UK Ambassador: This year will be a great opportunity for us to highlight this growing strength of the relationship

Baku, December 30, AZERTAC

Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland James Lyall Sharp has been interviewed by AZERTAC.

AZERTAC presents the interview.

-Mr. Ambassador, relations between Azerbaijan and the United Kingdom are historical and strategic. The United Kingdom was one of the first countries to recognize Azerbaijan’s independence. What can you say about the current state and prospects of relations between our countries?

-My view is that our relationship is going from strength to strength. When I arrived two years ago, Azerbaijan was celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Contract of the Century, the deal with BP. This brought home to me how strong the bilateral relationship is, and how much the UK has done to support Azerbaijan’s development. But it’s become increasingly clear to me that there’s so much more to the relationship than oil and gas. I’m especially pleased about the people to people links. There are so many Azerbaijanis who have studied in the UK, or have worked there, or are learning English, or love British culture, or have visited the UK. Looking ahead, this gives us an excellent basis for the future relationship in all fields. And I think that the “people” element – or “human capital” – is really important for the future not only of our relationship, but also for the development of Azerbaijan. Things like education and the English language are fundamental to any country’s future in what is increasingly a knowledge-based global economy, and of equal importance is the need to make the most of everyone’s talents. So here we’re supporting, for example, opportunities for disadvantaged children to learn English, for medical services in rural areas, and for people with disabilities to find jobs. And we’ve been active in promoting gender equality and opportunities for conflict-affected women. In the New Year we plan to open – with the support of the State Committee for Family, Women and Children’s Affairs and UNDP Azerbaijan – several Women’s Resource Centres in towns close to the former line of contact. We’ve also funded the drafting of a National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, an agenda which we think is especially important after last year’s conflict: it’s really important to build on that victory to create a sustainable long term peace in the region, and that means ensuring women – with their different approaches and perspectives – can help build that peace and promote reconciliation.

I feel really proud of how we have been able to help the people of Azerbaijan, and I’m looking forward to next year, when we will celebrate the 30th anniversary of our diplomatic relations. This will be a great opportunity for us to highlight this growing strength of the relationship.

-The British company Company Champan Taylor won the tender for the development of the master plan of Shusha. The Ministry of Energy of Azerbaijan and BP have signed an implementation agreement to build a solar power plant in Karabakh. What are your plans for the participation of British companies in the restoration of the liberated territories of Azerbaijan?

-Yes, we’re aware of those agreements. Of course, the first thing that’s needed is for the territories to be demined. It’s obviously crucial to ensure that IDPs can return to their homes without fear of being blown up. There have already been too many deaths. So I’m really pleased that we’ve funded British experts to support ANAMA, and that British companies and organisations are helping with the demining effort, for example by training ANAMA staff or using innovative drone technology to map the minefields. More broadly, the development of the territories offers a lot of opportunities for Azerbaijan in areas of UK commercial strengths, such as education, healthcare, information technology and clean energy, and I know UK firms will be interested. I think that sometimes the companies aren’t clear exactly what the opportunities are, or how to find out more information. I know that plans here are still developing, and I’m sure a systematic approach, with publication of opportunities and open tenders would benefit Azerbaijan in attracting the best – and the best-value – foreign companies.

-British companies have been successfully involved in oil production in the Azerbaijani sector of the Caspian Sea for many years. This is an example of successful cooperation. In your opinion, what are the opportunities for cooperation in the non-oil sector – renewable energy, agriculture, health, science and education and other areas?

-Yes, that’s true, and we’re really proud that UK firms have been able to help Azerbaijan’s development and support its independence and sovereignty. Now, as Azerbaijan looks to diversify its economy, and as the world seeks to tackle climate change, we too have been focusing more on the non-oil sector. We marked this change of approach at the Joint Intergovernmental Commission Ministerial meeting here in May, where we agreed to strengthen our cooperation in 14 different areas. As you say, these include renewable energy, agriculture, health, education, information technology, the financial sector and the creative industries. We have signed an MOU on Energy Transition Cooperation, and are providing support on things like energy market liberalisation, energy efficiency, offshore wind opportunities. We have also set up a British Chamber of Commerce in Azerbaijan to support UK firms looking to become involved in all these sectors. So I feel confident that we have an excellent basis for future trade and investment cooperation in many areas.

-Mr. Ambassador, you have recently visited the liberated city of Aghdam. What are your impressions?

