 1859. It was planned to only take 6 years, but ended up taking 10. 

[00:06:10] There were a few reasons for this.

[00:06:13] Firstly, instead of using industrial equipment, they started by using Egyptian peasants, who were essentially forced to work on excavating the canal, to dig this huge, almost 200km long trench.

[00:06:31] They were forced to do this with very basic tools, right in the middle of a desert. You can imagine that these must have been horrendous conditions to work in.

[00:06:44] It’s estimated that one and a half million people worked on the project, and tens of thousands died while slaving away to dig this monument to global trade.

[00:06:58] There was also a cholera epidemic which wiped out a large amount of the workforce, and greatly slowed things down.

[00:07:08] Later on, these Egyptian peasants were replaced with European labourers, but instead of sweltering away in the heat, they operated mechanical trucks, and diggers. 

[00:07:22] Not only was this a lot more bearable, but it was a lot more efficient, and finally, after 10 years instead of 6, the canal was finished.

[00:07:35] Interestingly enough, you might have thought that the canal would take the shortest route between the two seas, but it doesn’t. The shortest route is only 121 km, but the canal is 193km long.

[00:07:53] The reason for this is that the route uses some lakes, which - even though it means the total distance is a bit longer - it made construction easier.

[00:08:04] So, this takes us to 1869, and finally, the dream of the pharaohs, Venetian merchants, and almost every trader in the world was realised.

[00:08:18] The Suez canal was a marvel of modern technology. It might have looked just like a river, but it now linked up Europe and the East. 

[00:08:29] When it was first opened, it was actually quite small though, just 8 metres deep, 22 metres wide at the bottom and between 60 and 90 metres wide at the top. Not exactly massive.

[00:08:46] Indeed, for the first few years of its existence, lots of ships got stuck. It was too thin, which made it difficult to navigate, and improvements were made to widen and deepen it to stop the ships getting stuck. Despite this being a great coup for Egypt, now the proud partial owners of a brilliant example of modern civil engineering, the Egyptian government ran into financial difficulties, and was forced to sell its share in the canal.

[00:09:21] And who did they sell it to? Well, they sold it to the British.

[00:09:26] In 1875 the British government bought the Egyptians' 44% share of the Suez Canal company for today’s equivalent of around $550 million dollars. Quite a steal for almost half of one of the most valuable stretches of water on the planet.

[00:09:46] Britain, as you might expect, started to use its ownership of the canal to exert its authority and push the Egyptians around. It now owned a valuable asset in the middle of Egypt, and when there were disturbances along the canal in 1882, Britain used this as an excuse to invade and occupy Egypt, essentially turning it into an unofficial British colony, which it remained until 1956.

[00:10:21] So, back to the Suez Canal.

[00:10:23] As the world had continued to be more and more globalised, more interconnected, its importance increased. 

[00:10:31] Oil had been discovered in the Middle East in the early 20th century, and the Suez Canal was a vital part of the trade route between the Middle East and Europe.

[00:10:42] Nationalism had been growing in Egypt, and the Egyptians became more and more aware of the increasing value of this asset that fell within their borders.

[00:10:54] The British and the French owners of the canal were reluctant to give power over to the Egyptians, or to train the Egyptian workforce, and there was increasing animosity between the European and the Egyptian staff of the Suez Canal company.

[00:11:12] In the years after the Second World War, Egypt also showed signs of being receptive to communism, which worried the canal’s British and French owners. 

[00:11:25] The President of Egypt at the time, President Nasser, was also planning to construct a huge dam in the Nile, the Aswan Dam, and he had asked for American financing to help build it.

[00:11:39] The United States refused, partially because there was this possibility of Egypt forming an alliance with the Soviet Union.

[00:11:48] With no way to finance this huge project, President Nasser turned to the main source of foreign capital in Egypt - the Suez Canal.

[00:11:58] In 1956 he nationalised the canal, declaring that it was now property of the Egyptian state, and he planned to use the revenue that the canal generated as a way of financing the Aswan dam. 

[00:12:14] We hadn’t mentioned this yet, but of course, ships had to pay a lot of money to use the Suez Canal. Don’t worry, we’ll talk about this in much more detail in a few minutes.

[00:12:25] So, President Nasser declared the Suez Canal company to be property of the Egyptian state, and for good measure he also closed the Straits of Tiran to Israel, essentially closing access to the Suez Canal to Israel.

[00:12:42] As you might imagine, the British and the French, who were the legal owners of the company, didn’t take this well, and they did what European powers did back then when things didn’t go their way.

