by Peter Franklin
Friday, 26
March 2021

It’s not just the Suez Canal, our world is full of choke points

For all the blessings of global free trade, it is never a given
by Peter Franklin
Big ship energy can’t save us this time. Credit: Getty
We really ought to bring back geographical literacy — a basic familiarity with the shape of countries and continents.
I realise that this sort of thing went out with the British Empire. But just because there’s no more pink on the map it doesn’t that we shouldn’t make the effort.
We especially need to get into our heads that the world is full of choke points — through which the arteries of global economy must pass.
The Suez Canal is a topical example. This week — and, possibly, for weeks to come — we’ve had a painful reminder that we can’t take the free passage of trade for granted. Things can so easily go sideways — literally, in the case of the Ever Given.
The backlog of boats unable to pass through the canal as a result of the stuck Ever Given (Ever Green)

But it’s not just one canal we need worry about. For instance at the other end of Red Sea, there’s a second choke point: the Bab Al-Mandab strait. It’s about 20 miles wide, so there’s more wiggle room than a canal. On the other hand, it’s got Yemen on one side and the Horn of Africa on the other — both of which have got wars raging. Moreover, Djibouti, on the African side, is currently an arena for the superpower rivalry between China and America (both countries have military bases there). By the way, Bab Al-Mandab means ‘Gate of Tears’ or ‘Gate of Grief’

If you manage to get out of the Red Sea, you can sail along the Arabian shore all the way round into the Gulf. Except that to reach the oil ports of Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi you have to go through a third choke point — the Strait of Hormuz.  This is also about 20 miles wide at its narrowest point — and has the Arabian peninsula on one side and Iran on the other. What could possibly go wrong?

If the cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran turned hot, then the latter could easily block the Strait — through which something like a quarter of the world’s oil and a third of its liquified natural gas currently passes. There are other ways of getting energy supplies out of the Middle East, but pipelines are even narrower than canals and thus eminently disruptable.

We imagine that technology is enabling us to overcome geography. And, in some respects, it is — we wouldn’t have millions of people working from home right now if that wasn’t true. On the other hand, it has facilitated an ultra-integrated, just-in-time globalised economy in which the around-the-clock accessibility of the shortest possible routes has become more important than ever.

It’s time for us to re-evaluate the benefits of geographical proximity — and, further to that, direct political control. After all, the Ever Given isn’t the only reminder we’ve had this week about the fragility of our supply lines.

Last month, Ursula von der Leyen compared Britain’s vaccine policy to a “speedboat” and the EU’s policy to a “tanker”. Well, that tanker has now run aground and is threatening to cut off our supplies from the Continent.

This week’s double lesson therefore is that, in a time of crisis, there is no one on the planet that we can absolutely rely upon but ourselves. For all the blessings of global free trade, it is never, ever, a given.

Join the discussion

  • It’s not a coincidence that the British Empire controlled Gibraltar, Malta, Suez, Aden, Singapore and Hong Kong. Or that the USA controlled the Panama Canal. Time to relearn the lessons of history?

  • Saladin’s son had a go at demolishing the Pyramid of Menkaure, the smallest of the three great pyramids at Giza, in 1196.
    He failed but there is still a massive scar on the North face to remind us of this act of Islamic barbarism.

  • You miss the entire point of what a pyramid is. Try pushing a pyramid over, you cannot, it is the most stable structure there is – you mean house of cards.

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