Yes, I visited with my US colleague, and I’m grateful to the President’s Special Representative Emin Huseynov for showing us around. Of course, there are a lot of ruins, but my main impression was one of opportunity. The plans for the rebuilding of the city look amazing, and are an opportunity to showcase Azerbaijan to the world. And it’s not solely the technology, but – perhaps more importantly – the human element. For example, we were talking about the importance of ensuring that the Smart Cities and Smart Villages build in the needs of people with disabilities and take account of the perspectives of women. It’s a fantastic opportunity for Azerbaijan to “build back better”, after both the conflict and Covid. So I’m looking forward to see how Aghdam develops, and I was telling Emin how much I wanted to return in five years’ time to see what the new city looks like! I should just add that I was also really pleased to see all the mine awareness signs in and around the town. This is part of an additional programme we have funded in cooperation with ANAMA to raise awareness among the people of the risks of mines and unexploded ordnance.

-Tofig Bahramov, an Azerbaijani football referee, was once well known in England. Fifty-five years ago, England’s fair play had a significant impact on its ability to become world champions. Do you know about this?

Definitely! Everyone in England knows about that match, which was the only time that England won the World Cup. But we’re getting close to winning again! We reached the semi-finals of the World Cup in 2018, and the final of the European Championships this year. So we think there is a good chance of victory at the World Cup in Qatar in 2022. Hopefully there will be an Azerbaijani referee there too…!

Talking of football and Azerbaijan, I watched both matches that Wales played here in Baku during the Euros2020, and I want to say how impressed I was by the organisation of the matches, and how hospitable Azerbaijanis were towards the Wales football team. Both the team and supporters really enjoyed being here. I also recently attended a domestic match at which Neftchi played in orange shirts with the slogan “Qadına Qarşı Zorakılığa Son!” (End violence against women) as a way of raising awareness about this important issue. For a football team to show this commitment in front of nearly all male spectators was a strong sign.

-You have been operating in Azerbaijan for three years now. How does our country and its people, our traditions affect you?

Well, it’s actually been a little over two years! But from day one, I have been overwhelmed at how warm and friendly people here have been towards me, both me personally and the United Kingdom. I’ve also been impressed by how broad the concept of family is here compared to the UK, with people helping and supporting a much wider range of relatives. Maybe for this reason the country feels very safe, both in Baku and in the regions. I’ve very much enjoyed the opportunities I’ve had – despite Covid – to visit different regions and see so many different landscapes and so many aspects of people’s lives. That’s the thing I’ve enjoyed most – meeting people, especially young people, with their hopes for the future and their interest in the world. That’s what makes this job worthwhile.

-What are you favourite dishes in Azerbaijani cuisine?

Tough question! I’m always excited when I’m invited to an Azerbaijani restaurant. I love grilled aubergine here, and the different types of kebab. And qutablar are excellent for lunch – light and very tasty. I like regional specialities too, and one dish I always remember is piti. Enjoying food is often not only about the food itself, but also about the overall experience, so having piti during my wonderful visits to Sheki (yes, I went back again because I enjoyed the place so much!) was marvellous.

-Mr. Ambassador, the UK has recently co-hosted UN's largest climate summit COP26 in Glasgow where delegation from Azerbaijan also attended. What would you say about the outcomes of COP26?

-Well, first of all I would say that many of the positive outcomes happened in the run-up to the summit, with a lot of countries committing to stronger emissions reduction targets. So over 90% of the world economy is now covered by net zero targets, up from less than 30% when the UK took on the Presidency of COP26. At the summit itself, nearly 200 countries agreed the Glasgow Climate Pact, which will speed up the pace of climate action. One innovative thing we did was for the first time to secure commitments on specific issues, in particular forests, vehicles and coal. So, for example, many countries agreed to make all new car sales zero emission by 2040, to phase out the use of coal, and to end deforestation. I’m really pleased that Azerbaijan signed up to all of these commitments and more.

Ultimately, of course, the big question is whether we succeed in slowing down climate change and keeping global warming down to 1.5 degrees. Here the answer is that 1.5 is still alive, but we’re not on track to meet the target. That’s why it was agreed that countries would return next year with stronger emissions reduction targets. It’s really important that all countries play their part. We still hold the Presidency until COP27 at the end of next year, so we will continue to encourage Azerbaijan to strengthen its reduction target to 2030 and to commit to net zero emissions by mid-century, as called for in the 2015 Paris Agreement. BP – who are already committed to net zero – and SOCAR will clearly have an important role to play in this, but it will need to be a cross-government effort, covering the wider energy sector, transport, waste management, and many others. I know there are concerns about reducing emissions while the economy is growing, but the UK provides a successful example of this – between 1990 and 2019 our economy grew by 78% while our emissions reduced by 44%.

-Mr. Ambassador, thank you for the interview.

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