In an exclusive interview, Azerbaijani Ambassador to Cairo, Mr. Tural Rzayev, tells the Azeri Observer regarding the centuries-long history of ties between the two countries, the current situation in Egypt, and the prospects of joint investment projects. He also shares information on the agenda of the next intergovernmental commission meeting, Azerbaijani cultural events in Cairo and his famous family.
By ELENA Kosolapova
Azeri Observer staff writer
Question: You are coming from a well-known family. Your father is a famous writer and your mother is a musicologist. Did you not want to follow in their footsteps? How did you come to diplomacy?
Answer: My father, Anar Rzayev is a national writer of Azerbaijan, dramatist and film director, and my mother, Zemfira Safarova, is a famous academician and musicologist. My father’s parents – Rasul Rza and Nigar Rafibeyli are national writers of Azerbaijan. My mother’s father is a well-known oilman Yusif Safarov, and one of the streets in Baku has been named after him. My sister is also a writer. My wife is a musicologist. So, I was the first one to engage in diplomacy. However, my children have followed in my footsteps. I have 2 sons, Rasul and Anar, who graduated from the faculty of international relations. So, I am not the only diplomat in the family anymore.
Frankly speaking, in the last grades of school I wanted to enter the cinema faculty of the Russian State University of Cinematography. However, since I studied the Azerbaijani language, I was afraid to fail a writing exam in Russian, so I decided to choose another University. I was interested in other countries, however it was the Soviet period when the borders were closed, and there was only one faculty in Azerbaijan, which gave an opportunity to see the world – the faculty of oriental studies – that allowed me to go abroad as a translator. That was the reason why I decided to study Arabic philology, but later in the process of studying, I became obsessed with oriental history, culture and religion. While studying at the University, I already worked as a translator for Arab groups coming to the USSR, in Moscow, and Leningrad – which is now St. Petersburg. In the fourth year of University, I went for an internship to Libya for one year. Then, I went to Syria to work as a translator with Soviet oil workers. After the independence of Azerbaijan, I began a job at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and went through all the steps of the diplomatic career path; I started as an attaché, then became second secretary, first secretary, adviser, and finally ambassador. However, I believe I have inherited something from my family. In my free time I write books and I paint. I now have about 50 paintings and 3 books of satirical stories, as well as one television film I wrote the script for.
Q.: Let us talk about your current job. Egypt was the first African country where Azerbaijan opened an Embassy back in the 1990s. Do you think that it happened because of a special importance of this country for Azerbaijani foreign policy?
A.: Egypt is a very big, influential and important country from a political and geopolitical point of view. It is one the most densely populated countries of the Islamic world, with approximately 110 million inhabitants, according to unofficial data. Our countries have had ties for centuries. Egypt is located at the crossroads connecting Asia, Africa and Europe and historically used as a trading, cultural and economic center. Many people traveled through Egypt and some of them settled there. Therefore, there are some famous Egyptian doctors, engineers and clerics with Azerbaijani roots with traditional Azerbaijani surnames such as Ganjavi, Nakhchivani, Shirvani and Bakuvi. These surnames have been known in Egypt since the Middle Ages. When Azerbaijan gained independence, our relations became closer and Azerbaijan opened one of its first embassies in Egypt. Our cooperation in the economic, political and cultural spheres are actively developing. Moreover, we cooperate and support each other within international organizations – the UN, Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Non-Aligned Movement, etc.
After the revolutionary processes in Egypt from 2011-2012, this had a negative effect on the country’s economy and social stability, and there was a period of stagnation in our cooperation. The Egyptian parliament did not ratify bilateral documents signed in 2008-2010 for a long time, because there was no parliament in Egypt due to these revolutionary processes. Therefore, the intergovernmental commission did not hold any meetings for more than 10 years. However, after 2014, these documents were then approved, and we held a meeting of the intergovernmental commission in Cairo in 2018. The next one is scheduled for this year. We have also created a group of friendship with Azerbaijan in the Egyptian parliament, which is in active operation. Finally, we exchange minister level visits, public figures, with Azerbaijan taking part in cultural events and fairs in Egypt and vice versa. Therefore, we develop cooperation in all areas.
Q.: So, can we say that the crisis period in Egypt is behind us now?
