The oil- and gas-rich country of Azerbaijan is of great significance to Europe's need for a strategic alternative to its oil dependency on the Middle East. Late President Haydar Aliyev made his country into a new regional player in international energy politics and his son Ilham Aliyev continues to preside over a country booming economically since the South Caucasus Gas Pipeline became operational in 2006, delivering Azerbaijani gas all over Europe. GDP per person, still the best measure indicating economic growth, saw Azerbaijan's ten-year percentage from 2001 to 2010 ranked second in the world. Growing at about 25% a year, this secular though predominantly Muslim country's economy has transitioned from its post-Soviet background to a healthy market economy today, in spite of the challenges of discord in the region which has resulted in about 15% of its population being refugees and displaced people.
This year, growth will be slowed now that most development in oil production is completed and according to The Economist of November 12th, 2011, the oil money is slowly creating a new phase of job growth and stability. This brings me to the next major resource of Azerbaijan after its oil and gas -- its youth. A recent conference I attended in Baku, sponsored by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), established the Youth Entrepreneurs Network (ICYEN) and reinforced the need for recognition of young people as a growing force and resource for the future. According to the Pew Research Center projection in January 2011, the world's Muslim population is expected to increase by about 35% in the next 20 years and it is estimated that in 2010, 25.8% of the world's young people, between the ages of 15 and 29, were Muslim. This "youth bulge" is providing the energy of the Arab Spring movement and equivalents all over the world.
Azerbaijan recognizes this and is to be congratulated on establishing initiatives to foster the talent, energy and hopes of young people who will provide the expertise to continue building the economy in the near future. The First Daughter of Azerbaijan, Leyla Aliyeva, hosted this first conference for young entrepreneurs, building on a policy that has already seen some far-sighted initiatives. The Barama Innovation Center for example, was opened in 2009 in Baku to offer high tech and business training to 20 young entrepreneurs at a time and an "intellectual laboratory" is being established under the State Program for Azerbaijani Youth in 2011-2015, to encourage young scientists and their more active involvement in scientific activity.
Major international donors have implemented programs in Azerbaijan in the years since the Soviet breakup, in the hope of cultivating a strong democratic society and an open market economy. Dr. Elkhan Nuriyev, Professor of Political Science at the Western University in Baku, writes of the compelling need for the European Union to increase its political and economic investment in Azerbaijan, but the current financial crisis in Europe means that this is hardly likely in the near future. Azerbaijan must continue to try to resolve the protracted "frozen conflict" of Nagorno Karabakh as this instability continues to impede security and economic development in the region. The EU is in the position to develop multilateral cooperation and foster constructive dialogue, but the European powers have yet to form a common policy towards the South Caucasus and it can only be hoped that peace talks will eventually prevail. Certainly the current disarray in the European economy is not an attractive talking point in the discussion of widening EU membership to include Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan therefore is not waiting around for help and is taking steps to promote democracy by consolidating its own national economy. The role that business and commerce play in democratization is a vital one, leaving international corporations out of the equation, and it is a compelling fact that responsible small businesses can anchor a society and benefit a peaceful environment. Young entrepreneurs are a major piece in this process, and in the absence of any meaningful government inspired jobs creation programs anywhere in the world, the obvious next move is for young people to start their own business ventures, capitalizing on the boundless enthusiasm and energy of the younger generation. Immediate growth areas are tourism, technology and services to the energy industry. Women entrepreneurs are being encouraged too, by providing them with the necessary skills and resources to start their own businesses. Access to production resources, credit and market opportunities is critical, particularly with micro, small and medium enterprises where women are already making an impact in food processing, textiles, agriculture, beauty care and handcrafts.
A measure of the growing presence of entrepreneurship in Azerbaijan is the recent introduction of online tax registration which saw over 2000 entrepreneurs registering since the system was introduced in July 2011. The Cisco Entrepreneurship Academy was established in Baku last year to encourage the internet generation as it enters the workplace, and teaches young entrepreneurs how to use technology to speed business growth. The Azerbaijani National Confederation of Entrepreneurs is asking for tax concessions for the development of tourism businesses to reduce costs for entrepreneurs. 2011 is the Year of Tourism and international interest is growing in the Eurovision Song Contest to be held in Baku in May 2012. To be staged in a new concert hall, the Baku Crystal Hall now under construction, this event should provide further incentive for young entrepreneurs to take a role in profiting from popular culture, and at the same time improve communication with other young people, reinforcing their commitment to innovation and problem solving in a global environment.
The Islamic Countries Youth Entrepreneurs Network is an exciting example of the future of young Azerbaijani society and it was a privilege to be a part of their forum and to witness their commitment to their country's future and to their international vision of peaceful contributions to economic growth. As President Obama acknowledged with his Summit on Entrepreneurship in April last year, with more than 90% of children younger than 15 living in developing countries, engaging the next generation is critical. Certainly the work of young entrepreneurs in Azerbaijan is off to a promising start and offers a fine example for young Muslims to emulate all over the developing world.