Turkey must steer the Bosphorus through difficult times

A delay in oil shipments at the strategically crucial waterway is yet another challenge for the global economy

Vessels as they wait in Turkish waters. Reuters
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The Bosphorus Strait, which opens the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, is so important that it has its own international treaty. Struck in 1936, the Motreux Convention continues to play a crucial role in global trade. It gives Turkey control over shipping traffic between the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits, a stretch of water that is vital both strategically and commercially. It is one of the many reasons Turkey continues to be a crucial geopolitical player.

Today, it is hugely consequential for the war in Ukraine and its effects on global economic stability. Under the agreement, Turkey can close the straits to war and merchant ships hailing from countries at conflict with it. Russia needs the route to connect its key Black Sea naval port in the occupied Crimean city of Sevastopol. As a Nato member, Turkey has a tricky balance to strike between keeping its waters safe, while also complying with western policies that target Russia’s economy and military. The situation is complicated further by Turkey’s desire to be a peace broker in the war. For example, Turkey, along with the UN, brokered a vital grain agreement between Ukraine and Russia.

But it appears more mundane issues can also scupper the operations of this crucial waterway. On Saturday, 27 tankers were waiting to cross the route because of stringent rules Ankara brought in at the beginning of December, which require proof of insurance before entry.

A delay would be destabilising even in normal times. Millions of barrels of oil pass through the route each day. But as energy markets reel from the effects of the conflict, the results of a holdup could be critical. Leading analyst Vandana Hart has told The National that it could spark a “serious geopolitical crisis”. The US and UK are among the powers in talks with Ankara to ease the measures, with Kazakhstan also taking an interest; most of the oil being delayed is from the country.

Turkey has a sovereign right to manage its trade routes as it sees fit. In a part of the world where so many powers have a keen interest, the responsibility is a huge one. It appears Turkey is making progress on the issue. On Sunday, its national maritime authority said it would allow four tankers to cross the passage.

Turkey’s careful stewardship matters so much because it has a real impact on an already fragile energy market. Russia’s huge output is under severe western sanctions and the EU, G7 and Australia recently introduced a $60 oil price cap on Russian crude, albeit slightly after Ankara’s new insurance requirements.

This comes as a surprisingly cold winter appears to be bearing down on Europe. First thought must be given to the victims of Ukraine’s conflict, many of whom will be going without reliable energy supply during the upcoming freezing months. But even in warmer parts of western Europe, a colder-than-usual spell will hit consumers hard as prices rise, and will put national governments in a difficult political position.

How Turkey manages today’s delay will not solve these tough circumstances, but it could certainly stop them from getting worse. In 2021, the world watched as the Ever Given got stuck in Egypt’s Suez Canal, another vital waterway. Cairo rushed into action to open the passage, knowing the global supply chain, already stressed by Covid-19, relied on it.

If any country can manage a similar crisis, it is Turkey, with its long history of stewarding global trade. If it can do so, it will be helping the world through a tough winter.

Published: December 13, 2022, 3:00 AM