[00:12:55] Together with Israel, they hatched a plan. 

[00:12:59] Israel invaded first, on 29th October 1956, and then French and British troops joined a week later, sparking what came to be known as “The Suez Crisis”.

[00:13:13] The Egyptian forces were quickly defeated from a military point of view. The Israeli, British and French were far more organised and had better weapons, so it wasn’t much of a fight.

[00:13:26] However, the Egyptians blocked the canal at both ends by laying mines, by putting explosives down, and by sinking ships, to block the whole canal. While the British and French may have taken back control of the canal, it was completely useless.

[00:13:45] This episode sparked an international crisis, and the British and French were condemned for their aggression. 

[00:13:54] This was right in the middle of the Cold War, when the West had been condemning the Soviet Union for marching in and invading countries. How could it be taken seriously when two of the most powerful Western countries, Britain and France, were doing exactly what the West had been condemning the Soviet Union for?

[00:14:17] The United Nations intervened, and the Israeli, British and French troops withdrew from Egypt, but the damage to their reputation was done. Ownership of the canal returned to the Egyptians, and the three invading powers went home with their tails between their legs.

[00:14:37] The sunk ships and mines that were blocking the canal were removed, and the canal was once more open for business.

[00:14:46] This wasn’t to be the last crisis for the Suez canal though, and it was closed for a 10 year period after the Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt in 1967. We’re not going to talk about this at length here, but one interesting thing about it is that when the war broke out there were ships going through the Suez canal which got stranded, they were stuck in the middle. 

[00:15:14] They weren’t just stuck in the middle for a few days though, they got stuck there for 10 years, earning them the nickname of the Yellow Fleet, because they were so covered in dust from the nearby desert that they looked yellow.

[00:15:31] Fast forward half a century, and the Suez canal today still plays a vital role in global trade.

[00:15:39] It has now been expanded so that ships can go in both directions at the same time, and in 2019 it hit an all time record of the number of ships passing through, at 71 in a day, carrying a total of 21 million tonnes of goods. About 8% of all the world’s sea trade passes through the Suez canal, generating a huge amount of money for the Egyptian government.

[00:16:10] Now, one thing that we haven’t properly talked about is how much it actually costs to go through the Suez canal, and if you’ve been waiting for that part, the wait is over.

[00:16:21] The cost of going through the canal depends on lots of things, but to simplify it it’s how big the ship is and how much it’s carrying. As you might expect, the bigger and heavier, the more expensive.

[00:16:36] The average cost per ship is around a quarter of a million dollars. Some, of course, are a lot more than that.

[00:16:45] You might think, well, that’s a lot of money. Don’t some ships just go the long way around to try to save this?

[00:16:53] And you’d be right, actually. With falling oil prices, the Suez canal has seen a reduction of ships choosing to use it, as it can prove to be a lot cheaper to avoid it altogether.

[00:17:06] Indeed, for a ship going from the East coast of the United States to Asia it’s estimated that it costs around $465,000 to go through the Suez Canal, but going the long way around, underneath South Africa could save around $235,000 per trip. 

[00:17:29] When a ship owner does the calculations about how much it’ll cost them to get from A to B, it’s a question of whether the extra fuel to take the long way around is going to be more or less than the cost of taking the shortcut and paying to go through the Suez Canal.

[00:17:46] If the fuel is cheaper, evidently there’s more of an incentive to take the long way around.

[00:17:53] So, a low oil price is one threat to the Suez canal, but melting sea ice is another. As the ice melts in the Arctic Ocean and those waters become increasingly easy to navigate this becomes another option for ships going from East Asia to Europe, and if they can avoid paying a quarter of a million dollars just to go through the Suez Canal, then that’s certainly a large incentive to avoid it.

[00:18:24] The Egyptian government is acutely aware of this, and adjusts prices frequently. When the oil price goes down, so does the price for going through the Suez canal, and when the oil price goes up, you guessed it, so does the price for a ticket through the Suez canal.

[00:18:42] In fact, the Suez canal is one of Egypt’s major sources of foreign capital, without it, it would be in real trouble.

[00:18:51] So, that is the story of the Suez canal. 

[00:18:54] Conceived, at least from a ‘this would be a great idea’ point of view by the Pharaohs, desired by the Venetians, engineered by the French, sold to the British, retaken by the Egyptians, and now used by everyone, it truly is a remarkable story.

[00:19:14] Ok then, that is it for today’s episode. I hope it’s been an interesting one, and you’ve learned something new about a strip of water that is of huge importance to how the world works.

