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Booming Baku gears up for critical Cop29

Azerbaijan faces all the challenges the UAE overcame at Cop28 – and some more

Baku's old architecture and strikingly modern Flame Towers give the city a unique appeal Alamy via Reuters
Baku's old architecture and strikingly modern Flame Towers give the city a unique appeal

A visit to Baku is always a labour of love, but last week the city seemed more exotic, cosmopolitan and downright cool than I’ve ever seen it.

Maybe it’s the influx of Russian wealth escaping the war in Ukraine; maybe it’s the period of historically high oil prices the country – a proud petro-state – has enjoyed in recent years; or maybe it’s the fruit of the rebound in central Asia-Europe trade post-Covid.

Whatever. It’s all paying off for the capital of Azerbaijan.

Apart from the obvious evidence of economic good times – hectic traffic, busy malls, full hotels – the centre of the city is an architectural historian’s delight.

An 11th-century Islamic fortress is surrounded by Persian-style residential and public buildings, ringed by Tsarist-era broad boulevards, with grand European palaces built by the capitalists – Rothschilds and Nobels among them – who hot-footed it to Baku when it produced half of the world’s crude.

Throw in a bit of residual Soviet-era brutalism, and some post-independence monumentalism like the Flame Towers, and you have a neck-aching variety of architectural gems to take in along the shores of the Caspian.

Since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Azeri government has made a determined attempt to restore the grandeur of Baku after the ravages of communism – and it shows.

I was there to attend the Baku Energy Week forum that has become an established feature of the global calendar, with an increasingly international flavour.

There was a message from President Biden in the form of a letter praising Azerbaijan’s role as a pillar of global energy security; and an address from Sultan Al Jaber, the outgoing Cop28 president, who is passing the baton of the UN Climate Change Conference from the UAE to Azerbaijan ahead of Cop29 later this year.

The event was organised by Socar, the Azerbaijan state oil company, but there was big input from the global industry, especially the Gulf: Adnoc, Masdar and AIQ from the UAE, plus Aramco and Acwa Power from Saudi Arabia, were joined by BP from the UK and TotalEnergies of France. Opec also sent a big team.

And – perhaps as a sign of how it will go at Cop29 – the consultants were there in force, led by BCG and Deloitte.

Landon Derentz of the Atlantic Council, a Washington DC-based think tank, put Azerbaijan in a global geopolitical context.

He explained how, as a central link in the “middle corridor” route that aims to connect China and central Asia to Europe, and the hub of the energy rich Caspian basin, Baku is potentially a long-term winner from changing global trade patterns – if it can negotiate the tricky geopolitical forces at play between China, Russia, Iran and the West.

All this helps to explain why Baku is an appropriate choice to host Cop29, even after some horse-trading involving Russia and Armenia.

In later private conversations with Azerbaijan officials, I got the impression that the country is already well aware of the challenges that will be coming its way at Cop29.

Organisational essentials have been sorted out. The 40,000 or so attendees will convene at the national Baku Olympic stadium, which I think is a first for a Cop – they’re normally held in convention centres or exhibition parks.

The organisers are confident that Baku and the surrounding Absheron Peninsula will have sufficient accommodation for the delegates, and demonstrations and parades by NGOs and others will be allowed, even welcomed – within reason.

The Azeris could take a leaf out of the UAE playbook, largely ignoring extraneous attacks

On the substantive agenda, climate finance is working its way to the top of the priorities, as emerged from a meeting of UN climate change delegates in Bonn, Germany, held simultaneously with the Baku event last week. But there is a long way to go before definitive proposals emerge.

Staging a Cop is as much a showcase for national reputation these days as it is about climate, and the Azeri officials I talked to were acutely aware of potential pitfalls, particularly from the “eco-warriors” in Western media.

In addition to complaints about the Cop process being “hijacked” by a hydrocarbon producer, Baku will also face scrutiny over its human rights record and alleged lack of transparency in business and official transactions.

The Azeris could take a leaf out of the UAE playbook here by largely ignoring these extraneous attacks and concentrating instead on staging a successful event with real deliverables.

There is an added geopolitical element that the UAE did not face. The war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh is over, and the “recovered territories” are back under Azeri control.

The forum heard that these areas, and nearby Zengezur, are designated “fossil fuel free zones” that will become a model of net-zero living once the displaced population returns.

But the power of the Armenian diaspora will probably ensure the issue of Azeri-Armenian tensions remains on the news schedule ahead of and during the Cop29 meeting.

Frank Kane is Editor-at-Large of AGBI and an award-winning business journalist. He acts as a consultant to the Ministry of Energy of Saudi Arabia and is a media adviser to First Abu Dhabi Bank of the UAE

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