ISMAILIA // The new Suez Canal – Egypt’s self-proclaimed national “miracle” – was declared open in a spectacular ceremony on the edge of the Sinai desert in the presence of world leaders, dignitaries and proud citizens.
The Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El Sisi took charge of the inauguration of the project, which was completed in one year, a third of the expected time.
He said: “The new canal will become a symbol of the new Egypt, a gift from the nation to the world, and a demonstration of the determination and commitment of the Egyptian people.”
Among those attending the ceremony was a top-level party from the UAE, led by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai. UAE companies were members of the consortium that helped build the canal extension, cementing the already close ties between the governments of the UAE and Egypt.
“The quick completion of the Suez Canal proves to the world that the Egyptian people do not know the impossible and do not admit despair,” said Sheikh Mohammed. “Congratulations to the Egyptian people on the canal and to us on the Egyptians’ joy.”
Egypt sees the canal, which gives the existing sealane the capability to take two-way traffic for its entire 160-kilometre length, as a crucial part of its growth strategy, creating employment in the economically deprived Sinai.
The project involved the digging of another stretch of canal running parallel with the existing one for 35 kilometres, as well as dredging and widening some of the rest. It cost US$8.2 billion (Dh30.1bn), raised entirely by public subscription in the country, and employed 43,000 people in its construction.
The canal, which is Egypt’s main source of foreign currency earnings, is projected to bring in $12.3bn by 2023, double the current figure.
As the first ship passed through the waterway, Mr El Sisi pledged that his country would defeat terrorism. “Egypt during this year stood against the most dangerous terrorist ideology, that would burn the world if it could,” he said. “We are fighting them and will defeat them.”
Dr Sultan Al Jaber, Minister of State and head of the UAE-Egypt Liaison Office, lauded Egypt’s leadership, government and people on the completion of the new Suez Canal.
He said: “We would like to congratulate the leadership, government and people of Egypt for this monumental achievement that has brought into fruition the strategic vision of the president of Egypt, Abdel Fattah El Sisi. His unwavering insistence that this project is finalised in one year, truly reflects the resilience of the Egyptian people.
“We in the UAE are proud of our supportive role in making this project a reality through the hard work of the challenge consortium, led by the National Marine Dredging Company and through the diligent follow-up of the UAE-Egypt Liaison Office. In close coordination with the Suez Canal Authority, we were able to ensure best-practice implementation.”
He continued: “Had it not been for the diligent follow-up of the president of Egypt and His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, this would not have been the success and record-breaking feat that it is today.”
The new Suez Canal, placed at the maritime crossroads linking Asia, Africa and Europe, further solidifies the strategic geopolitical role of Egypt and offers a great promise of economic and social returns for Egypt and its people, Dr Al Jaber added.
Mohammed bin Nakhira Al Dhaheri, UAE Ambassador to Egypt, emphasised that it would support global trade and called the opening a “historic occasion in contemporary Arab history”.
Francois Hollande, president of France, also attended the ceremony, as did King Abdullah II of Jordan, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain, and Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras.
The Suez Canal Authority said: “The expansion of the existing shipping lane, along with the opening of the new lane, further cements the Suez Canal as one of the most important and valuable canals in the world.
“Following 12 months of tireless work from the Egyptian people, the new waterway now allows for simultaneous northern and southern vessel transit for the first time in its history,” the SCA added.
“The new canal will see a near 50 per cent increase in vessel traffic by 2023, taking the daily transit volume from 49 to 97. Moreover, transit time for southbound vessels will be reduced by up to eight hours in total.
“The construction metrics were colossal, with excavation works amounting to 250 million cubic metres at an estimated cost of $550 million. More than 242 million cubic meters of soil were dredged during the construction phase, resulting in a new canal stretching 35km in length and dropping to a depth of 24 metres.”
Admiral Mohab Mameesh, chairman of the SCA, said: “This is a proud day, not only for the SCA and president El Sisi, but also for the entire Egyptian population, which has strived to achieve the near-impossible in order to make this dream become a reality.
“Today, as we unveil this gift to the world, we present a new Egypt – a more prosperous and positive Egypt. And in doing so, we place the Suez Canal at the pinnacle of the shipping industry.”
The new Suez Canal has already welcomed a number of vessels during trial periods spanning the last two weeks, but the SCA expects business to grow exponentially following the official launch earlier yesterday.
The canal has been a source of cash and national pride since it was built in 1869 to link the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, dramatically reducing the voyage time from Europe to Asia and proving to be a vital link for world trade.
It has also been the source of dispute between Egypt and foreign powers. France and Britain tried to take it back forcibly from Egyptian ownership in 1956, sparking the Suez crisis and invasion of the Sinai peninsula by Israel, before the invaders were forced to retreat.
The canal was also a target of Israeli military action in 1967 and 1973.
The new canal appears to be a new source of pride for most Egyptians after years of social and political disruption. A recent public poll found that 78 per cent of the population thought it would benefit their lives.
Along the road from Cairo to the ceremony site at Ismailiya, and amid tight security, crowds of Egyptians gathered to wave flags at vehicles carrying visitors to the celebrations.
A fly-past by fighter jets from the Egyptian air force was followed by Mr El Sisi’s arrival at the site of the ceremony in the state yacht El Horria, which is older than the existing canal.
Mr El Sisi’s opening speech was interrupted by the sea horn of the first ship through the new section of canal, a container ship MSC Chicago, prompting prolonged applause from the assembled dignitaries.
There followed a celebration of music sung by schoolchildren and an Egyptian pop group. In 1869, the opera Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi was performed.
Some economists, however, have cast doubt on the projected revenue forecasts for the new canal, on the grounds that they rely on an over-optimistic outlook for global trade.