What are the rules about keeping the Suez Canal open?

Blockages in the Suez Canal, which pass through the bottom of one of the most significant waterways in the world, has been one of the major headaches plaguing the oil markets this summer. OPEC’s

Blockages in the Suez Canal, which pass through the bottom of one of the most significant waterways in the world, has been one of the major headaches plaguing the oil markets this summer. OPEC’s output cuts have been matched by American oil companies pumping up in the face of rising demand and discount rates that have seen cargoes from Europe and South America being forced to travel through the canal, instead of an alternative pipeline through the Seine and St. Lawrence rivers in Canada. What is a blockade of the Suez Canal? Who decides whether a blockade is a legitimate impediment? And, after recent blockages at its vast locks, can oil traffic continue to flow through the canal in normal service?


The Suez Canal can only be blocked by three specific types of persons.

First, The vessels using the canal have to adhere to the rules set by the Suez Canal Authority.

Second, under international maritime law, a blockade can take place if a vessel is “brought about” by people who pose a threat to the security of vessels using the canal, or of the Canal Authority. A national authority and an international maritime authority can apply to the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea, which sits within the waters of the country whose rules are violated. That would include, for example, the United States, which in 2002 tried to extend to the canal the right to blockade Iraqi ships in response to Iraqi missiles being fired over the North of the canal. The US is not a member of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.

A third type of person, which the canal has relied on in the past, but which is more difficult to keep up with, is a terrorist group or organized criminal group. The Suez Canal Authority considers them to be the only legitimate obstacle to shipping and can now be reasonably expected to remove in response to a security threat. That doesn’t mean, however, that the canal will restrict the movement of all vessels: in 2010, when a blockade of Yemen’s Bab al-Mandab Strait – where the Red Sea meets the Gulf of Aden – led to a dispute between the UAE and Yemen over the transit of a Saudi-led coalition ship, a clearance by the Houthi rebels to the canal was made to allow the Saudis to transit. The blockade on Bab al-Mandab was lifted in early 2017.


As in any international waterway, there is both international and bilateral regulation of traffic through the canal, but international and bilateral rules do not operate in an equal effect.

International laws

The international agreements which operate with respect to traffic through the canal mean that the shipping lane known as the “line of petroleum cargo” between the Suez Canal and Egypt’s Port Said is only open to supertankers, which weigh over 200,000 tons and carry more than 2 million barrels of oil – and the size and classification of ships that fit the square frame are enforced by the Suez Canal Authority.

What are the bilateral agreements?

In addition to the International and Maritime Disputed Area Act of 1953, the UAE is among a number of countries that have bilateral treaties with Egypt over the Suez Canal. The UAE and Egypt share the old Indian Ocean coast and territorial dispute over the canal between them. In 2011, the UAE lost that dispute to Egypt, but was granted a share of the canal’s cargo and shipping navigation rights – a designation that is carried on for the Canal Authority. Because of the UAE’s unresolved boundary dispute, shipping traffic still passes through the canal after the Eastern Trip – although commercial vessels that transit there do so only for transit. According to a document seen by Newsweek, since 1971, the canal has carried nearly 1.5 million vessels of all types – just 15 percent of those were ships carrying petroleum goods.

The UAE did pass a maritime treaty in 2010 that has two parts: the Presidential, and the Presidential-Arabian treaties, which concern various sectors of shipping and commerce, including maritime transportation, in the Arabian Peninsula, the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. In its maritime law, the UAE also recognizes the international maritime law conventions: The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, the Outer Borders Convention, the International Convention for the Management of Maritime Emergencies and the International Convention for the Safety of Maritime Navigation Over the High Seas.

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