Azerbaijan lies in a pivotal strategic position, straddling the Caspian Sea and rich in oil and gas reserves. This is the country which helped make Gulbenkian and the Nobel brothers rich. Today, hydrocarbons are making many Azeris wealthy as a major source of reliable oil and natural gas for Western Europe, including Britain. Ambitious plans are under way to export gas to Europe via the Nabucco pipeline.
Baku, the capital, is a curious place. On the way in from the airport there is a pervading smell of refined hydrocarbons – a legacy of the Russian era. One sees a lot of olive trees and semi-completed housing. Close to the beach there is a profusion of oil platforms. Heaven knows what President Obama would think. In town, traffic lights and road markings are purely advisory. A rash of five-star hotels are under construction – Baku is obviously a boom town.
Azerbaijan’s strategic importance, nestling next to Iran, is one of the reasons NATO co-sponsors an annual Summer School for a cluster of exceptionally bright young men and women drawn from seventeen different countries in central and eastern Europe, along with the former USSR. The School attracted a clutch of distinguished speakers, including Chris Springer, a US major with the 173rd Airborne Division who previously taught economics at West Point.
On behalf of the IEA I was invited to give a paper on the recent financial crisis as well as moderate one of the five-day-long sessions. The overall theme of the School was financial security, counter terrorism and money laundering. Azerbaijan is an apt location since the latest Index of Economic Freedom points out that the country has slid from 150th to 158th in the Transparency International World Ranking of Corruption. Altogether 179 countries are ranked – 179th being the most corrupt.
Our first day attracted a veritable horde of television crews, assorted media and diplomats. Nearly all the attendees had masters degrees, if not PhDs. They were a very impressive lot and extremely well informed. They shared one thing in common: an interest in the market and how we can enable the market to deliver consumer benefits.
The attendees demonstrated a tremendous thirst for knowledge about the banking crisis and moves to re-regulate the world economy. In this context, the IEA’s Verdict on the Crash, edited by Philip Booth, proved invaluable. I told them it was the best thing I had read on the financial meltdown that hit the world economy in 2007/8. Judging by their interest, the IEA is likely to win many more supporters around the Caspian.