Elman T. Abdullayev is Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of The Republic of Azerbaijan to Addis Ababa and Permanent Representative to the African Union. He is also the Head of Mission to the neighboring countries, including Djibouti and Kenya. For the past two decades, Abdullayev has maintained a rich diplomatic career while serving in various countries representing the oil-rich nation as a diplomat. Prior to coming to Ethiopia, he had been in Brussels as adiplomat to the European Union (EU) and served at the Consulate in Los Angeles (US), among other places. Abdullayev had also served as Spokesman for Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Relations. Since December 2015, he has been in Addis Ababa setting up the first Azerbaijan embassy in Ethiopia. Ever since, his arrival, he has been engaging in discussions with Ethiopian government representatives as well as private institutions looking for closer cooperation and partnership regarding trade and investment as well as people-to-people relationship between the two countries. Yonas Abiye of The Reporter sat down with the Ambassador to discuss issues ranging from the Ambassador’s diplomatic career right up to his very mission in Africa, particularly in Ethiopia. Excerpts:
The Reporter: You have been here in Ethiopia since December 2014 with the dual mission as head of the Azerbaijan mission in Addis Ababa and as a permanent representative to the African Union. Can you briefly explain your diplomatic activities since the opening of your embassy in Addis Ababa?
Ambassador Abdullayev: We opened our embassy here in Addis Ababa officially in March 2015. In fact, I had first arrived here ayear ago before the official opening ceremony of the embassy and presented my credential to FDRE President Mulatu Teshome (PhD). It was then that our embassy in Addis Ababa was said to be fully operational. As a diplomatic mission, the first thing that we were engaged in our one-and-ahalf year stay has been to introduce our country and where we are from; Our culture and potential to the people of Ethiopia and the entire society. It, in other ways, is aimed at building bilateral co-operations with Ethiopia in various areas including political, economic, cultural co-operations and other sectors such as tourism and trade. For us, our priority is to initiate dialogue among the people of Azerbaijan and Ethiopian.
Speaking of developing the possibility of a dialogue among the peoples of the two nations, how do you define the culture and social norms among the two people? Is there any social fabric or cultural make- up that the two peoples share?
This is an important aspect that we emphasis in our diplomatic mission. When we mean the introduction of the country or the people, it is defined in two ways. The major task of a diplomat is to bridge the gap between societies. So, we build bridges between our societies and/or countries. The major connection of our countries is the connection of our people. Hence, we share a lot of values; one of these important values Azerbaijan and Ethiopia share is that we are both proud of our unique values of tolerance and multi-cultural ambience. And, of course, this is a very good example of peaceful co-existence, peaceful dialogue between the representatives of cultures, nationalities, religions and other social groups. This actually conveys a strong message and it is a demonstration of how this multicultural ambience can be a source of pride for us. Of course, when we talk about the introduction of Azerbaijan to Ethiopia, we are also talking about the introduction of Ethiopia to Azerbaijan. It’s a two-way street. It actually means the bilateral introduction of each other’s cultures. So far, we have achieved a tremendous deal in this regard.
Is there anything worth mentioning about people-to-people relations in terms of cultural exchange so far? Is there an existing exchange among the two countries?
Since the late 1960s, we have had very intensive education exchange programs for students in higher learning institutions. Over the past half a century, for instance, more than 800 Ethiopian students were able to graduate from Azerbaijan universities. Today, we are in touch with most of them. More than 67 percent of them we meet or communicate with frequently. Some are here in their homeland while others are in various places abroad. We have a cultural program whereby we meet them, we always try to keep the attachments of those people with the Azerbaijan culture, history, Music and cinema until today. They spend their precious youth living in Azerbaijan mostly in 1960s, 70, 80, even in 2000. There were also some students who continued their PhD education after obtaining their 1th or 2nd degrees. I also witness other Ethiopian families who were introduced to Azerbaijani’s families. These people got married with Azerbaijanis. And Children are born there with two different backgrounds. For example, there are some children you may see here in Addis Ababa, who may tell you that they were born in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. This is the kind of people-to-people relations that we try to keep alive. That’s also why recently we hosted a movie festival for Ethiopians. We screened a collection of old Azerbaijan movies mainly or films about the culture and history of Azerbaijan. If you know, we (Azerbaijan’s) are the first nation among the Muslim countries to have operetta moves which is called Action Mallala the Close Petler. Together with Ethiopian officials and diplomatic representatives here in Addis Ababa, the former students attended this movie screening. This event is of the mechanisms we use to keep our attachment. These students indeed are living testimonies to the history of Azerbaijan transforming from a former soviet union country, which was suffering from a political instability and economic downturn, to the most advanced and modern European economy.
