Azerbaijani-Norwegian Friendship: Not Just About Oil

BranobelAt first glance, the cooperation and collaboration between Azerbaijan and Norway seems to strictly fall under the economic category. Their common interests, some argue, are oil and gas, which are indeed a large part of their relationship. Bilateral partnerships between SOCAR (State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic) and Norway’s Statoil have been forged since the fall of the Soviet Union, furthering European energy security and petroleum management objectives, not mention increasing profits. SOFAZ (State Oil Fund of Azerbaijan) is based on the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund model, which transparently manages assets generated from national oil and gas exploration and development.

However, this is not just another post-Soviet story of foreign investment and development. Pre-dating the Soviet Union, ties between the two countries were already well-established. Under the United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway, the Nobel Brothers’ Petroleum Company (also known as Branobel) began work in Baku in 1879. The logo of the Nobel Brothers’ Petroleum Company depicted the Ateshgah Temple near Baku. At the start of the 20th century, 50% of world oil extraction was centered on Baku and some 40% of that belonged to the Nobels. In fact, when the Nobel Prizes were established in 1901, roughly 12% of the prize money was drawn from shares in the Nobel Brothers’ Petroleum Company in Baku. Today, the Nobels’ legacy lives on through the Azerbaijani State Economic University Nobel Scholarship and the Baku Nobel Heritage Fund.

Though its natural resources may have put Azerbaijan on the map, many cultural partnerships solidify ties between Azerbaijan and Norway. Many officials reference the Norwegian explorer and ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl (1914-2002) who speculated that the roots of the Scandinavians were to be found in present-day Azerbaijan. Though never proven, this speculation provides common ground between the two cultures, and remains a source of cultural interest. Inspired by Heyerdahl’s interest in the Udi people, the Norwegian Humanitarian Enterprise (NHE) financed archeological excavations and restorations of an Albanian church in Kish near the city of Sheki in the north-western part of Azerbaijan. In addition, NHE has also financed projects in Nij village in Gabala.

Organizations such as the Azerbaijan-Norway Friendship Society, established in 1995, create bonds of cooperation between Norway and Azerbaijan across a wide range of areas, including culture, education, science, and business activities. The Norwegian Red Cross has cooperated for more than ten years with Azerbaijan Red Crescent Society on humanitarian projects. The Norwegian Society of Chartered Engineers and the Norwegian Energy Efficiency Group organize trainings on Cleaner Production and Energy Efficiency in Azerbaijan. Their goal is to establish an Azerbaijan Energy Efficiency and Cleaner Production Center in Baku to strengthen the work towards cleaner production and energy efficiency.

Educational exchange between Azerbaijani and Norwegian universities gives students broader world perspectives and educational opportunities not available in years past. Khazar University, University of Languages, and State Oil Academy collaborate with Norwegian counterparts such as the University of Oslo, and the Center for Norwegian Studies Abroad (CNSA) at Agder University College, and have established language and cultural programs in each other’s countries. In Azerbaijan, the Scandinavian Center at the University of Languages offers Norwegian language courses as well as regional studies. Moreover, the Norwegian Foreign Service Institute and the Azerbaijani Diplomatic Academy are training young diplomats in both countries. In addition, Danvik Community College, a volunteer “gap year” college, has for many years arranged educational trips to Azerbaijan for their students, who benefit from the many opportunities available in Azerbaijan.

As part of the World Organization of the Scout Movement, the Association of Scouts of Azerbaijan and the Norwegian Guide and Scout Association hold exchanges each year, encouraging cultural education and awareness among Scouts. Finally, the Norwegian-Azerbaijani Youth Organization (NAYO) creates both formal and informal ties between the two countries. Providing educational and cultural opportunities, the NAYO fosters a new generation of cosmopolitan leaders equipped to handle both global and domestic challenges.

The bonds created by these professional, cultural, and educational exchange programs enrich both Azerbaijan and Norway. In a globalized world, these opportunities will only serve to benefit participants, fostering mutual understanding and cultural appreciation.

Post written by Devin Conley, Karabakh Foundation Analytical and Editorial Intern