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Farid Shafiyev, Azerbaijan's Ambassador to Canada. Photo by Rhonda Spivak.


By Rhonda Spivak

Azerbaijan, a country made up mostly of Shiite Muslims, with only 25,000 Jews, has some rather large and powerful neighbors-- Russia to the north and Iran to the south.

While many Muslim countries do not have diplomatic relations with Israel, Azerbaijan, despite pressure from neighboring Iran, has chosen to pursue   a growing economic and strategic partnership with Israel.

“We are a Muslim country, but we are secular,” Farid Shafiyev, Azerbaijan’s Ambassador to Canada told the Winnipeg Jewish Review in a one on one interview while he was in Winnipeg last week. 

Map of Azerbaijan“We have our own foreign policy. We think it is good to have good relations with the United States and Israel,” Shafiyev said.

What fuels Azerbaijan’s relationship with Israel? Oil, for one thing.

Azerbaijan, a  democratic country which gained its independence from Russia 19 years ago,  is situated along the Caspian sea,  and supplies Israel with a lot of  oil—about one sixth of  Israel’s  supply.

As Shafiyev said, “Israel imports about $3.5 billion of goods, mostly oil, from Azerbaijan.”

According to  Shafiyev, the crude oil goes through the “Ceyhan pipeline, which is the longest pipeline in the world. It begins at an oilfield off the Caspian Sea in Azerbaijan and ends in  Ceyhan, Turkey, a port on the Mediterranean Sea.  From there it goes on by tanker [ship]to Israel. The design life of the pipeline is 40 years.”

Ambassador Shafiyev
Ambassador Shafiyev. Photo by
Rhonda Spivak.
The 1,099 mile pipeline, which began operating in 2006,  makes its way through the country of Georgia  before arriving to Turkey.

“Many Israeli companies operate in the energy sector of Azerbaijan, Shafiyev noted.  “For example, Modicom System Ltd, an Israeli based supplier of high technology to the energy industry, mainly in the oil and gas sector, opened an office in Azerbaijan in 2000.”

Shafiyev added “We established diplomatic relations with Israel around 1993 and Israel opened an embassy in Azerbaijan in 1994. 

“Bezeq, a major Israeli telephone subsidiary, was the first Israeli company to invest in Azerbaijan.  Through a devalued contract bid in 1994, Bezeq bought a large share of the telephone operating system in Azerbaijan.”

Additionally, Bakcell, the first cell phone operator in Azerbaijan, which started up in early 1994, was “a joint venture between Azerbaijan’s ministry of communication and GTIB (Israel), Shafiyev said.

“There are Israelis doing business in Azerbaijan all the time,” according to Shafiyev, who also noted that there is one Jewish member of the Azerbaijani parliament today.

In 1997, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Baku [the capital of Azerbaijan], he met with Heydar Aliyev, the former President of Azerbaijan. The meeting, in addition to discussing new oil deals, “also solidified a strategic understanding and led to increased defence co-operation,” according to Shafiyev.

When asked by the Winnipeg Jewish Review for more details about the defence co-operation, Shafiyev said,“ Israel and Azerbaijan have had some military co-operation for the last 10-15 years.  We buy some military equipment from Israel, but I won’t give you the details of what.”

Iran’s open hostility and hatred of Israel hasn’t stopped Azerbaijan from strengthening its bilateral ties with Israel recently.

“As a result of developing economic relations, the first Israel-Azerbaijan business forum occurred in Tel-Aviv on May 2009,”Shefiyev reported.

“In June of 2009, Azerbaijan hosted Israeli President Shimon Peres. President Peres came with the Israeli Minister of Industry, Trade, and Labour, the Minister of National Infrastructure, the Minister of Science and Technology, as well as the director general of Israel’s Ministry of Defence. The delegation also included 60 heads of leading Israeli companies in the fields of security, infrastructures, communications, health and agriculture.  Several bilateral agreements between the two countries were signed,” he added.

Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Shafiyev said “[Azerbaijan] supports a two state solution, an independent Israel and Palestine living peacefully side by side.”

Azerbaijan itself has been embroiled in its own conflict with Armenia. In 1991, the conflict escalated into war and Armenia occupied parts of Azerbaijani  territory, causing mass  population  displacement of Armenians within the country.

According to a bulletin put out by the Embassy of Azerbaijan  in Ottawa , “Israel supports the principle of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity in the resolution of the Armenian-Azerbaijan conflict.”

The bulletin quotes Israeli President Shimon Peres as having said, “Despite the occupation you have managed to preserve your culture and optimism. I understand the problem of a million of refugees and IDP [internally displaced persons] in the country with a population of over 8 million people. This means that every eighth citizen of the country is a displaced person.  But you cope with this problem with dignity.”

Shafiyev, who grew up in Baku, and has a Masters Degree in Public administration from Harvard University Kennedy school of Government, as well as a law degree from Baku State University told the Winnipeg Jewish Review  that  “I  had ten Jewish classmates in my high school, and my history teacher was Jewish.  I have kept in touch with my classmates. One of them now lives in Haifa.”
President Shimon Peres
President Shimon Peres.
Photo by Rhonda Spivak.


Mountain Jews
Mountain Jews

Shafiyev also told t
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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.