[00:19:28] As always I would love to know what you think, and I’m not going to say email me. If you haven’t seen it already, we have a brand spanking new community where you can discuss anything about any of the episodes with me and other curious minds. Just go to community.leonardoenglish.com and sign in with your Leonarod English account details. I’ll be there, and I can’t wait to see what you have to say.

[00:19:53] You’ve been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:19:59] I’m Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I’ll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF PODCAST]



Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:04] Hello, hello, hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about The Suez Canal, the stretch of water that links the Mediterranean and Red Seas, and is crucial for global trade.

[00:00:35] This was actually a request from one of your fellow members, Jáchym, who I believe is the youngest member of Leonardo English, at 17 years old. He is an awesome guy who I know has a very bright future ahead of him.

[00:00:49] So Jáchym, if you are listening, this one's for you, and thanks for this request.

[00:00:56] Ok then, let’s get started.

[00:00:59] The Suez Canal, in case you need a reminder, is the 193km long canal on the eastern side of Egypt. 

[00:01:09] Its purpose is obvious. It allows ships to travel between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, so they don’t have to go all the way around the coast of Africa.

[00:01:22] This, naturally, reduces the distance that ships have to travel by a huge amount. To be precise, going through the Suez Canal reduces the distance between the Arabian Sea and London by 8,900 km.

[00:01:40] So why it exists might seem obvious. 

[00:01:44] It isn’t just obvious to us, in the era of global trade. It has been obvious for millennia.

[00:01:51] Indeed, there have been attempts to connect the Red Sea to the Mediterranean that can be traced back to the pharaohs, traced back to ancient Egypt.

[00:02:03] The ancient Egyptians were, as the pyramids are testament to, pretty accomplished engineers, and they actually managed to create a system of canals that connected the Red Sea with the River Nile, which ends up in the Mediterranean. 

[00:02:21] So they did manage to connect the two back in the early second millennium BC, so almost 4,000 years ago.

[00:02:31] These early canals were quite basic, but lasted right up until the 8th century AD, so the Suez Canal needs to last about another 2,700 years or so to outlive its predecessors.

[00:02:48] In any case, the benefit of joining up these two bodies of water was clear. Carrying goods, soldiers, oil, or whatever it is, is normally easier and cheaper on a ship, and being able to link together Europe and Asia would be beneficial for pretty much everyone.

[00:03:10] The idea of creating an actual canal though, as opposed to small canals that link up to the Nile, has attracted merchants throughout the centuries.

[00:03:21] As European countries started to colonise parts of Africa and Asia, especially the British in India, this idea of having a ‘shortcut’ to bring goods back from its crown jewelwas understandably attractive. 

[00:03:39] The Venetians, the merchants from Venice, were also very excited about it, as it would have given them a big advantage over the Dutch or the British, as Venice would have suddenly got a lot closer to the Orient.

[00:03:56] However it wasn’t until Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign in Egypt in 1798 that the idea of actually doing it started to gain traction

[00:04:09] Engineers were shipped over from France, studies were carried out, and measurements were taken. If the French could have created this canal, it would have meant that access to the East was opened up, and it would have been easier for France, and other European powers, to compete with Britain. 

[00:04:31] However, when the French engineers conducted their surveys, they came to the conclusion that the water level of the Red Sea was 10 metres higher than the Mediterranean. This meant that they would have had to build locks, the sort of gate systems that allow ships to climb up, and this would have made construction more difficult and much more expensive.

[00:04:57] So the plan was abandoned.

[00:05:00] However, it turned out that the French engineers had made a mistake. The Red Sea was higher than the Mediterranean, but not by as much as the engineers had thought. It was only 1 metre higher, which meant that no locks would need to be constructed. 

[00:05:19] Unfortunately this was only discovered decades later, in 1846, but the Egyptians didn’t immediately like the sound of the project, and it took another 8 years for them to agree to it.

[00:05:34] So, in 1854 all systems were go

[00:05:39] A company was to be set up, and it would be jointly owned by the French and the Egyptians. 

[00:05:47] The idea was that this company would own the rights to operate the canal for 99 years, and then it would be handed back over to the Egyptians.

[00:05:59] Construction of the canal started in 1859. It was planned to only take 6 years, but ended up taking 10. 

[00:06:10] There were a few reasons for this.

[00:06:13] Firstly, instead of using industrial equipment, they started by using Egyptian peasants, who were essentially forced to work on excavating the canal, to dig this huge, almost 200km long trench.

