The Ben Gurion Canal: multi-billion-dollar investment project

The Ben Gurion Canal: multi-billion-dollar investment project

The first ideas about connecting the Red and Mediterranean seas appeared in the middle of the 19th century by the British, who wanted to connect the three seas: Red, Dead, and Mediterranean. Since the Dead Sea is 430.5 meters below sea level, such an idea was not feasible, but it can be carried out in another direction. Accordingly, the U.S. and Israel have discussed plans to build a canal to rival the Suez Canal for over 50 years. On February 15, 1956, Israel held up work on the Jordan Valley project pending another attempt by the United States to obtain an Arab political agreement on joint development of the plan.

The 160-mile-long sea-level Ben Gurion Canal project was a proposal in the 1960s by Israel to connect the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea through the Negev Desert (Israel) and the southern end of the Gulf of Aqaba (coastline shared by four countries: Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia) bypassing the Suez Canal and challenging Egypt’s monopoly on the shortest Europe-Asia route. The passage would start by the port city of Eilat in Israel through the Gulf of Aqaba, crossing the Jordanian border and flowing through the Arabah Valley before entering the Dead Sea and heading north around the Gaza Strip. The estimated cost is USD 100 billion, and the imperative of political stability and the constant military threat are significant security concerns. Speculations suggest that Israel’s desire to control Gaza and eliminate Hamas is linked to unlocking economic opportunities tied to the Canal. The economic gain from the Ben Gurion Canal would undoubtedly far outweigh the expense as the project will turn profitable quickly. When the co-developers share the expense for the construction of the Canal, it would be minimal and affordable. The Canal is projected to generate 10 billion a year soon as international trade between the East and the West continues to soar.

In July 1963, H. D. Maccabee of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, under contract to the U.S. Department of Energy, wrote a memorandum exploring the possibility of using 520 underground nuclear explosions to help dig about 250 kilometers of canals through the Negev desert. The document was classified as secret until 1993. “Such a canal would be a strategically valuable alternative to the current Suez Canal and would probably greatly contribute to the economic development of the surrounding area,” the declassified document states.

Moreover, after the Abraham Accord, on October 20, 2020, the Israeli state-owned company Europe Asia Pipeline Company (EAPC) and the Emirati Company MED-RED Land Bridge signed an agreement on the use of the Eilat-Ashkelon oil pipeline to transport oil from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. Accordingly, On April 2, 2021, Israel announced that work on the Ben Gurion Canal was expected to begin by June 2021 and may take several years.

The project is driven by the need to restrain the rise of China’s economic power and to hold back its ongoing project known as “The Belt and Road Initiative.” The Chinese project aims to build a train line that starts from the provinces of China in the West towards West Asia and secure water routes worldwide. It is a multi-billion-dollar investment project. Therefore, the U.S. is trying to hamper the Chinese trade route by creating an alternative competitive route. So, the new stage of struggle will witness an economic war aiming to control seaports and global trade routes. Moreover, In light of the current Arab pivot to Israel, most Middle Eastern countries, especially Saudi Arabia, would also benefit highly from the Ben Gurion Canal as it undoubtedly places Neom, Riyadh’s new ultra-modern business and technological city, at the center of international trade.

Suez Canal Vs Ben Gurion Canal

The Suez Canal was opened in 1867, making it possible to shorten the shipping route between Europe, Africa, and Asia. Instead of sailing around Africa’s southern coast (Cape of Good Hope), ships can use the Suez Canal as a faster and more economical route. The Canal is crucial for transporting oil and gas from the Middle East region to European and Far Eastern markets.

Recently, 12-13% of world trade moves through the Suez Canal, which Egypt controls. The Suez Canal was initially jointly controlled by French investors and Egypt. Isma’il Pasha was forced to sell Egypt’s shares to Britain amid a liquidity crisis in Egypt. Former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser reclaimed the lucrative trade route in 1956, sparking the second Arab-Israeli war, also known as the Suez Crisis.

Due to a sudden sandstorm on March 23, 2021, the supertanker Ever Given was diagonally caught across the Suez Canal. The incident blocked the waterway for six days, disrupting billions of global trade. The incident demonstrated the need for a passageway other than the Suez Canal.

Over the years, several shipping companies have complained that Cairo keeps exponentially increasing the toll rate and relevant docking charges for passing through ships over the Canal. The price hike is arguably perceived as a result of Egypt’s total monopoly over the Canal, among other things. The world has no option except to pay whatever the Egyptian Canal authority demands.

The Ben-Gurion Canal would be more efficient than the Suez Canal because, in addition to accommodating a more significant number of ships, it would enable the simultaneous two-way navigation of large ships through the design of two canal arms. Unlike the Suez Canal, located along sandy shores, the Israeli Canal would have rocky walls that require almost no maintenance. Israel plans to build tiny towns, hotels, restaurants, and cafes along the Canal.

Each proposed branch of the Canal would have a depth of 50 meters and a width of about 200 meters. It would be 10 meters deeper than Suez. Ships with a length of 300 meters and a width of 110 meters could pass through the Canal, the size of the world’s largest ships. The Ben Gurion Canal is one-third more extended than the 193.3 km long Suez Canal – 292.9 km.

The Western powers, the USA and the European Union have motives to create alternatives to the Suez Canal. The Suez channel is narrow and shallow and can become blocked very quickly. There are frequent traffic jams. Moreover, Egypt is an essential partner of China. The Americans and their partners want to block the Chinese New Silk Road megaproject, in which Egypt has an important role. In 2014, Beijing and Cairo signed the “Strategic Partnership Agreement,” agreeing to cooperate in defense, technology, economy, and the fight against terrorism and cybercrime.

The Ben-Gurion Canal as a traffic route does not necessarily have to be a wrong solution. The Canal could be a good solution in an optimistic scenario in which the countries of Israel and Palestine have previously agreed on the two-state model, the union of two independent states, or some third solution. Then, the Canal that would pass through the Israeli and Palestinian territories could be an element of economic connection between the Jewish and Palestinian people who would profit from its use.

Global Arab Network: by Dr. Frank Musmr