With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Azerbaijan became independent and its status was soon recognised by a number of countries. The UK was among the first to have recognised Azerbaijan’s independence in December 1991. Diplomatic relations between the two countries were duly established in March 1992, with embassies opening in both Baku and London in 1993 and 1994 respectively.
Historically, Azerbaijan – a country located on the Great Silk Road and at the crossroads of Europe and Asia – has always attracted British interest. The first British tradesman is said to have visited my country 500 years ago. With the beginning of large scale industrial exploration of oil in Baku, which later became known as the first oil boom, British companies representing oil, transportation, banking and finance, established their presence in the country. This presence continued throughout the collapse of tsarist Russia and the years of short-lived independence in Azerbaijan between 1918 and 1920. In fact, British oil companies were instrumental in the transportation of Azerbaijani oil to international markets via the Baku-Batumi railway and other means.
Since 1991, the historic co-operation between the two countries has grown from strength-to-strength. High level reciprocal visits such as those of the late President Heydar Aliyev in 1994 and 1998 and more recently those of President Ilham Aliyev in 2004 and 2009 have helped lay the foundation for stronger co-operation in broad areas. Baku has also welcomed a range of British governmental, parliamentary and commercial delegations and missions over the past 20 years which have strengthened bilateral ties between our countries.
Politically, Azerbaijan is a reliable and trusted partner for the UK in the Caucasus and the Caspian region. The UK’s unchanging commitment and support of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and sovereignty in the conflict over Nagorno Karabakh is highly valued. The UK has also been supportive of Azerbaijan’s integration within European structures. In 2010 FCO Minister for Europe, David Liddington, paid a visit to Baku to reiterate the UK government’s commitment to this partnership and welcome the launch of Association Agreement talks between Azerbaijan and the EU. Being one of the first countries to have joined the international mission in Afghanistan, Azerbaijan has supported this international mission by sending its own small military unit as well. The UK Government has always appreciated this and Azerbaijan remains committed to continuing this role in the years ahead. Azerbaijan’s election as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for the period 2012-14 adds a new dimension to our bilateral relationship as both countries look ahead to work together on international issues.
Economically, the UK remains the biggest direct foreign investor in Azerbaijan’s economy, with the energy sector acting as the vital area of co-operation between our two countries. In fact, almost 51 per cent of all foreign investment in our economy comes from the UK. Since 1994, Azerbaijan and the UK have established a successful model of co-operation in the energy field, with the Baku-Tbilis-Ceyhan Pipeline, Shah Deniz gas project and Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli oilfields representing BP’s biggest overseas investment. Around 170 large, medium and small sized British companies operate in Azerbaijan, most of them in the oil and gas sector, but also with operations in areas such as retail, IT, project management, financial and banking services and agriculture. British expertise and industry play a vital role in Azerbaijan’s modernisation of hallmark construction projects in Baku, as these are managed by British consultancies and project management companies.
Another vital dimension of the bilateral relationship covers education, culture and people-to-people interaction. British universities attract hundreds of Azerbaijani students each year and the UK is the third most preferred country for overseas education for young Azerbaijanis. In 2011 alone, the number of our students coming to the UK for education with a government scholarship was over 150. Today, you may encounter Azerbaijani students at almost all British universities and we value this as a crucial contribution to Azerbaijan’s human capital.
Cultural exchange and people-to-people interaction is naturally reciprocal. I am proud to see Azerbaijani organisations strengthening their presence in the UK in recent years, continuing to raise awareness about Azerbaijan and increasing interaction between the people. Organisations such as Azerbaijan House, Anglo-Azerbaijani Society, The European Azerbaijan Society, and Britain-Azerbaijan Business Council are worth mentioning, as well as many student societies at universities across the UK. Each year a range of cultural events celebrating Azerbaijani music, national cuisine and cultural richness are held in London and across the UK.
To conclude, I am delighted to serve here in London at a time when 20 years of co-operation between our countries has delivered concrete outcomes. Today, a strong foundation and willingness exists to take this relationship even further. Both Azerbaijan and the UK are looking forward to further strengthening this vital co-operation and partnership in the years ahead.