[00:06:31] They were forced to do this with very basic tools, right in the middle of a desert. You can imagine that these must have been horrendous conditions to work in.

[00:06:44] It’s estimated that one and a half million people worked on the project, and tens of thousands died while slaving away to dig this monument to global trade.

[00:06:58] There was also a cholera epidemic which wiped out a large amount of the workforce, and greatly slowed things down.

[00:07:08] Later on, these Egyptian peasants were replaced with European labourers, but instead of sweltering away in the heat, they operated mechanical trucks, and diggers. 

[00:07:22] Not only was this a lot more bearable, but it was a lot more efficient, and finally, after 10 years instead of 6, the canal was finished.

[00:07:35] Interestingly enough, you might have thought that the canal would take the shortest route between the two seas, but it doesn’t. The shortest route is only 121 km, but the canal is 193km long.

[00:07:53] The reason for this is that the route uses some lakes, which - even though it means the total distance is a bit longer - it made construction easier.

[00:08:04] So, this takes us to 1869, and finally, the dream of the pharaohs, Venetian merchants, and almost every trader in the world was realised.

[00:08:18] The Suez canal was a marvel of modern technology. It might have looked just like a river, but it now linked up Europe and the East. 

[00:08:29] When it was first opened, it was actually quite small though, just 8 metres deep, 22 metres wide at the bottom and between 60 and 90 metres wide at the top. Not exactly massive.

[00:08:46] Indeed, for the first few years of its existence, lots of ships got stuck. It was too thin, which made it difficult to navigate, and improvements were made to widen and deepen it to stop the ships getting stuck. Despite this being a great coup for Egypt, now the proud partial owners of a brilliant example of modern civil engineering, the Egyptian government ran into financial difficulties, and was forced to sell its share in the canal.

[00:09:21] And who did they sell it to? Well, they sold it to the British.

[00:09:26] In 1875 the British government bought the Egyptians' 44% share of the Suez Canal company for today’s equivalent of around $550 million dollars. Quite a steal for almost half of one of the most valuable stretches of water on the planet.

[00:09:46] Britain, as you might expect, started to use its ownership of the canal to exert its authority and push the Egyptians around. It now owned a valuable asset in the middle of Egypt, and when there were disturbances along the canal in 1882, Britain used this as an excuse to invade and occupy Egypt, essentially turning it into an unofficial British colony, which it remained until 1956.

[00:10:21] So, back to the Suez Canal.

[00:10:23] As the world had continued to be more and more globalised, more interconnected, its importance increased. 

[00:10:31] Oil had been discovered in the Middle East in the early 20th century, and the Suez Canal was a vital part of the trade route between the Middle East and Europe.

[00:10:42] Nationalism had been growing in Egypt, and the Egyptians became more and more aware of the increasing value of this asset that fell within their borders.

[00:10:54] The British and the French owners of the canal were reluctant to give power over to the Egyptians, or to train the Egyptian workforce, and there was increasing animosity between the European and the Egyptian staff of the Suez Canal company.

[00:11:12] In the years after the Second World War, Egypt also showed signs of being receptive to communism, which worried the canal’s British and French owners. 

[00:11:25] The President of Egypt at the time, President Nasser, was also planning to construct a huge dam in the Nile, the Aswan Dam, and he had asked for American financing to help build it.

[00:11:39] The United States refused, partially because there was this possibility of Egypt forming an alliance with the Soviet Union.

[00:11:48] With no way to finance this huge project, President Nasser turned to the main source of foreign capital in Egypt - the Suez Canal.

[00:11:58] In 1956 he nationalised the canal, declaring that it was now property of the Egyptian state, and he planned to use the revenue that the canal generated as a way of financing the Aswan dam. 

[00:12:14] We hadn’t mentioned this yet, but of course, ships had to pay a lot of money to use the Suez Canal. Don’t worry, we’ll talk about this in much more detail in a few minutes.

[00:12:25] So, President Nasser declared the Suez Canal company to be property of the Egyptian state, and for good measure he also closed the Straits of Tiran to Israel, essentially closing access to the Suez Canal to Israel.

[00:12:42] As you might imagine, the British and the French, who were the legal owners of the company, didn’t take this well, and they did what European powers did back then when things didn’t go their way.

[00:12:55] Together with Israel, they hatched a plan. 

[00:12:59] Israel invaded first, on 29th October 1956, and then French and British troops joined a week later, sparking what came to be known as “The Suez Crisis”.

