Mukhtar Mammadov, the Republic of Azerbaijan’s First Ambassador to Israel
Personal: 40-years-old, married with two children
Languages: Speaks four languages – Azerbaijani, Turkish, English and Russian
Professional: Azerbaijan’s first ambassador to Israel. Between 2009-2013, he worked at the Azeri Foreign Ministry in various positions, including at the embassy in Belgium. Later he began holding senior positions in the Ministry of Education, initially, as the head of the international cooperation department, and then as the deputy minister of science and education.
Azerbaijan’s first ambassador to Israel: “Our relations with Iran are at an all-time low”
Since declaring its independence with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan has positioned itself as one of Israel’s best friends in general, and in the Muslim world in particular. The secular Shiite state became a significant supplier of oil to Israel, at the same time that Jerusalem became a major supplier of military equipment to Azerbaijan. However, and despite the fact that Israel had an ambassador in Baku since 1993, Azerbaijan did not see fit to correct the asymmetry and open an embassy in Israel until 2023.
In March 2023, the friendship between Israel and Azerbaijan received historic validation when the Muslim country finally opened its embassy in Tel Aviv.
In an interview with the Globes newspaper, the Azeri ambassador refers to the tensions with Iran, invites Israeli high-tech companies to operate from Baku and is sure that the relations between the countries are not only about oil and weapons.
The 30-year-long wait ended this year. Last November, the message came from the President of Azerbaijan that his government approved the opening of its embassy in Tel Aviv. In January, the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, decided to appoint the Deputy Minister of Science and Education, Mukhtar Mammadov, as his country’s first ambassador to Israel.
That same month, an event occurred that may shed light on some of the reasons why Baku avoided the step of opening its embassy in Israel: a gunman attacked the Azerbaijani embassy in Iran, killing the chief security officer and injuring two others. Since then, an unusual situation has arisen in which the Azerbaijani embassy in Tel Aviv is more active, while the embassy in Tehran is empty.
In an interview with Globes, the Azeri ambassador referred to his country’s relations with Iran, which he says are at an all-time low. He invites Israeli companies to operate from Baku, deals with the expansion of Israeli tourism to Azerbaijan, and states that “the sky is no longer the limit for relations between Azerbaijan and Israel.”
Tensions With Tehran Increase
“We are interested in good relations with every country, especially with our neighbors,” explains Mammadov regarding Azerbaijan’s hostile neighbor to the south, Iran. “With Iran we have trade relations and cooperation in the fields of energy and transportation. Azerbaijan has never been the one to harm its relations with any country. Unfortunately, with Iran we are at the lowest level of relations since we got our independence.”
The attack on Azerbaijan’s embassy in Tehran in January 2023 was a new peak for Iranian aggression that was also reflected in many military exercises along the border between the two countries. Moreover, the incident was not the last to come. In March, Azerbaijan MP Fazil Mustafa was shot outside his home, but survived the attack. The finger of blame, once again, was pointed at the Ayatollahs’ regime. “Azerbaijan is not the one that brought the relations to the current state,” explains Mammadov, “we want good relations with Iran, but we have not seen any results for the investigation of the attack on the embassy.”
Recently, the possibility of a renewed, even if reduced, nuclear agreement between Iran and the US has come up again. Baku, despite the state of its relations with Tehran, is less concerned about it, and it even seems that Azerbaijan is not in a position similar to Israel’s on this issue. “These matters are between the US and Iran. We do not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries,” explains the ambassador.
Mukhtar Mammadov is no stranger to the world of diplomacy. The Azerbaijani official has a bachelor’s degree in international relations from Baku University (2004), a master’s degree in European studies from the College of Europe in Belgium (2007), and a master’s degree in public administration from the Academy of Public Administration under the President of Azerbaijan (2018). Between 2005-2013 he worked at the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry in various positions, including at the embassy in Belgium between 2009-2013.
At the end of this position, Mammadov joined the Ministry of Education, and served as head of the international cooperation department and chief of staff in the ministry until 2021. In the same year, he received the promotion to the position of deputy minister of science and education, which he held until being asked to serve as the ambassador to Israel this year.
As mentioned, the cooperation between the two countries was close long before his arrival in Tel Aviv. According to Baku data, in 2021 Israel imported 1.7 million tons of oil from Azerbaijan; in 2022 there was a jump of 25% to 2.2 million tons of oil, and in 2023 Israel managed to import 801 thousand tons until April. That is, at the current rate, another increase is expected until the end of the year 2023.
On the other hand, according to data from SIPRI, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, between 2018-2022 Azerbaijan was the second largest security export target for Israel, with 9.1% of all exports. Considering the organization’s estimates that Israeli arms exports are ranked 10th in the world, the scope can be understood. The same diverse military means that Israel provides to Azerbaijan, from rifles to missiles to armored vehicles, greatly helped Azerbaijan defeat Armenia in the Second Karabakh War, in 2020.
Despite the trade figures between Israel and Azerbaijan, Mammadov emphatically states that “relations are not just oil and weapons.”
According to him, “different countries, and not only Azerbaijan and Israel, sell and buy everything. Azerbaijan sells natural gas to close to ten countries in the European Union. This does not mean that the relationship between us and these countries is based only on energy. We are developing the relationship between the countries in various fields, for example in education.”
A Bridge to Business Opportunities
Excluding the peak of the Corona period (2021-2020), in recent years the total volume of trade between Israel and Azerbaijan has been expanding, which in 2022 amounted to 1.7 billion dollars. Since then, the momentum has continued when the aerospace industry won a tender this year for the sale of two satellites, one for observation and one for communication, and according to Mammadov it proves that “the sky is no longer the limit for relations between the two countries.”
“I don’t know anyone who would be satisfied with any volume of trade, because it is always possible to do more,” declares the ambassador of Azerbaijan. “We are the ‘hub’, and we have access to many countries in the region. It is worthwhile for Israeli companies to seek opportunities in Azerbaijan, because activity there and with it opens up new markets. We are mainly interested in joint ventures, and are already holding positive talks that will soon lead to results in the fields of industry, high-tech and agriculture.”
In July 2021, even before the opening of the Azerbaijani embassy in Israel, a tourism bureau was inaugurated in Tel Aviv in the presence of the Minister of Economy of Azerbaijan and the Minister of Tourism of Israel, then Yoel Rezbozov. Considering that the duration of the flight from Ben Gurion International Airport, Israel, to Baku is at most three hours, the Azerbaijanis well understood the potential of incoming tourism from Israel. “Israelis love to travel,” says Mammadov.
Declaration of the Corona pandemic severely affected tourism coming from Israel to Azerbaijan, which reached 47 thousand tourists in 2019. However, already last year there is a renewed and improved tourist trend that reached 23.9 thousand tourists. By April, 2023, 8,611 Israelis landed in Baku. This is admittedly very little compared to the 194,000 Israelis who visited Turkey between January and May, but Azerbaijan is optimistic. “We plan to increase the number of flights, they are already full or almost completely full.”
“The tourist potential is great,” explains the ambassador of Azerbaijan. “During the April visit to Baku of Eli Cohen, Israel Minister of Foreign Affairs, the parties discussed the issue of tourism. This issue also came up during the visit of President Yitzhak Herzog on May 30, 2023. We take care of marketing, and the tourism agencies are doing a hectic job. We work with travel agents and bloggers, and we believe that the volume of Israeli tourism to Azerbaijan will increase.”