"Azerbaijan Gets Ready To Go Nuclear"

The flow of jarring news headlines this week continues, with this surprising and somewhat unsettling story from Eurasianet today. Given the gradual drain of its energy resources (and the already polluted area where the reactors are proposed), I guess the country's pursuit of nuclear energy could make sense. On the other hand, these type of developments generally are more than meets the eye, so it will be a fascinating story to follow.


"Economic Future of Azerbaijan Seems Obscure To Me"

This is the title of a front-page interview this morning on Today.az, which serves as one of the only English-language web sites for news in Azerbaijan. Basically, the interview with economist Inglab Ahmedov cites his concerns about slowing economic growth and the local economy's over-dependence on the energy sector. It's always surprising to me when interviews like this are published in a forum that generally seems quite tightly controlled.


Azerbaijan in the World

I wrote an article for the research publication associated with the Academy where I am an intern. It is adapted from one of my Georgetown papers this past spring and is about geopolitics and energy in Azerbaijan. Here is the link to the article.


Travels, Traffic Jams and More Army News

I finally have a breath of blogging time after a very busy past few weeks. The Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy (where I am an intern) hosted a Summer School last week about Islam and Contemporary Foreign Policy. The programming was quite interesting, highlighted by Vali Nasr (from Fletcher/Tufts) and the local sheikh talking about the theme of "Shia Revival" in a recently renovated Baku mosque (used as a carpet shop during Soviet times).

There were various adventures during Summer School, including an off-topic education in the nuances of Baku highways. Returning to town one day we entered a 3 hour traffic jam, and after realizing the indefinite nature of the delay, exited the bus (Mercedes circa 1970) and walked. As the barren landscape dotted with oil derricks and blowing sand and dust coated our eyes and skin, it became clear that the traffic jam was created by a two-direction road being turned into one way, but in both directions. Failing to see the pattern in this, drivers (and the police) only allowed the jam to grow, resulting in what was probably an almost endless mess of a Saturday afternoon.

My father also arrived in Baku last week, spending two days on his own seeing the sights and preparing for the overnight train ride to Tbilisi, Georgia (pictures to follow). The "Dragon Ladies", as my father referred to them, assertively grabbed our passports on the train platform and lead us to our "cabin" where we met our two female Georgian roommates. Departing Baku, a bit of a chill thawed with these newfound roommates and honestly, after the 16 hour trip to Tbilisi even their slight mustasches were mildly charming. Despite the novelty of it all, this was an exhausting trip -- Soviet-era tracks tend to be very bumpy, thus limiting sleep considerably.

Meanwhile, another Azeri I know here just let me know that after a huge farewell party for him last week before he departed for his one-year army service, he also was told he didn't have to serve due to some unclear ailment. So, in the blink of an eye he is off to the Czech Republic for a summer training program about elections and civic institutions. Gosh, if only I could go with the flow like that!


The Army

Tonight is the farewell dinner for a local friend here who will ship out to the army on Saturday for his one year service. While the location of this mandatory service can be negotiated through family connections and bribes, it seems that the actual service is pretty much a given for every young Azeri male. Yet someone else I met, having just returned from reporting for service earlier in the week, said that he was discharged because he was too skinny (or too short relative to his weight, the language barrier was in full effect). Anyway, I don't really know where I am going with this posting...I am kind of lethargic this week, thus boring blog postings!


Celebrating Military Day

Yesterday was yet another holiday in Azerbaijan, this one to celebrate Military Day. It was actually a fairly dramatic day with various parades and air shows around Baku. I had a bit of a preview of the parade on Tuesday when after waking from a nap, I looked out my window to see several trucks with what looked like scud missles driving down my street. But this was only the beginning...yesterday featured a full-fledged parade with several army units and different floats showcasing of the latest military equipment purchased by the government with the estimated $2 billion annual military budget (a ten-fold increase from 2003). But the day wasn't only endless pageantry...I made the poor decision of trying to find a laundrymat in the middle of this mayhem and while waiting with my suitcase full of laundry a skirmish broke out between some young kids and police. At first, I thought that the police were just trying to clear the road but suddenly things felt different somehow, with kids running towards me and the police cars weaving in and out of the crowds in a kind of manic way. This continued for a while and then kind of subsided. I asked a few people about it and they shrugged it off as "something that happens in post-Soviet states on holidays." Go figure. Regardless of these episodes or the reception of those who observed the parade, the government had a clear mission here to send a strong signal to Azeris, Armenia and the world alike that Azerbaijan's growing military is very much focused on the simmering Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which remains a deeply sensitive and central aspect to the country's foreign policy.