[00:13:13] The Egyptian forces were quickly defeated from a military point of view. The Israeli, British and French were far more organised and had better weapons, so it wasn’t much of a fight.

[00:13:26] However, the Egyptians blocked the canal at both ends by laying mines, by putting explosives down, and by sinking ships, to block the whole canal. While the British and French may have taken back control of the canal, it was completely useless.

[00:13:45] This episode sparked an international crisis, and the British and French were condemned for their aggression. 

[00:13:54] This was right in the middle of the Cold War, when the West had been condemning the Soviet Union for marching in and invading countries. How could it be taken seriously when two of the most powerful Western countries, Britain and France, were doing exactly what the West had been condemning the Soviet Union for?

[00:14:17] The United Nations intervened, and the Israeli, British and French troops withdrew from Egypt, but the damage to their reputation was done. Ownership of the canal returned to the Egyptians, and the three invading powers went home with their tails between their legs.

[00:14:37] The sunk ships and mines that were blocking the canal were removed, and the canal was once more open for business.

[00:14:46] This wasn’t to be the last crisis for the Suez canal though, and it was closed for a 10 year period after the Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt in 1967. We’re not going to talk about this at length here, but one interesting thing about it is that when the war broke out there were ships going through the Suez canal which got stranded, they were stuck in the middle. 

[00:15:14] They weren’t just stuck in the middle for a few days though, they got stuck there for 10 years, earning them the nickname of the Yellow Fleet, because they were so covered in dust from the nearby desert that they looked yellow.

[00:15:31] Fast forward half a century, and the Suez canal today still plays a vital role in global trade.

[00:15:39] It has now been expanded so that ships can go in both directions at the same time, and in 2019 it hit an all time record of the number of ships passing through, at 71 in a day, carrying a total of 21 million tonnes of goods. About 8% of all the world’s sea trade passes through the Suez canal, generating a huge amount of money for the Egyptian government.

[00:16:10] Now, one thing that we haven’t properly talked about is how much it actually costs to go through the Suez canal, and if you’ve been waiting for that part, the wait is over.

[00:16:21] The cost of going through the canal depends on lots of things, but to simplify it it’s how big the ship is and how much it’s carrying. As you might expect, the bigger and heavier, the more expensive.

[00:16:36] The average cost per ship is around a quarter of a million dollars. Some, of course, are a lot more than that.

[00:16:45] You might think, well, that’s a lot of money. Don’t some ships just go the long way around to try to save this?

[00:16:53] And you’d be right, actually. With falling oil prices, the Suez canal has seen a reduction of ships choosing to use it, as it can prove to be a lot cheaper to avoid it altogether.

[00:17:06] Indeed, for a ship going from the East coast of the United States to Asia it’s estimated that it costs around $465,000 to go through the Suez Canal, but going the long way around, underneath South Africa could save around $235,000 per trip. 

[00:17:29] When a ship owner does the calculations about how much it’ll cost them to get from A to B, it’s a question of whether the extra fuel to take the long way around is going to be more or less than the cost of taking the shortcut and paying to go through the Suez Canal.

[00:17:46] If the fuel is cheaper, evidently there’s more of an incentive to take the long way around.

[00:17:53] So, a low oil price is one threat to the Suez canal, but melting sea ice is another. As the ice melts in the Arctic Ocean and those waters become increasingly easy to navigate this becomes another option for ships going from East Asia to Europe, and if they can avoid paying a quarter of a million dollars just to go through the Suez Canal, then that’s certainly a large incentive to avoid it.

[00:18:24] The Egyptian government is acutely aware of this, and adjusts prices frequently. When the oil price goes down, so does the price for going through the Suez canal, and when the oil price goes up, you guessed it, so does the price for a ticket through the Suez canal.

[00:18:42] In fact, the Suez canal is one of Egypt’s major sources of foreign capital, without it, it would be in real trouble.

[00:18:51] So, that is the story of the Suez canal. 

[00:18:54] Conceived, at least from a ‘this would be a great idea’ point of view by the Pharaohs, desired by the Venetians, engineered by the French, sold to the British, retaken by the Egyptians, and now used by everyone, it truly is a remarkable story.

[00:19:14] Ok then, that is it for today’s episode. I hope it’s been an interesting one, and you’ve learned something new about a strip of water that is of huge importance to how the world works.

[00:19:28] As always I would love to know what you think, and I’m not going to say email me. If you haven’t seen it already, we have a brand spanking new community where you can discuss anything about any of the episodes with me and other curious minds. Just go to community.leonardoenglish.com and sign in with your Leonarod English account details. I’ll be there, and I can’t wait to see what you have to say.

