In an interview with Azeri Observer, the Malaysian Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Dato’ Yubazlan Yusof speaks about Malaysia’s cooperation with Azerbaijan in both energy and non-energy spheres such as the Southern Gas Corridor project and the launching of Azerbaijan’s first satellite-Azersat. He also talked about the potential of Azerbaijan’s non-oil sectors, which are appealing to Malaysian investors. The Ambassador took the opportunity to explain how the Malaysian Technical Cooperation Programme could play a role in the restoration of the liberated territories. In relation to the current pandemic situation, Yubazlan shared the initiatives by the Malaysian government in adapting to the new reality as well as the new rules of entry to Malaysia. He also shared his plans on cultural diplomacy initiatives in promoting people-to-people relations and spoke about his experience living in Azerbaijan.
By Elena Kosolapova
Azeri Observer STAFF WRITER
Question: Our countries enjoy fruitful cooperation in several international organizations. Tell our readers more about it.
Answer: Malaysia and Azerbaijan have always enjoyed and continue to enjoy a close and friendly relationship since the establishment of our diplomatic relations in 1993. Despite the distance, our countries share similarities in many aspects. Both Malaysia and Azerbaijan are Muslim majority countries. Therefore, we share many common characteristics and practices in our culture and religion. Both countries are also members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), as well as the United Nations, and we share common positions on many international issues of mutual interest at the multilateral fora.
Malaysia has always shown support and solidarity for Azerbaijan in relation to the Nagorno-Karabakh issues based on the four resolutions by the United Nations Security Council and through multilateral fora, namely the OIC and NAM. As a member of the OIC Contact Group on the Aggression of Armenia against Azerbaijan since 2016, Malaysia has been continuously supporting resolutions and initiatives introduced by the OIC on the Nagorno – Karabakh conflict. Malaysia also voted in favor of the United Nations General Assembly resolution 62/243.
At the same time, as close partners and like-minded countries, Malaysia and Azerbaijan also supported each other’s candidatures in various international bodies. For example, with Azerbaijan’s support, Malaysia was successfully elected recently to the UN Human Rights Council for 2022-2024, as well to the Council of Administration and Postal Operations Council of the Universal Postal Union for 2021-2024.
Q.: Thousands of kilometers separate Azerbaijan and Malaysia. However, it doesn’t prevent us from cooperating. For example, Malaysian PETRONAS is involved in several of Azerbaijan’s energy projects. How does it contribute to the development of ties between our countries?
A.: Both Malaysia and Azerbaijan are interested in mutual economic cooperation and highly focused on strengthening the existing good relations. The establishment of the Embassy of Malaysia in Baku has paved the way for closer cooperation between our two countries in trade and investment. Malaysian PETRONAS’ presence demonstrates that our country sees Azerbaijan as a fast-developing country in the region and recognises its importance and engagement within the area. The total expenditure by PETRONAS in Azerbaijan so far is estimated at more than $5 billion. We are happy to be a part of the historical commission of the Southern Gas Corridor project, delivering Azerbaijani gas to Europe.
The numbers of high-level visits from the Malaysian Premier and Ministers are a testament to our growing commitments and strong bilateral ties. The working visit by Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Malaysia to Azerbaijan, Dato’ Kamarudin Jaffar, on January 21-23, 2022 is expected to reinvigorate Malaysia-Azerbaijan bilateral ties to greater heights. We had planned for this visit last year, but it was postponed twice because of COVID-19.
During the visit, the Malaysian Deputy Foreign Minister paid courtesy calls to Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister, Assistant to the President of Azerbaijan – Head of the Department of Foreign Policy Affairs of the Presidential Administration and the Deputy Speaker of the Azerbaijani Parliament. Malaysia is looking forward to finalise the MoU on Bilateral Consultation and establishing formal cooperation between the two foreign ministries in the near future. In addition, the visit provided an avenue for both sides to explore potential measures to advance people-to-people relations among others through niche areas such as tourism, education, as well as youths and sports. The working visit is an evidence of Malaysia’s commitments to kick-start the post-pandemic cooperation between our countries.
Q.: Do you see any openings for further enhancement of cooperation in the energy field?
