I travel to emerging markets around Asia and report on what I find
Azerbaijan has read the writing on the wall: the oil is running out and the need to diversify its streams of economic sustenance is more vital now than ever.
Azerbaijan and oil are nearly inseparable. Azerbaijan was among the first oil producing countries in the world, and at the beginning of the 20th century it was generating half of the world’s supply. That fossil fuel gave the country its reason to exist, the reason it has been repeatedly invaded, and the reason it has been able to fair relatively well economically after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It is also the reason why the country has a shot to pull off one of the most dramatic economic turnarounds ever attempted.
And it is a turnaround that is needed: Azerbaijan has roughly 30 years of oil dependency left — far less than Kazakhstan or Iran — and the country is using its current resource wealth to place an all or nothing bet on developing its newly emerging transportation, agriculture, and tourism sectors.
“We understand that oil and gas are not permanent sources of income,” said Dr. Vusal Gasimli, the executive director of Azerbaijan’s Center for Economic Reforms and Communication. “From that point of view and the unpredictability of oil price made our country think about diversification.”
“The government has been thinking about post-oil or has been thinking about how we are going to position the country in addition to oil. What else are we going to do?” said Taleh Ziyadov, the Cambridge-educated director-general of the New Port of Baku at Alyat, a place which is rapidly becoming the beating heart of Azerbaijan’s logistics economy.
The road forward for Azerbaijan means looking back into its history, flipping straight to the pages of what has been retroactively dubbed the Silk Road. This ancient network of trade routes and transshipment hubs is now the inspiration for a very similar network that countries from China to Europe are actively rebuilding today.
“Azerbaijan was part of the Silk Road until the Mongols came and tore it apart,” said Eugene Seah, the operations manager of the New Port of Baku at Alyat. “We are putting it back together where it all started.”
Like in the past, Azerbaijan is at the heart of the Silk Road network, and is aiming to turn itself into a “hub of hubs.” Starting in the 2000s, the country embarked upon a national program to rejuvenate its transportation infrastructure in a bid to renew its ancient relevance as a key logistical node in the center of Eurasia. Using its mountains of petrodollars, Azerbaijan began building new highways, rail lines, airports, and sea ports across the country.
With the ambition to become a true intermodal transport hub, Baku opened one of the largest air cargo terminals in the CIS. Baku Cargo Terminal was designed to be an exact copy of the Luxembourg logistics center, and has obtained the same level of technological sophistication.
In 2011, phase one of the New Port of Baku at Alyat began. This Caspian Sea port eventually aims to handle 25 million tons of bulk cargo and 1 million TEU per year, and will include a giant free trade zone where goods can be manufactured on-site and rapidly exported.
Baku will also be one of the termini of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars rail line, which will more directly connect Azerbaijan with Georgia, Turkey, and Europe beyond, that is slated to open early next year.
In terms of major international highways, Azerbaijan has a 503 kilometer section of the TRACECA Corridor, which connects the EU with Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, and also makes up the middle stretch of the North-South Transport Corridor, which connects Russia and Iran.
There is also talk of Azerbaijan potentially creating additional free trade zones on its border regions.
“The commitment from the government must be there,” Ziyadov continued, “to know that this is coming to build the infrastructure ahead of time. That’s what Azerbaijan is doing. . . The first phase of the infrastructure of the country has been done.”
In the beginning, it looked as if Azerbaijan was wantonly building logistical overcapacity — critics deemed that the new highways were unneeded, and at the time they may have been correct — but now things are starting to look a little different for the transitioning nation.
The entire overland intermodal journey between China and Europe via Baku takes roughly 15 days, which is two to three times faster than sea.Trains packed with European goods can roll into the New Port of Baku at Alyat, be loaded onto a ferry in a matter of hours and then shipped across the Caspian, where they will carry on along Silk Road corridors in Kazakhstan or Turkmenistan — and vice versa for trains coming from China. Currently, 95% of trade between China and Europe is going by sea, completely bypassing Azerbaijan, but the type of cargo that does go overland by rail generally consists of high-value goods — such as electronics, agricultural products, meat, wine, and high-fashion items — and need to be delivered fast. It is this growing segment of the market that Azerbaijan is aiming to tap into.