[00:19:53] You’ve been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:19:59] I’m Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I’ll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF PODCAST]



[00:00:04] Hello, hello, hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about The Suez Canal, the stretch of water that links the Mediterranean and Red Seas, and is crucial for global trade.

[00:00:35] This was actually a request from one of your fellow members, Jáchym, who I believe is the youngest member of Leonardo English, at 17 years old. He is an awesome guy who I know has a very bright future ahead of him.

[00:00:49] So Jáchym, if you are listening, this one's for you, and thanks for this request.

[00:00:56] Ok then, let’s get started.

[00:00:59] The Suez Canal, in case you need a reminder, is the 193km long canal on the eastern side of Egypt. 

[00:01:09] Its purpose is obvious. It allows ships to travel between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, so they don’t have to go all the way around the coast of Africa.

[00:01:22] This, naturally, reduces the distance that ships have to travel by a huge amount. To be precise, going through the Suez Canal reduces the distance between the Arabian Sea and London by 8,900 km.

[00:01:40] So why it exists might seem obvious. 

[00:01:44] It isn’t just obvious to us, in the era of global trade. It has been obvious for millennia.

[00:01:51] Indeed, there have been attempts to connect the Red Sea to the Mediterranean that can be traced back to the pharaohs, traced back to ancient Egypt.

[00:02:03] The ancient Egyptians were, as the pyramids are testament to, pretty accomplished engineers, and they actually managed to create a system of canals that connected the Red Sea with the River Nile, which ends up in the Mediterranean. 

[00:02:21] So they did manage to connect the two back in the early second millennium BC, so almost 4,000 years ago.

[00:02:31] These early canals were quite basic, but lasted right up until the 8th century AD, so the Suez Canal needs to last about another 2,700 years or so to outlive its predecessors.

[00:02:48] In any case, the benefit of joining up these two bodies of water was clear. Carrying goods, soldiers, oil, or whatever it is, is normally easier and cheaper on a ship, and being able to link together Europe and Asia would be beneficial for pretty much everyone.

[00:03:10] The idea of creating an actual canal though, as opposed to small canals that link up to the Nile, has attracted merchants throughout the centuries.

[00:03:21] As European countries started to colonise parts of Africa and Asia, especially the British in India, this idea of having a ‘shortcut’ to bring goods back from its crown jewelwas understandably attractive. 

[00:03:39] The Venetians, the merchants from Venice, were also very excited about it, as it would have given them a big advantage over the Dutch or the British, as Venice would have suddenly got a lot closer to the Orient.

[00:03:56] However it wasn’t until Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign in Egypt in 1798 that the idea of actually doing it started to gain traction

[00:04:09] Engineers were shipped over from France, studies were carried out, and measurements were taken. If the French could have created this canal, it would have meant that access to the East was opened up, and it would have been easier for France, and other European powers, to compete with Britain. 

[00:04:31] However, when the French engineers conducted their surveys, they came to the conclusion that the water level of the Red Sea was 10 metres higher than the Mediterranean. This meant that they would have had to build locks, the sort of gate systems that allow ships to climb up, and this would have made construction more difficult and much more expensive.

[00:04:57] So the plan was abandoned.

[00:05:00] However, it turned out that the French engineers had made a mistake. The Red Sea was higher than the Mediterranean, but not by as much as the engineers had thought. It was only 1 metre higher, which meant that no locks would need to be constructed. 

[00:05:19] Unfortunately this was only discovered decades later, in 1846, but the Egyptians didn’t immediately like the sound of the project, and it took another 8 years for them to agree to it.

[00:05:34] So, in 1854 all systems were go

[00:05:39] A company was to be set up, and it would be jointly owned by the French and the Egyptians. 

[00:05:47] The idea was that this company would own the rights to operate the canal for 99 years, and then it would be handed back over to the Egyptians.

[00:05:59] Construction of the canal started in 1859. It was planned to only take 6 years, but ended up taking 10. 

[00:06:10] There were a few reasons for this.

[00:06:13] Firstly, instead of using industrial equipment, they started by using Egyptian peasants, who were essentially forced to work on excavating the canal, to dig this huge, almost 200km long trench.

[00:06:31] They were forced to do this with very basic tools, right in the middle of a desert. You can imagine that these must have been horrendous conditions to work in.

