(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
BAKU, Azerbaijan – Oil, and lots of it. That’s the first thing you notice when
you land in this country at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. On the way into
the capital from the airport, the sweet smell of petroleum permeates the air as
you drive past an abundance of refineries – some new, and some old, dating back
to when oil was first discovered here over 100 years ago.
thing that sticks out is the affluence oil has brought in recent years. Baku is
undergoing a massive face-lift, with ornate skyscrapers quickly replacing the
decrepit three-story apartment blocks. Whole neighborhoods have been razed to
make way for the new.
But while oil has benefited the elites, it has yet
to trickle down and create a large middle class. On Baku’s congested roads,
battered Soviet-era Ladas still outnumber flashy new Mercedes two to
Like the rest of the former Soviet republics with Muslim majorities,
Azerbaijan has had diplomatic ties with Israel since it declared independence in
the early 1990s.
Hebrew University Prof. Raphi Yisraeli, who
teaches courses on Islamic, Middle Eastern and Chinese history, as well as on
the Islamic countries of the former Soviet Union, described Israel-Azerbaijan
relations as being the byproduct of the country’s desire for modernization and
diplomatic relations with the West.
“When Azerbaijan and the Islamic
countries of Central Asia became independent after the breakdown of the Soviet
Union, the thing they needed was help. Many of these countries figured that
Israel was the best conduit through which to get close to America,” said
“These countries wanted to... develop themselves in all types
of fields, like military, hi-tech, agriculture – fields in which they could find
great help from Israel,” he continued.
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“One of the differences between
Israel and other countries such as France or Germany is that those countries ask
for countries that they assist to maintain certain standards of human rights,
something Israel doesn’t ask for.”
He said that while these countries
were Muslim, they remained largely secular as a result of the suppression of
religion by the Soviets. In addition, he said, the totalitarian regimes that
control them ensure that radical Islam is quashed, preventing serious threats to
the relations with Israel.
Regarding Azerbaijan’s ties to Iran, Yisraeli
said the country found itself in a complicated position.
two-thirds of the world’s 25 million Azeris live in Iran, while only about seven
million live in Azerbaijan,” he said.
“The proximity of Iran and the ties
they maintain due to their Azeri population is something that the government of
Azerbaijan needs to watch closely.”
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