Brand Azerbaijan III

For a country that seems to face some challenges with its international reputation, Azerbaijan seems to have mastered the art of employing the domestic media as a tool for bolstering the government's image in the eyes of its own population. As I do have a TV with limited channels in my apartment, I sometimes find myself in a state of quasi-relaxation, staring at the screen, not able to understand a word of Azeri. This can actually be kind of soothing after a long day at work (especially when one of the Turkish soap operas is on) but particularly when various government-produced videos about Azerbaijan show up. Some were directly related to Salvation Day celebrating Heydar Aliyev's return to power in 1993 (picture endless montages of President Aliyev holding children, hosting dignitaries, drilling oil wells etc). Others are more general, featuring well produced shots of newly renovated areas of downtown Baku set to local music, or my favorite which juxtapose older images from the Soviet era with updated ones of independent Azerbaijan. It's interesting how sophisticated the production-values are on many of these videos, when compared to the typical program on TV and makes me wonder where this image-making is emanating from and why it can't be employed more directly in the international sphere?


"I have doubts about a million of tourists visiting Azerbaijan each year"

This was the title of a rather depressing assessment of Azerbaijan's tourism prospects in the near future published this week. The main source of the problem is pollution in the Caspian, which is reported to be so bad (and so widely known to be bad) that tourism development on its shores is basically out of the question.

But beaches aren't everything...I had a very cultural day today in Baku after a meeting with Dr. Farid Alakbarli, one of Baku's most prominent historians with amazingly nuanced knowledge of Baku's various hidden treasures. We visited the Museum of History together, which ended with a tour of Zeynalabdin Taghiyev's mansion. Taghiyev (headshot above) was one of the most famous oil barons during Baku's first oil boom in the early 20th century and lived in a palazzo that really took my breath away.


Brand Azerbaijan II

Anyone with a TV in Azerbaijan can sing the lyrics by now to Azerbaijan's Eurovision hit "Day After Day." The 8th place finish for the song was a hit in Azerbaijan and a strong statement for the country abroad given Eurovision's huge viewership. Pop culture, just like anything else, can constitute a country's image in the minds of outsiders so take a listen and judge for yourself...

Flying Carpet Ride

Azerbaijan is enjoying a day off this Monday, as the country celebrates Heydar Aliyev's 85th brithday. The actual day and associated celebrations were yesterday but offices are closed today to mark the occasion.

This unexpected day off was kind of nice as this was my first real weekend in Baku and I kind of craved some extra time to walk around the city and do some errands. The weekend started with an efficient shopping trip with one of my co-workers to buy some basics for the apartment. In a more severe way than I expected, I have been extremely price-conscious since getting here, not only because I am a poor graduate student but due to the inflation and awful exchange rate one gets in Azerbaijan. Sadly the US dollar only gets you about .81 Manat, compared to 1.25 Manat for the Euro. Strolling through the supermarket brought me face-to-face with further proof of these strains. As perhaps shouldn't be a surprise given grain prices worldwide, I quickly found that branded cereal like Frosted Flakes cost nearly triple what they would at home. It's a sad reflection on my life when cereal becomes a luxury good.

Once home, feeling somewhat battered (and dusty) from the increasing winds throughout the day (I have already mentioned the gusty winds that howl incessently off the Caspian), I was a bit startled when a mid-sized Persian rug came flying through the air, hitting my balcony window before landing on the balcony floor. At first it seemed like a big bird had committed suicide using my window as the poison pill but this was disproved when I went out to find the rug and pieced together the likelihood that it had fallen from the clothes-line in the apartment above me. So this turned out to be a nice excuse to visit my upstairs neighbor, who invited me for a quick tea to thank me for rescuing the rug.

It's been great to have some free time to read, and while the first two books of the summer were related to current affairs (The End of Food and The Audacity of Hope), I have become engrossed in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, which so far has been amazing. It has also served as quite an attraction to locals, and four kids now have come up to me at Internet cafes or outside and commented on the book, showing their approval at my reading this Russian classic.