[00:06:44] It’s estimated that one and a half million people worked on the project, and tens of thousands died while slaving away to dig this monument to global trade.

[00:06:58] There was also a cholera epidemic which wiped out a large amount of the workforce, and greatly slowed things down.

[00:07:08] Later on, these Egyptian peasants were replaced with European labourers, but instead of sweltering away in the heat, they operated mechanical trucks, and diggers. 

[00:07:22] Not only was this a lot more bearable, but it was a lot more efficient, and finally, after 10 years instead of 6, the canal was finished.

[00:07:35] Interestingly enough, you might have thought that the canal would take the shortest route between the two seas, but it doesn’t. The shortest route is only 121 km, but the canal is 193km long.

[00:07:53] The reason for this is that the route uses some lakes, which - even though it means the total distance is a bit longer - it made construction easier.

[00:08:04] So, this takes us to 1869, and finally, the dream of the pharaohs, Venetian merchants, and almost every trader in the world was realised.

[00:08:18] The Suez canal was a marvel of modern technology. It might have looked just like a river, but it now linked up Europe and the East. 

[00:08:29] When it was first opened, it was actually quite small though, just 8 metres deep, 22 metres wide at the bottom and between 60 and 90 metres wide at the top. Not exactly massive.

[00:08:46] Indeed, for the first few years of its existence, lots of ships got stuck. It was too thin, which made it difficult to navigate, and improvements were made to widen and deepen it to stop the ships getting stuck. Despite this being a great coup for Egypt, now the proud partial owners of a brilliant example of modern civil engineering, the Egyptian government ran into financial difficulties, and was forced to sell its share in the canal.

[00:09:21] And who did they sell it to? Well, they sold it to the British.

[00:09:26] In 1875 the British government bought the Egyptians' 44% share of the Suez Canal company for today’s equivalent of around $550 million dollars. Quite a steal for almost half of one of the most valuable stretches of water on the planet.

[00:09:46] Britain, as you might expect, started to use its ownership of the canal to exert its authority and push the Egyptians around. It now owned a valuable asset in the middle of Egypt, and when there were disturbances along the canal in 1882, Britain used this as an excuse to invade and occupy Egypt, essentially turning it into an unofficial British colony, which it remained until 1956.

[00:10:21] So, back to the Suez Canal.

[00:10:23] As the world had continued to be more and more globalised, more interconnected, its importance increased. 

[00:10:31] Oil had been discovered in the Middle East in the early 20th century, and the Suez Canal was a vital part of the trade route between the Middle East and Europe.

[00:10:42] Nationalism had been growing in Egypt, and the Egyptians became more and more aware of the increasing value of this asset that fell within their borders.

[00:10:54] The British and the French owners of the canal were reluctant to give power over to the Egyptians, or to train the Egyptian workforce, and there was increasing animosity between the European and the Egyptian staff of the Suez Canal company.

[00:11:12] In the years after the Second World War, Egypt also showed signs of being receptive to communism, which worried the canal’s British and French owners. 

[00:11:25] The President of Egypt at the time, President Nasser, was also planning to construct a huge dam in the Nile, the Aswan Dam, and he had asked for American financing to help build it.

[00:11:39] The United States refused, partially because there was this possibility of Egypt forming an alliance with the Soviet Union.

[00:11:48] With no way to finance this huge project, President Nasser turned to the main source of foreign capital in Egypt - the Suez Canal.

[00:11:58] In 1956 he nationalised the canal, declaring that it was now property of the Egyptian state, and he planned to use the revenue that the canal generated as a way of financing the Aswan dam. 

[00:12:14] We hadn’t mentioned this yet, but of course, ships had to pay a lot of money to use the Suez Canal. Don’t worry, we’ll talk about this in much more detail in a few minutes.

[00:12:25] So, President Nasser declared the Suez Canal company to be property of the Egyptian state, and for good measure he also closed the Straits of Tiran to Israel, essentially closing access to the Suez Canal to Israel.

[00:12:42] As you might imagine, the British and the French, who were the legal owners of the company, didn’t take this well, and they did what European powers did back then when things didn’t go their way.

[00:12:55] Together with Israel, they hatched a plan. 

[00:12:59] Israel invaded first, on 29th October 1956, and then French and British troops joined a week later, sparking what came to be known as “The Suez Crisis”.

[00:13:13] The Egyptian forces were quickly defeated from a military point of view. The Israeli, British and French were far more organised and had better weapons, so it wasn’t much of a fight.