One of your objectives, you have said, when you launch your embassy in Ethiopia, was to explore economic and investment potentials that Azerbaijani investors and the government could tap into. What have you learned so far? Is there a potential for Azerbaijan investment here?
While we were settling down in Addis at the beginning, officials of the government were very supportive. They were also open to us to discuss economic co-operation and cultural co-operation. They also listened to us. Especially, they offered us proposals for business to business co-operation and partnership; we have had several meetings in different sectors. Since I have arrived, I have also knocked on several doors with ideas, with proposals of economic co-operation. First of all, what I come to understand is that there is a very huge potential of economic co-operation between the two nations. When we began investigating various sectors where we can start co-operation, we have actually found out that there are real potentials for the co-operation. But, there are also other areas that cannot be excluded from the co-operation. While discussing with senior officials including those at the ministerial level in trade and other economic sectors, we have discovered that we have to have business-to-business interactions. Our business people, representing the private sector and the private sector from Ethiopia, really have a lot to discuss. At the core of our economic co-operation, there should be a business partnership. When foreign investors start to explore opportunity in another country, local business people are very important aspects of the equation.
But have you indentified specific sectors yet? As you may well know, the government is trying to attract foreign investors by offering special incentives and privileges including building infrastructure, industry parks and so on?
Of course, but there are even more opportunities in this country apart from what the government is indicating. But, as a first step, we have to introduce our business people to each other; we have to introduce our products to each other. We have to build bridges among the peoples; we have to build means or ways of the communications between each other. One of the potential areas that I think is important for this co-operation is the food industry. Food and agriculture should be a priority because Azerbaijan has good industry and agriculture sectors. We are the major food exporters in the region. We have a large experience of producing organic food which today commands a high demand among the international community. There are also other areas we could be engaged in such as petro-chemical. This sector is another important area in which Azerbaijan has achieved very high specialization.
The petro-chemical industry is one sector Ethiopia has identified to develop. How are you planning to be engaged in this sector? Will you be focusing on importation of your product directly or do you have plans to go into oil exploration in Ethiopia?
The first step might be import. First, petro-chemicals do not necessarily mean only oil and gas. There are so many products in petro chemical industry. Azerbaijan, of course, has a long experience in this industry. We even have industrial parks exclusively housing petrochemical industries. These kinds of industries, in fact, are not a kind of industries that you establish for five years or ten years. It is a long-term investment and requires huge expenses. The Ethiopian government would benefit to explore the experience Azerbaijan has acquired in this sector. It has to get acquainted with Azerbaijan products. Today, agricultural development in Azerbaijan is going very fast. We developed this sector and brought farming to a high standard. The IT sector (which is developed 15 percent this year alone) is another area which Ethiopia could benefit from. More than 80 percent of Azerbaijan population had internet access. It’s one of the highest in the world. We developed this area very well and merged it with agriculture, so we have created e-farming system. Over all, I suggested to Ethiopian officials in various ministries as well as businesses in the chamber of commerce that we should do Azerbaijani-Ethiopian business forum. In addition, I have suggested to them that a large group of business delegation could go to visit Azerbaijan whereby they can explore Azerbaijan industries and trade opportunities. There are high infrastructure development, industries and petrochemical production that Ethiopians can explore there. Similarly, a lot can also be learnt from the hotel and tourism industry. As it is known, Azerbaijan has built its infrastructure or industries starting from scratch after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The infrastructure that we have inherited from the Soviet Union era did not correspond to the 21st century. So we had to rebuild again. Today, the infrastructure Azerbaijan has is considered to be one of the most advanced in the world. That is why I suggest Ethiopian officials and business people explore Azerbaijan’s achievement by going to the source. On the other hand, Ethiopia has a lot of products that can be introduce to the Azerbaijan market such as flower, coffee, sesame and others. Similarly, Azerbaijan also has a lot of products to introduce to Ethiopia. When I say all those, there should also be the effort to bring Azerbaijan business people to Ethiopia for similar reactions. I also believe that there is also a favorable condition for joint venture and joint investments in Ethiopia.