A.: Malaysia is always looking for potential involvement in all sectors in Azerbaijan. The biggest part of investments in Azerbaijan falls on the oil and gas industry. As a global energy and solutions company, PETRONAS portfolio also includes conventional and unconventional resources and a diverse range of fuel, lubricant and petrochemical products, as well as renewable energy. With the right opportunity, collaboration in these fields could be extended with Azerbaijan in the future.
Q.: Years ago, Azerbaijani Azercosmos and Malaysian MEASAT Satellite Systems cooperated to launch the first Azerbaijani satellite, Azerspace. How does cooperation in the space sphere develop now?
A.: Malaysia and Azerbaijan signed an agreement on leasing the orbital position owned by Malaysia’s Measat Satellite Systems (MEASAT) in May 2010. The agreement had pioneered the establishment of Azerbaijan’s space industry. As a result of the fruitful cooperation, Azerbaijan had launched its first telecommunications satellite, Azerspace-1/Africasat-1a on 7 February 2013. The Azerspace satellite was designed to provide digital broadcasting, internet access, data transmission, and create VSAT multiservice networks, and governmental communications covering Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia and North Africa.
In July 2021, and in line with the parties new strategic direction, MEASAT sold its Africasat-1a to Azercosmos, while maintaining the general cooperation framework. The cooperation has given the opportunities for both countries to explore more potential collaborations in aerospace technologies in the future. I hope there will be many more future collaborations between our countries in aerospace technologies.
Q.: Currently, Azerbaijan is focused on developing the non-oil sector. Do Malaysian businesses show interest in cooperation in this area?
A.: With the diversification of Azerbaijan’s economy, Malaysia is very interested in exploring your resource-rich country’s dynamic and appealing economic landscape. There is enormous potential for our states to broaden the scope and dimension of cooperation in the non-oil sectors, especially in the tourism industry, alternative banking, information technology and multimedia, health, sports as well as education. We continue to encourage Malaysian businesses to be involved in the dynamics of Azerbaijan’s economic spheres. Many Malaysian companies are looking at the potential of business opportunities in Azerbaijan. If the conditions are conducive and there are available opportunities, Malaysian companies might consider joining potential projects and collaborating with the local companies in the future.
On the other hand, we also encourage Azerbaijani investors, traders, and businesses to come and explore the huge potential that our economy has to offer. Malaysia can be used as the central economic hub for a market of more than 600 million people in the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) region as we are strategically located by land, air, and sea. I would like to invite any Azeri businesses that are interested in exploring Malaysian and ASEAN markets to approach the Embassy of Malaysia. We are more than happy to arrange and link you with potential partners.
Q.: Malaysia has a developed tourism industry. Unfortunately, the pandemic had a very negative impact on this sector. The restrictions that are still in place changed the approach to developing this sector in many countries. How does Malaysia plan to develop tourism in the new reality? Do you still consider Azerbaijan as an essential partner in this sphere?
A.: Before the COVID-19 crisis, the tourism sector was one of the major contributors to Malaysia’s economy, contributing 15.9% to the country’s GDP and roughly 24% of the total employment in 2019. In the same year, Malaysia received 26.1 million inbound tourists and 86 billion Malaysian ringgits ($20.54 billion) in tourism revenue, providing 3.6 million jobs.
To restart its battered tourism sector, the Government of Malaysia has implemented a few strategies in the post-pandemic exit plan. To safeguard our population as well as to ensure Malaysia is a safe tourist destination, our Government is working hard to make sure the population has full access to the COVID-19 vaccines. Malaysia is now on the road to becoming one of the countries with the best vaccination rates in the world. As of 30 December 2021, Malaysia had fully inoculated 97.6% of its adult population or 78.4% of its total population, with 90.4% of youth aged between 12-17 receiving at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Since the interstate travel ban was lifted in October 2021, our Government has been promoting domestic tourism as the fundamental pillar of Malaysia’s tourism sector in the post-pandemic era. The increase in domestic tourism had contributed to the 45% growth in the occupancy rates for hotels in Malaysia in November 2021.
In line with the National Recovery Plan Phase 4, the Government of Malaysia has also reopened its international tourism sector for the Langkawi Island Tourism Bubble, and fully vaccinated travellers are allowed to travel to Langkawi for a minimum stay of three days. They will be allowed to travel to other destinations within Malaysia after seven days spent on Langkawi Island. Movement to and from Langkawi Island will be only by air transport through Kuala Lumpur International Airport and Langkawi International Airport. As of December 2021, over 600,000 domestic and foreign tourists have visited Langkawi, with tourism revenue reaching 640 million Malaysian ringgits ($152 million).