[00:13:26] However, the Egyptians blocked the canal at both ends by laying mines, by putting explosives down, and by sinking ships, to block the whole canal. While the British and French may have taken back control of the canal, it was completely useless.

[00:13:45] This episode sparked an international crisis, and the British and French were condemned for their aggression. 

[00:13:54] This was right in the middle of the Cold War, when the West had been condemning the Soviet Union for marching in and invading countries. How could it be taken seriously when two of the most powerful Western countries, Britain and France, were doing exactly what the West had been condemning the Soviet Union for?

[00:14:17] The United Nations intervened, and the Israeli, British and French troops withdrew from Egypt, but the damage to their reputation was done. Ownership of the canal returned to the Egyptians, and the three invading powers went home with their tails between their legs.

[00:14:37] The sunk ships and mines that were blocking the canal were removed, and the canal was once more open for business.

[00:14:46] This wasn’t to be the last crisis for the Suez canal though, and it was closed for a 10 year period after the Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt in 1967. We’re not going to talk about this at length here, but one interesting thing about it is that when the war broke out there were ships going through the Suez canal which got stranded, they were stuck in the middle. 

[00:15:14] They weren’t just stuck in the middle for a few days though, they got stuck there for 10 years, earning them the nickname of the Yellow Fleet, because they were so covered in dust from the nearby desert that they looked yellow.

[00:15:31] Fast forward half a century, and the Suez canal today still plays a vital role in global trade.

[00:15:39] It has now been expanded so that ships can go in both directions at the same time, and in 2019 it hit an all time record of the number of ships passing through, at 71 in a day, carrying a total of 21 million tonnes of goods. About 8% of all the world’s sea trade passes through the Suez canal, generating a huge amount of money for the Egyptian government.

[00:16:10] Now, one thing that we haven’t properly talked about is how much it actually costs to go through the Suez canal, and if you’ve been waiting for that part, the wait is over.

[00:16:21] The cost of going through the canal depends on lots of things, but to simplify it it’s how big the ship is and how much it’s carrying. As you might expect, the bigger and heavier, the more expensive.

[00:16:36] The average cost per ship is around a quarter of a million dollars. Some, of course, are a lot more than that.

[00:16:45] You might think, well, that’s a lot of money. Don’t some ships just go the long way around to try to save this?

[00:16:53] And you’d be right, actually. With falling oil prices, the Suez canal has seen a reduction of ships choosing to use it, as it can prove to be a lot cheaper to avoid it altogether.

[00:17:06] Indeed, for a ship going from the East coast of the United States to Asia it’s estimated that it costs around $465,000 to go through the Suez Canal, but going the long way around, underneath South Africa could save around $235,000 per trip. 

[00:17:29] When a ship owner does the calculations about how much it’ll cost them to get from A to B, it’s a question of whether the extra fuel to take the long way around is going to be more or less than the cost of taking the shortcut and paying to go through the Suez Canal.

[00:17:46] If the fuel is cheaper, evidently there’s more of an incentive to take the long way around.

[00:17:53] So, a low oil price is one threat to the Suez canal, but melting sea ice is another. As the ice melts in the Arctic Ocean and those waters become increasingly easy to navigate this becomes another option for ships going from East Asia to Europe, and if they can avoid paying a quarter of a million dollars just to go through the Suez Canal, then that’s certainly a large incentive to avoid it.

[00:18:24] The Egyptian government is acutely aware of this, and adjusts prices frequently. When the oil price goes down, so does the price for going through the Suez canal, and when the oil price goes up, you guessed it, so does the price for a ticket through the Suez canal.

[00:18:42] In fact, the Suez canal is one of Egypt’s major sources of foreign capital, without it, it would be in real trouble.

[00:18:51] So, that is the story of the Suez canal. 

[00:18:54] Conceived, at least from a ‘this would be a great idea’ point of view by the Pharaohs, desired by the Venetians, engineered by the French, sold to the British, retaken by the Egyptians, and now used by everyone, it truly is a remarkable story.

[00:19:14] Ok then, that is it for today’s episode. I hope it’s been an interesting one, and you’ve learned something new about a strip of water that is of huge importance to how the world works.

[00:19:28] As always I would love to know what you think, and I’m not going to say email me. If you haven’t seen it already, we have a brand spanking new community where you can discuss anything about any of the episodes with me and other curious minds. Just go to community.leonardoenglish.com and sign in with your Leonarod English account details. I’ll be there, and I can’t wait to see what you have to say.

[00:19:53] You’ve been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:19:59] I’m Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I’ll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF PODCAST]