The Presidential Race

Besides the approaching Presidential election this fall in Azerbaijan (more on that later), Azerbaijanis have a growing preference for John McCain in the US Presidential contest, according to my very informal polling. The reason for this seems to be an impression that McCain is more sympathetic to Azerbaijan in the conflict with Armenia, while according to many, Obama has sympathies with the Armenians. Supporting Obama as strongly as I do, I often engage people on this subject but thankfully, the Rector of the Organization where I work, Hafiz Pashayev, gave this interview which provides a very accurate and well-balanced assessment of the issue.


Brand Azerbaijan

For those of you with a desire to get a sense of Azerbaijan, here is your first installment of a self-titled series "Brand Azerbaijan." I assume this video was created by the Tourism and Promotion branch of the government, thus the soothing music and well-produced imagery. I might have added a bit more concrete information and voiceovers to the video had I been its creator as the idea of someone spending six minutes watching images of Azerbaijan seems a bit unrealistic to me.


Roads and Votes

Having lived in Dubai, the extent of construction in Baku is relatively minor. However, to locals, it is quite extensive and meets with a mixed reaction. In Baku, new developments and restoration to existing, historic buildings appears to brighten up the city in my view, yet I have already heard some complaining of the disruption (and dust) these various projects produce. More strikingly, the roads outside of Baku seem to be mostly under construction, and recent articles have suggested a link between the approaching elections and these various infrastructure projects. Whatever the motives, and despite the occasional objection, it is hard to deny the symbolic weight these projects hold in shaping the public's perception of their government.


The Weekend

So, after only one week in Baku, I was lucky to be invited on a weekend trip to Lenkoran, a small town on the Caspian south of Baku. The five hour drive from Baku was draining at times as much of the travel was through very industrial, nondescript areas over pot-holded Soviet-made roads alternating with newer, improved ones. Nevertheless, I learned first-hand how many different climates there are in the tiny state of Azerbaijan as these rather mundane landscapes gradually evolved into more fertile ones, and by the time we arrived in Lenkoran, we are ensconced in green mountains, oak tree canopies, and clean, pollution free breezes.

There is surely a different feel to the countryside in Azerbaijan as compared to cosmopolitan Baku. Besides being just 10km from the Iranian border, there was a similar feel to the villages we passed through as I experienced in Iran. Yet the differences were clear as well, as red wine and Russian vodka appeared at dinner. Unable to watch the Roland Garros tennis final on Sunday, I found (along with another intrepid tennis fan in the group) an old, run-down astroturf tennis court associated with the local chapter of the Azerbaijan Olympic Committee. The game was kind of awkward and a bit hot in the blazing sun (the sun in Azerbaijan, much like the wind, seems to take no prisoners) but fun nonetheless.

Some out-takes from the weekend above include our cabins, our bus (which seemed to always be on the verge of a collision or accident of some sort), my attempts at getting arty at dinner, the indoor stadium at the regional Olympic center and the entrance to Lenkoran.



Azerbaijan appears to be standing strong against Gazprom's apparent efforts to undermine the country's burgeoning gas sector. Recent news that Azerbaijan has rejected Gazprom's offer to buy Azerbaijani natural gas follows the country's refusal to buy natural gas from Russia at increased prices. Of course, the larger chessboard here involves possible Trans-Caspian links to augment Azerbaijan's oil and gas supply through the BTC/BTE pipelines, a project which if successful would lessen Russia's monopoly on gas supply to Europe.


Full Moon Hotel

Despite the various differences between Baku and Dubai, it seems that the urge to translate oil wealth into extravagant hotel design projects is just too strong to resist. Thus, plans for the Full Moon Hotel in Baku, a 35 floor, 521 foot high behemoth planned for the Caspian waterfront.


On an unrelated note, I have to just express how excited I am that Barack Obama secured the Democratic nomination last night. I volunteered quite a bit for Obama this past winter and spring and while initially inspired more by his policies and message, I quickly learned what a powerful grassroots political organization he has developed. Also, I wanted to pass along a recommendation of a great book I just finished called The End of Food by Paul Roberts. It is a follow-up of sorts to his first book The End of Oil and is a great background on the current food crisis and ideas on how to address some of the systemic issues underlying the crisis.

