Update: Global Trade Challenges – The Red Sea and Panama Canal Perspective

  • June 18, 2024
  • Blog


Houthi assaults on shipping in the Red Sea have slashed container throughput in the area by a staggering 90%. With marina insurance costs soaring, it’s evident that naval support alone won’t be enough to entice carriers back to the region anytime soon.

An on-ground report from Stewart Schneider-Loos, Board Director and CEO of the Greater China Area at 20Cube Logistics highlights the impact of rerouting vessels around Africa, which adds approximately 11,000 nautical miles and an additional US$ 1 million in fuel expenses per voyage. However, this is still more viable financially than navigating the perilous Red Sea routes under current crisis conditions.

Stewart explains, “For numerous shipping companies, the total expenses of crew bonuses, war-risk insurance – now approximately 1,000% higher than pre-war rates – and Suez Canal transit fees render the longer route around Africa more economical in the long run.”

Since mid-February, insurance premiums for Red Sea transits have surged to between 0.7% and 1% of a ship’s total value, a steep rise from the pre-crisis rate of less than 0.1% before the escalation of Houthi attacks in December 2023.

Stewart also points out that these attacks have affected at least 65 countries, far beyond the Houthis’ claimed targets, showcasing the indiscriminate nature of these disruptions.

Over a dozen commercial vessels have been struck by drone and missile attacks. Notably, the UK-owned cargo ship Rubymar was sunk in March, and the Israel-linked Galaxy Leader was reportedly seized by the rebels in November. However, Japanese officials later identified this ship as being operated by NYK with a 25-person multinational crew, whose whereabouts remain uncertain, with the last update coming from the EU in April.

Despite these incidents, the attacks have continued. The UK Maritime Trade Operations reported two assaults over the past weekend, including one on a Greece-owned coal carrier, forcing its crew to abandon ship in the Mediterranean.


Today the supply chains across the globe face multiple hurdles while shipping from one destination to another. The continuous unrest in the Red Sea region paired with severe drought on the Panama Canal poses a substantial threat to managing and maintaining the fragile equilibrium. These issues are not just limited to certain regions but are significantly influencing the dynamics of the global trade supply chain.

Global Trade Challenges: The Red Sea and Panama Canal PerspectiveThe Red Sea is a critical maritime pathway that enjoys significant worldwide trade, including multiple energy resources. Next, the Suez Canal, an important part of this maritime pathway, combines the advantages of sea transport and the risks of global conflicts.

Similarly, the Panama Canal’s drought jeopardizes seamless cargo movement between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Prolonged issues could lead to trade route redirection and significant changes in global trade patterns, impacting the economy worldwide.


The Red Sea and Suez Canal hold strategic value historically and currently

The Red Sea has always been a crucial maritime pathway and its importance has only grown over the period to connect the global economy. The Suez Canal is a link that connects the Red Sea with the Mediterranean and showcases as a marvel of engineering & long-term planning. It’s also a crucial channel for the movement of oil and cargo as it reduces the distance between Asia and Europe.

The Red Sea conflict

The ongoing conflict in the Red Sea region poses a significant risk to the crucial maritime route and can easily disrupt up to 10% of global trade passing through the Suez Canal, leading to extended shipping durations, elevated costs, heightened security vulnerabilities, and increased insurance premiums. As a result, vessels may need to be diverted from using the Suez Canal and the Red Sea, opting instead to circumnavigate the Cape of Good Hope. This alternative route would increase trip duration and expenses, impacting global trade, particularly for perishable items, and potentially causing overcrowding and time lags in trade routes.

Drought on the Panama Canal

The Panama Canal serves as a vital shortcut for maritime trade between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, facilitating shipments between North and South America, Asia, and Europe. However, the recent drought in Panama has severely affected the canal’s operations. Decreased water levels in the canal’s lakes have limited the size and number of ships that can pass through the lock systems. This situation has become a significant obstacle to maritime trade, as the canal is a crucial pathway for transporting essential commodities.

The impact of the drought has forced shipping lines to seek alternative, longer, and more expensive routes, such as the Suez Canal or circumnavigating Cape Horn. These detours result in increased fuel consumption, shipping costs, and prolonged delivery times, creating chaos throughout global supply chains.

Let’s look at the worldwide economic impact of these recent maritime concerns:

Disruptions in the global supply chain

The vessels and ships are rerouted due to conflicts and environmental difficulties resulting in longer transit and operational expenses. Consumers are bearing the brunt of these escalated hikes by paying more prices for commodities. On the other hand, sectors that completely depend on delivery networks such as electronics and automotive are vulnerable to this chaos leading to manufacturing delays and shortages in markets causing economic strain.

Imbalance in different regions

The effects of these maritime disruptions may vary in intensity across different regions. European and Asian nations that heavily depend on the Suez Canal for trade may encounter more difficulties than other areas. Likewise, American economies that rely heavily on the Panama Canal may face distinct challenges. The existence of regional disparities necessitates a comprehensive understanding to formulate effective policies.

Trade policies and agreements

These trade complexities can easily impact international trade policies and agreements. Countries and economic alliances may look to vary their trade routes or allocate resources to alternate transportation & multimodal methods, such as railway or air cargo, to reduce these risks. Interestingly Robust and adaptable supply chains may become crucial in upcoming trade discussions.

The global importance of the Red Sea and Panama Canal maritime obstacles reveals the fragility of the worldwide trading system.

Outlook for Global Trade Trends

With ongoing issues in the Red Sea and Panama Canal, the outlook for global trade trends remains uncertain. The disruptions in these key maritime routes could lead to delays and increased costs for businesses reliant on these passages. As a result, some companies may seek alternative routes, potentially impacting trade flows and supply chains. The situation highlights the importance of diversification and resilience in global trade strategies. Despite these challenges, advancements in technology and logistics could help mitigate the effects of these disruptions. Businesses must stay agile and adaptable to navigate these turbulent waters in the global trade landscape.

Prospects for the Future

The persistent conflicts in the Red Sea and Panama’s drought have significantly altered maritime security and global trade dynamics. The Suez and Panama Canal play crucial roles in global supply chains, and any disruptions to these routes significantly affect the global economy. These occurrences highlight the interdependent nature of contemporary commerce and the susceptibility of worldwide supply networks to geopolitical and environmental influences.

The need for strategic planning and international collaboration in maritime security is paramount. Policymakers should prioritize examining trade route diversity, investing in infrastructure, and enhancing supply networks’ resilience. These challenges also allow the international community to evaluate and strengthen the systems that support global commerce, guaranteeing a more equitable and enduring future.

In the current global context, the need for maritime security in protecting international trade is more crucial than ever. The ability of global supply networks to withstand and adjust to these difficulties will play a pivotal role in determining the future of international trade and economic stability.