Azerbaijan’s energy drives a connection between Jews and Muslims

Azerbaijan’s energy drives a connection between Jews and Muslims

SOCAR’s Rauf Mammadov speaks with Nick Lane at the Lev Society event exploring Israel’s biggest Muslim ally: Azerbaijan. (Photo by Bee Schindler)
SOCAR’s Rauf Mammadov speaks with Nick Lane at the Lev Society event exploring Israel’s biggest Muslim ally: Azerbaijan. (Photo by Bee Schindler)

A long slinky line on a map that travels from Azerbaijan through Georgia and into Turkey is often referred to as the peace pipeline, as its oil frequently ends up in Israel.

The Baku-Tbilsi-Ceyhan Pipeline funnels some 600,000 barrels of crude oil a day across its 1,100-mile expanse, making it an international phenomenon that connects countries to each other through energy, explained Rauf Mammadov, director of the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR), during the Oct. 6 Lev Society meeting at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

Once a part of the former Soviet Union, Azerbaijan, a 22-year-old country, is bordered on its west by Russia, Georgia and Armenia and on its east by the Caspian Sea. And while it is only a couple of decades old, its GDP was $73 billion in 2013, according to World Bank reports, thanks to its sole major export: energy. It is 10 years younger than SOCAR’s Mammadov and has a strong Muslim identity.

Its energy, Mammadov said, connects Jews to Muslims.

“Israel’s strongest ally in the Muslim world” was plastered across Mammadov’s first PowerPoint slide, setting the stage for a discussion about the critical relationship between Israel and Azerbaijan.

With a Jewish population in the Muslim state dating back to the seventh century, Jews in and around the capital of Baku — or “mountain Jews” — fled from Iran. Approximately 6,500 of the country’s 9 million residents are Jewish.

“It’s a good role model for how different nations can coexist,” Mammadov said.

The event was geared toward American Jews who wanted to have a larger discussion about Israel’s energy policy.

Azerbaijan’s “relationship with the Jewish American community has been strong for years,” said Ari Mittleman, a partner with Roberti White, a bipartisan federal government affairs and public relations firm in the U.S. He was hired by SOCAR a year and a half ago to work alongside Mammadov, SOCAR’s only U.S. office employee.

“The story [of Muslim and Israeli connection] is one that all Jewish community members [can get behind],” Mittleman said in a phone interview after the event.

The Allentown native’s father is a rabbi, and his mother was a Hillel director, and while Mittleman said that he had been to Israel many times, he said he never thought about where the tour bus gets its gas.

Israel uses about 300,000 barrels of oil a day, emphasized U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), who serves as a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and introduced Mammadov during the evening event in Oakland. And with Israel not being a producer of oil, having a strong connection to an energy supplier is critical, he said. “Energy is a fundamental factor in modern society.”

The state-owned SOCAR provides 40 percent of Israel’s oil, making the 65,000-employee company the largest supplier of energy to the country. Its mission includes breaking down international barriers such as religion and culture that could otherwise hinder powerful relationships.

Mammadov, who lives and works in the Washington, D.C. area, said the company’s homeland, although deeply religious, allows people to dress and live how they desire as opposed to other Muslim countries that aren’t quite as open. Iran, he said, is Azerbaijan’s largest neighbor, and its citizens don’t necessarily want a secular space that is within a six-hour driving trip.

He said the company and country are at times vulnerable to attack, citing the short distance from major global cities to their doorstep, but “nothing can happen because we have international ties that save us.”

In a nod to its trading partner, Israel sells Azerbaijan about $1.6 billion in defense weapons each year, according to information provided by SOCAR during the event, further linking the two countries together.

Next steps for SOCAR and its network include the completion of the Southern Corridor pipeline, a natural gas project that will connect production areas in the Caspian Sea to Europe, traveling through seven countries and bringing 11 companies together. Discovered in 1999, the natural gas supply is the largest condensate field in the world, according to research conducted by BP, one of the gas companies partnering with SOCAR.

The $45 billion project will improve the security of energy supplies and reduce the world’s dependency on oil, Mammadov said.

Having the U.S. support SOCAR and the pipelines is critical, Mammadov said.

“Come to Azerbaijan,” he urged conference attendees, pointing out tourism spots such as 12th-century architecture at the Caspian Sea ports.

Mammadov also urged political action.

“Educating your congressmen about the issues [is important,]” he said. “They always have stereotypes.”

There are many different types of individuals practicing Islam, elaborated Mittleman, and Azerbaijan is a “startup nation” that requires solid relationships based in modern business tactics. It’s good business, he said, to do good work with Israel.

“A famous line in Jewish tradition is, ‘You can’t have a Torah without flour,’ ” said Mittleman. “Point is, you can’t have a startup nation without gas to start up the engine.”

Bee Schindler can be reached at