Baku is the capital city of the country of Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan is an ex-Soviet Republic, ruled since independence by a president for life and ex-KGB hard man, similar to Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Heydar Aliyev, the original president of Azerbaijan until he died in 2003, ruled the poverty-stricken (for most of the citizens) and grossly corrupt country with an iron fist.
His son took over after his father died and still rules there to this day. But Azerbaijan is no longer poverty-stricken, vast oil and gas revenues have flowed into the country from the huge oil and gas reserves found under the Caspian Sea. The more revenues to plunder, the more lucrative the corruption is, and the president, his family and his coterie of oligarchs have become obscenely wealthy, plundering Azerbaijan’s wealth
Looking down from a slowly descending airplane making its final approach in April 2003, I saw below a moderately sized city built around a wide bay.
From where I was, the water of the Caspian Sea appeared gray, I had expected an azure blue like the Persian Gulf, but this was more Aberdeen than Abu Dhabi, even the bright early summer sunshine and brilliantly blue sky could not hide the fact that the city looked uniformly dun coloured, almost perfectly camouflaged against the featureless plain upon which it sat. It was a less than attractive vista, even given the exotic images that fabled Baku, once one of the most important commercial centres on the Silk Road, conjured up.
As we dropped lower I began to make out detail. Close to the sea the city seemed to have a pattern, blocks of buildings with roads separating them, but further out, no such pattern was discernible, buildings jumbled together as if in a mad crush, vying with each other to join the neatly arranged structures on the coast.
The plane landed at a small shabby Soviet era airport, where a few parked Aerflot planes sat desultorily in the late afternoon sun. They are I made sorry I was calling you then you not have a number for the yoke of the Masons and the
I was one of a growing army of offshore workers, with the necessary skills to facilitate Azerbaijan’s burgeoning oil and gas industry, being brought there, ultimately by a huge multinational oil and gas company, to kick off the modernisation of their offshore industry.
Since the early twentieth century, when the Nobel and the Rothschild families made vast fortunes from the Baku oil industry, the country had become one of the greatest exporters of hydrocarbons in the world.
The infrastructure facilitating the export of these huge volumes of oil was rickety at best, thrown together haphazardly in the early days, and still being used well into the Soviet-era, threatening to fall down at any moment, and often times did, but delivering the crude to Nobel’s tankers, tanker trains and away into the burgeoning petroleum products market.
Over time pipelines and drilling rigs improved and were updated as necessary; resulting in the hodgepodge that was in existence right up to 2000.
The Dutch survey company that had employed me did so through my agency, so they arranged for a car and driver to meet me and take me to a hotel, until the following day.
The application for an entrance visa to Azerbaijan in those days required the arriving passenger to queue for up to 20 minutes to have one’s passport inspected.
The passenger was then expected to know that there was a secondary queueing required, this time for the Visa.
There were no signs in English and there was no one to explain the system if you didn’t ask in Russian or Azeri.
Some passages part that the inspection of the passport was enough and they tried to go through in which case they were chased by customs or immigration official and brought back, still not knowing what they should do.
Finally it began to dawn on most passengers that there was a secondary queue forming, this one for the Visa.
A Visa in those days cost $50 and consisted of a piece of paper which was stamped and then inserted into the passport.
The arriving passenger and then was required to queue up a second time at the passport inspection desk for inspection of the Visa.
The first time that one arrived in Baku unaware of the immigration formalities, the whole bizarre ritual took nearly 2 hours, but subsequent arrivals tended to be speedier once one had an idea of what to do.
By the time I had organised my entrance visa, our and collected my bag, the sun was down and it was becoming dark.
The exit from airside was through the duty-free, which was it seemed to me poorly stocked, but it had cigarettes for ten dollars a carton, who could resist?
In arrivals I identified myself to the dark hairy, heavy browed man in non-descript T-shirt, tracksuit bottoms and plastic sandals. He was standing alone, looking disinterested, a cigarette clamped in his thick peasant fingers and holding an A- four sheet of paper, with ‘Nelson’ written on it.
The drive to the hotel was through the higgledy-piggledy part of the city that I had seen from the air. It categorically did not predispose itself.
The Red Roof hotel was not five, four or even three star. It was a dump in fact.
There were a lot of drunken Scotsman with ‘girlfriends’ in tow falling around the room that passed as the lounge and dining room.
I was very hungry so I paid my driver ten dollars to bring me to any McDonald’s and back.
I had no idea at that time that I had probably given him the equivalent of a day or two’s days pay, to drive a short distance. I recall that it did improve his demeanour a bit.
The following morning the same driver picked me up at 9 AM and drove me to the office, where I found that the vessel the DSV Academic Tofiq Ismayilov, to which I was going, was tied up alongside, and would be so for a month or maybe longer.
My job was to mobilise the ROV on board.
An ROV is an underwater electrically operated machine which is controlled via a tether from the surface.
A pilot guides (fly’s) the machine (vehicle) to where it needs to be, to inspect (survey) via on-board cameras and sonar, or perform light construction work via the two hydraulic manipulators built in to the ROV.
It all seemed very much in hand, but I was to do two six-week trips on board with two six-week periods at home, before the ROV even arrived.
Every night we went to town, paying the equivalent of a US dollar for a taxi, and five US dollars was a great deal of money to spend on beer in the city over the evening.
Nothing seemed to cost anything.
That was when Baku was the Wild West of the oil industry.
BP paid millions to bring the expertise out from Europe, even when the infrastructure wasn’t there for them.
That was the entropy, when money was poured in to Azerbaijan to build a cohesive system, and incredibly in the fourteen years between 2003 and 2017, it worked.
The chaos of expertise and infrastructure, thrown together in the early years, was shaken up by vast amounts of money poured in, and the Wild West became Aberdeen.
By 2010, everything was strictly controlled, even down to the amount of wine that one had on the flight from London. If more than two, there was a danger of breathalysation at the airport, and immediate turnaround if over the limit set by BP, which ended up at zero.
Practically all the fun things that we did in the early days, such as going for a few beers in the evening, by 2014 resulted in immediate termination.
It was more fun in the early days.