The Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea, with its extensive trade and circulation networks, has been characterized as one of the major “inter-regional arenas” within broader studies of processes of globalisation. These seafaring networks are some of the oldest in the world, and through the centuries persistent and resilient forms of transnational and transcultural communication have developed in the regions touched by it, interlinking the Horn of Africa, the African Indian Ocean islands and Eastern and Southern Africa to the Arabian peninsula, the western parts of the Indian subcontinent and even meaningful parts of the Southern and Eastern Asian regions. It is also a particularly sensitive area in security terms, presently harbouring major naval and aerial surveillance capabilities of both intra- and extra-regional military and economic powers.
The western Indian Ocean has thus been both a fluid space of intense exchanges between various local communities and a much-coveted setting for successive projects of hegemonic appropriations of human and material resources. The substantial flow of goods and people across it has, from time immemorial, attracted predatory and clandestine activities, which are today the pretext for maintaining an impressive security presence by member countries of NATO and for a display of military-naval affirmation of emerging powers such as India and China.
A comprehensive understanding of the conditions and implications of this multiple presence requires a multidisciplinary effort that has to take into account the underlying, and generally silent, reality of the existence of family-based networks (African, Arab, Indian, Armenian, Iranian and South-east Asian) who, assuming an ancient heritage, have ensured the continuation of flows between the different countries connected by the Western Indian Ocean by resiliently adapting themselves to ever-changing balances of power, to the impositions of external interveners and to the bargaining vectors of local and regional predators.
The present Conference sets forth to analyse the deep-rooted immersion of the populations of the eastern coasts of Africa in the vast network of commercial, cultural and religious interactions that extend to the Middle-East and the Indian subcontinent, as well as the long-time involvement of various exogenous military, administrative and economic powers (Ottoman, Omani, Portuguese, Dutch, British, French and, more recently, European-Americans).
On the side-lines of an inward-looking vision of Africa shared by most African Union countries, which have only recently begun to develop a fledgling security policy and a strategy of development of the African coastline, various agents from East African countries have sought to manage and develop existing networks in a transnational logic supported by historical ties that come from the old triangular trade facilitated by the monsoon regime, linking these coastal regions to the Arabian Peninsula and South-east Asia.