Malaysia further explored the possibility of opening its borders by launching the Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) to unify the cross-border tourism policies with Singapore. Quarantine-free travel between the two countries is possible for fully vaccinated visitors. The VTL saw the reopening of Kuala Lumpur International Airport and Singapore’s Changi Airport, and Malaysia is looking forward to expanding the lane to other ASEAN countries when the conditions permit.
With the Omicron variant surging in different parts of the world, Malaysia will need to take all the necessary measures before fully reopening its borders. The necessary COVID-19 measures will remain in place, and all travellers are required to comply with the pre-departure and arrival procedures.
Yes, Azerbaijan will continue and remain to be an essential partner to Malaysia in the tourism sector. Malaysia sees the potential for Azerbaijan to be the central hub for tourism due to its very strategic geographical location; at the crossroad between Asia and Europe. A direct flight between Malaysia and Azerbaijan would be an impetus to establish the transport corridor between our regions and expand the bilateral cooperation in many areas, including tourism.
Q.: Malaysia always supported Azerbaijan in the issue of Karabakh. After the liberation of the occupied territories, we are working on their restoration. How can Malaysia assist in this process?
A.: We are glad to see the positive progress in the restoration works of the liberated territories. President Ilham Aliyev’s vision for the redevelopment process of the liberated territories is very impressive as it is a step ahead of transforming these areas into futuristic and self-sustainable regions, and we look forward to seeing the result of these great projects.
Malaysia is willing to share our knowledge and experience through the Malaysian Technical Cooperation Programme (MTCP). Since its inception in 1980, more than 34,000 participants from 144 countries have been trained in the MTCP programmes. Azerbaijanis have been a beneficiary country under the MTCP since 1986 and to date, 172 Azerbaijani participants have joined various courses under the programme. For the restoration process in Karabakh, we could explore the MTCP platform to provide the relevant training courses that would be helpful to assist Azerbaijan in the process. Malaysia also could use its experience to provide capacity and peace-building courses under the MTCP to promote confidence-building measures amongst the concerned parties in sustaining peace in the region.
Q.: What activities help our nations learn more about each other’s cultures?
A.: People-to-people relations are vital to help our nations learn more about each other’s culture. A Malay proverb says, “Not knowing is hence not loving”. Under our new foreign policy framework, cultural diplomacy has been identified as an extension of public diplomacy. Thus, public diplomacy plays a crucial role in promoting our cultures through cultural programmes and events. Public diplomacy through arts and crafts, gastronomy, and language, would leave a long-lasting impression and memorable experience for the public.
The Embassy has many plans in the future to organize several public diplomacy programmes with relevant partners such as the MTCP Alumni Club Azerbaijan and Azerbaijani social media influencers.
Q.: Tell us about your experience in Azerbaijan. What memories of our country will you cherish when your term is completed?
A.: Since my arrival here in 2019, I have had the privilege to explore this very beautiful country. In general, Azerbaijan is a unique country that combines both modern and historical elements. I have been to many regions of Azerbaijan and enjoy stopping by the cities located in between the routes. Among others, I have enjoyed the historical towns of Ganja, Shamakhi, and Sheki, the breath-taking scenery of beautiful mountains, forest, and greenery in Quba, Gabala and Astara as well as the precious UNESCO heritage sites. I consider myself very fortunate to be able to visit the liberated regions, especially Shusha, Aghdam and Fuzuli. It was a memorable experience to finally see this historical and amazing land. Whilst, the capital of Baku itself is very impressive with its iconic buildings and ancient city structures. Most importantly, you will find the local people greeting you with excellent hospitality wherever you go.
In Azerbaijan, I also have had the most outstanding gastronomy experience, as the Azerbaijani cuisine is vibrant, with its fresh vegetables and products as well as the excellent taste of meat and poultry. No doubt, the lamb here is the best I have ever tasted. I have travelled in almost all the regions in the world, and nothing compares to the distinct taste of the lambs here. Shah plov, piti, lula and sebet are among the foods that I enjoyed the most in Azerbaijan. Last but not least, I will cherish the friends that I have here; a whole array of friends that I appreciate and am grateful for.