Blown Away

Before talking about some of the exciting experiences I have had so far here, I have to briefly mention the issue of WIND in Baku. Well there are many things to be blown away by in this city, it seems that quite literally, one risks being blown into the Caspian Sea by strong winds that blow off the water into the city. I suppose that the first day I arrived was quite calm, but ever since then there have been stiff winds off the water. Hopefully this is a temporary weather event or I will have to acquire the wind resistance that most other people seem to have already.

Generally speaking, Baku has turned out to be a remarkably easy adjustment. There seems to be a pretty organized and liveable vibe to the city, with just enough hustle and bustle without the annoyances of congestion and excessive traffic. I really lucked out with my accommodation, which is a 1BR apartment right smack in the center of the city. It is nestled on a small side street between the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR) building and the Heydar Aliyev Foundation building. I am also adjacent to the Old City of Baku, which sounds like a great area to explore.

The general vibe in the city is really nice, it feels like a cross between Istanbul and Tehran both in terms of the city layout and the general look of the people. English is not widely spoken, yet there is a willingness to meet you halfway linguistically that usually resolves any questions or issues. You can feel that the country is prosperous economically, yet in a far more muted way than in Dubai. Old buildings and museums are being restored and some newer ones are being built, but the underlying skeleton, both in terms of urban layout and culture, appears to be quite secure. Although predominantly Shiite Muslim, mosques are few and far between. In fact, I can only recall seeing one mosque and one Orthodox church since being here.

My internship has started off really well. The Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy is a great group of people and already they have included me in various lectures and events. Yesterday, we had the slightly surreal experience of attending the 15th annual Caspian Oil & Gas Fair featuring a variety of obscure engineering innovations for oil drilling in addition to publicity for pipelines which to my knowledge, were not actually being built yet. The highlight of the fair was probably two cheerleader-esque women in tight outfits promoting a drilling company, surrounded by admiring Russian men. Ah, viva Baku!


Summer 2008

This Pearl of Dubai has been a bit out of the blogosphere lately as my year in Dubai led to graduate school and less time for Pearls and Dubais. However, this summer I will be in Baku, Azerbaijan doing an internship at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. My interest in Azerbaijan perhaps stems from experiences in Dubai -- Azerbaijan is another small, energy-rich country with high strategic value and complex political and social challenges. So, keep visiting for news and photos from what should be a fascinating summer!


Magic Numbers

Tyler Brule, the founder of Wallpaper Magazine, recently started a new one called Monocle. I wrote a small blurb about Dubai in their current February issue. If I could be a magazine, I would probably be Monocle. Some describe it as "the Economist meets Vanity Fair." Or, current international affairs with a stylish slant. Whatever it is, I love this magazine. Look for it next time at the newsstand.


Dubai Airshow

Most people have probably seen this already but I loved this photo from the Dubai Airshow.

Dollars and Dihrams

The dihram peg to a declining dollar raises issues for Dubai, particularly the laborers who see already paltry wages diminishing further in value. A recent OPEC meeting in Saudi Arabia raised the prospect of a gradual lifting of the dollar peg (to follow Kuwait's example) and a diversification of growing reserves from dollars to Euros. While the big picture debate centers around OPEC and whether the cartel will shift to Euros, there are still big ramifications on the ground of the weak dollar, and many link recent worker protests in Dubai to this issue.


Guess the Skyline 5


Ajman Bluebeard

Hats off to Secret Dubai for, among many other things, including such a hilarious commentary on her blog about Daad Mohammed Murad. It made me miss being in Dubai and absorbing these totally off the wall stories you read in the press. I can only imagine how the press coverage of Daad's quest differed from Secret Dubai's.

Dubai Sub-Prime

In another example of the growing influence of the Dubai government in global finance, the government-held group Istithmar announced plans Monday to possibly buy two US firms hard-hit by exposure to subprime mortgages. With predictable bravado, Istithmar CIO Felix Herlihy stated that "For every loser there is a winner and some institutions may have to sell some good assets, because of bad assets hit by sub-prime." In the world of finance, it somehow seems that Dubai is always the winner...