Geopolitics at the margins – Exploring emergent political orders across the Red Sea

Research project

Short description

The Red Sea Region is at the centre of new geopolitical intrigue. From significant investments in infrastructure projects, to the establishment of military bases and increased labour migration - the scope of current political, economic and security interactions between the states in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa is unprecedented. We suggest that political interaction between states is not merely driven by given geopolitical interests but relies on the formation of a common ideational ground. Building on the literature of critical geopolitics, in this project we ask how such common ground is established across arenas. We will trace key narratives in the three fields of peace and security, infrastructure/logistics and migration.

Project activities


  • Spring 2023: Panel on ”The new geopolitics in the Red Sea Region” at the European Conference on African Studies (ECAS), Cologne, 31 May – 3 June 2023
  • Autumn 2023: Project kick-off workshop at Arken, Gothenburg 28-29 September 2023 and recruitment of research associates Dr Ahmed Ibrahim (St Augustine University Tanzania), Dr Katharina Newbery (IPSS-affiliate) and Halifet Ayemohammed (Wollo University)


  • Spring and Summer 2024: Fieldwork on geocultural narratives in Turkish-Somali relations by project partner Ozan Kuyumcuoglu and Ibrahim Sharif; on geocultural narratives in Ethiopia’s foreign policy (Bizu Ashagrie, Katharina Newbery) and shared Arab-African identity of second generation Ethiopians raised in the Gulf region (Halifet Ayemohammed, Fana Gebresenbet and Isabell Schierenbeck)
  • Summer 2024: Workshop on “Connectivity projects in global politics: Engineering futures by mobilizing the past” at the European Workshops in International Studies (EWIS), 3-5 July 2024, Istanbul (convenors: Jutta Bakonyi, University of Durham and Jan Bachmann)
  • Autumn 2024: Workshop at IPSS Addis Ababa; fieldwork on geocultural power in the relations of Somaliland towards the Gulf countries

Background - What do we want to know?

The United Arab Emirates invests signficiantly in ports infrastructure in Somalia’s breakaway regions of Somaliland and Puntland, while its rival Qatar mirrors those activities in Somalia and Sudan. Emphasizing its Ottoman past, Turkey has turned into a major player in the Horn of Africa. Moreover, UAE and Ethiopia intensified their cooperation in the last couple of years not only through an agreement on migration but also through the provison of UAE military aid to the Ethiopian government.    
How are we to grasp the current political, economy and social dyamics in the Red Sea region? Dominant explanations take a hierarchy of rivalling interestes for granted and cast African actors as mere spectators in a new geopolitical game orchestrated by major players in the Middle East. In contrast, this projects asserts that actors in the Horn of Africa are co-designers of these multi-layred relationships. It takes as its point of departure the argument that durable relations are predicated upon establishing a common ground between the actors. We ask how such ties—narratives on a shared past or a common future—are produced across society. We zoom in on the fields of security, infrastructure/logistics and migration. 

Our research question is:

  • How are the narratives that inform the political, economic and social interation across the Red Sea negotiated, established and justified?

Geopolitics or Geoculture?

This project moves beyond traditional geopolitical accounts. Building upon the field of critical geopolitics, we suggest that political interactions between states are not merely driven by given (geopolitical and geoeconomic) interests but rely on the establishment of ideational bonds. Those “geocultural” narratives (Winter 2019) build, for example, on narratives of joint experiences and expectations. However, in order to become operational in foreign policy collaboration, these narrative have to be negotiated and agreed upon by different actors. Since the establishment of common ground is a deeply contested process, it does not only take place in discrete government settings but evolves in different social areans, for example in experts and business communities, at ceremonial events, in (social) media as well as in expressions of popular culture.

The setting - Red Sea region

The intensity and diversity of political, economic and social cooperation between Middle East states and states in the Horn of Africa is extraordinary. Given their strategic location between the Gulf of Aden, the Strait of Bab-el-Mandab and the Suez Canal, the Red Sea corridor is turning into a contested space within which a plethora of actors nourish their interests.

How do we want to contribute?

The analytical contribution of the project’s approach is two-fold:

  • To trace how different actors on both sides of the Red Sea co-design the new ties. We assert that for transnational collaboration to endure, a base layer of shared ideas has to be agreed upon. Such common ground finds its expression in specific historical narratives on which a joint future is to be built. However, such processes are anything but uncontested and need to be negotiated, agreed upon and justified to wider audiences.
  • To trace the narratives in different societal arenas. Those narratives on international cooperation are not exclusively produced by government but also in media, think tanks, and in popular culture.

The project aims to contribute to policy debates on current dynamics in the Red Sea region. Taken together, these dynamics have the potential to bedevil political dynamics across the region with acute societal and political relevance.

How do we answer the question?

We have selected three cases for the cross-case comparison:

  • Peace and security
  • Infrastructure
  • Labour migration

The three cases are the most dynamic in terms of expenditure, investments as well as in terms of scope of policies and agreements.  We will also conduct a within-case comparison of the three cases. A total of six sub-cases have been selected (to be added to the webpage soon). 

To answer the research question, we will:

  • Identify and deconstruct temporal and spatial narratives to specify key narratives. A close attention to timing and sequences to understand the unfolding of a given narrative.
  • Compare narratives, this allows us to look for parallel processes and their interaction within and between the cases and arenas.

Data will be obtained from three arenas:

  • Formal arena: Written documentation and interviews, government documentation and speeches.
  • Practical arena: Policy documents and interviews, statements and reports from lobby and pressure groups and civil society.
  • Popular arena: Media, blogs, activists posts, public ceremonies.