A.: The situation in Egypt is stable now. I believe an increase in the number of foreign tourists proves this. If tourists make a choice to pay their own money to come to Egypt, it is a good indicator, because it is impossible to force people to go somewhere they don’t want to go. I am also happy that Egyptian tourists are interested in Azerbaijan also. According to the Azerbaijani State Statistics Committee, the number of tourists from Egypt in Azerbaijan rose by 84% in 2019. My interviews and the interviews of our other diplomats in the Egyptian media, the dissemination of the information about Azerbaijan through concerts, exhibitions, presentations of various products, are all measures promoting Azerbaijan among Egyptians.
Q.: You mentioned that the next meeting of the intergovernmental commission is scheduled for 2020. Who will take part in it? Is the meeting agenda ready?
A.: The meeting will take place in Baku. We had planned it for January, and the co-chairmen of the commission (Azerbaijani economy minister and Egyptian minister of international cooperation) were supposed to take part in it. However after some reshuffles in the governments of both countries, it was postponed. New ministers were appointed, and they need some time to get accustomed to the institutions entrusted to them in order to be ready to hold any international gatherings. It is expected that Egypt’s Minister of International Cooperation, Rania Al-Mashat will take part in the meeting. She previously served as a minister of tourism and visited Baku last year. There will be a lot of issues in the agenda. Usually, the intergovernmental commission considers and assesses the results of cooperation regarding the previous meeting. At the last meeting, the issue of direct charter flights was discussed, and they came true last summer and will be resumed soon. This time, the cooperation in tourism, education, and economy will be discussed.
Q.: Tell us about our trade cooperation. What are the main trade products?
A.: It is encouraging that we have diversified our bilateral trade. Some years ago, oil was our main trade product, however now we import about 30 Egyptian pharmaceutical products and medicines, Egyptian furniture, products from the light and textile industry, leather goods, as well as the export of petrochemicals. We also exchange different agricultural products. I believe that Azerbaijani carpets, juices, wines, compotes and jams could also find a demand in Egypt, which has a large market of about 110 million people. These goods are now entering European markets, and I think the markets of the Middle East could be the next step.
Q.: What are the most promising fields for the future of investment cooperation?
A.: The Azerbaijani state oil company SOCAR and the Egyptian national oil company, Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation (EGPC) are currently negotiating cooperation. I think this area is quite promising. We could also launch joint factories for the production of food products – juices, compotes, jams – in Egypt. Since Egypt has a developed pharmaceutical sphere, we could successfully cooperate in the production of medicines in Azerbaijan.
Q.: Azerbaijani Universities have been attracting a lot of Egyptian students since the period of the Soviet Union. How does the cooperation in this sphere develop now?
A.: There is not a big number of Egyptian students in Azerbaijan now – maybe a few dozen. They mainly come to study medicine or the petroleum industry. Since we are promoting Azerbaijani culture and art, Egyptian youth has become more interested in studying at our University of Culture and Arts, and especially Conservatory. Our students mainly go to Egypt to improve their Arabic language or study religion at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, which is the largest center of Islam learning. We are negotiating possible scholarships for student exchanges, and plan to include the issues of cooperation in education and sports, in the agenda of the next meeting of the intergovernmental commission.
Q.: Tell us about the events held in Egypt to raise the awareness of Azerbaijan.
A.: There have been all different kinds of events. In 2018-2019, Azerbaijani artists performed in Cairo, both at solo concerts and international events, like the International Youth Festival, and the Week of Islamic culture by the Organization of the Islamic Conference. In 2019, Cairo hosted a week long exhibition of young Azerbaijani artists. Azerbaijani publishers take part in book fairs in Cairo, and Egyptian publishers, in turn, participate in book fairs in Azerbaijan. Our films compete at the international competitions in Egypt. At the same time, Egyptians participate in mugham and classical music contests in Baku. The embassy also organizes some events. For example, on January 20, 2020 we hosted a presentation of a book dedicated to the 30th anniversary of the Bloody January in Baku, by the famous Arab public figure and journalist Mohammad Salama. On February 26, we organized a screening of a documentary film about The Khojaly Massacre committed by the Armenians. This film was shot by an Egyptian crew with the involvement of the Azerbaijani diaspora in Egypt. We support them, because it’s one thing to tell the world the truth of what happened, but quite different when they hear this information from the citizens of other countries. Subconsciously, it is considered as more objective and unbiased. Generally speaking, our main goal is the rapprochement of our countries, by deepening our relations, and I’m pleased to say I think we are succeeding.