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Rob Sobhani

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From Baku to Baltimore: An Investment in Education

Posted: 10/19/11 12:18 PM ET

Beyond the first two letters in their names Baltimore and Baku appear to have very little in common. Baku is the capital of energy-rich Azerbaijan, a republic of the former Soviet Union the size of Maryland with a population of eight million. With an oil fund in excess of $32 billion and projected revenues of $200 billion by 2024, Azerbaijan is fast becoming the Kuwait of the former Soviet Union. But it is not oil wealth that distinguishes this secular Muslim country sandwiched between a resurgent Russia and a fundamentalist Iran. Religious freedom and tolerance is its bedrock. For example, Azerbaijan is home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world and in celebration of this fact last year the Chief Rabbi of Israel visited Azerbaijan to inaugurate Baku's largest synagogue. Even members of the Bahai faith, who are persecuted and tortured in neighboring Iran, are free to practice their religion in Azerbaijan. Not surprisingly, the regime in Iran has tried to undermine Azerbaijan's secular system on numerous occasions as to decouple Baku from ties with the U.S. and Israel.

After the September 11 attacks, Heydar Aliyev, then President of Azerbaijan, invited the U.S. ambassador to his office and offered his country's unconditional support in the war against terrorism. Azerbaijan opened up its airspace to American aircraft -- some actually take off from BWI. It also sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. But its most meaningful partnership with America might be on the education front, with Maryland posed to become its long-term partner.

The ties that bind Maryland and Azerbaijan were cemented last week by a generous donation from the Azerbaijan America Alliance to the Urban Alliance's Baltimore program. This donation represents a down payment on a long-term educational relationship between Azerbaijan and the United States whose anchor is investing in our children -- whether in Baltimore or Baku. The President of this non-profit Azerbaijan American Alliance explained the donation in terms of building bridges between the two countries. However, the tone and tenure of Azerbaijan's transition from the dark clouds of communism to market capitalism is set by its fifty-year-old president Ilham Aliyev. The President and his wife, who is a UNESCO Special Ambassador, believe that a nation's wealth can only grow if it invests in education. Indeed, this gift also represents Azerbaijan's natural transition to a modern, forward-looking, and education-based economy. President Aliyev knows full well that natural resources are limited but human resources are unlimited. The President also believes that America's institutions of higher learning are the world's leading research laboratories for the next cutting edge technology, medical device or cure to a deadly disease.

The Urban Alliance's Baltimore program, the recipient of Azerbaijan's donation, is dedicated to preparing low-income and otherwise disadvantage youth to succeed in the workplace through paid internships, training and mentoring. The donation by Azerbaijan will allow ten chosen high school seniors to receive paid internships with Baltimore companies that will enhance their opportunities and potential for success. Veronica Nolan, the Executive Director of the Urban Alliance put it succinctly: "This donation from Azerbaijan will change the lives of ten youth in Baltimore."

According to Shahmar Movsumov, the Harvard-educated executive director of Azerbaijan's Oil Fund, the goal is to convert Azerbaijan's black gold into human gold. This commitment to investing in human capital is a natural extension of President Aliyev's vision to integrate Azerbaijan fully into the international community. In addition to its grant to the Urban Alliance, Azerbaijan is exploring long-term educational partnerships with Baltimore's top-tier institutions, including Johns Hopkins University, UMBC and John Hopkins Medical Center. Currently, Azerbaijan offers $15 million each year to its students for full scholarships to study overseas, and it stands to reason that Baltimore could be the centerpiece of those opportunities. Indeed, to the extent that Azerbaijan's promising future thought leaders get an education in Baltimore's premier institutions of higher learning, a game-changing cancer drug or solution to clean water in the Third world might arise from this mutually beneficial partnership.

I first visited Azerbaijan in 1989 when it was behind the Iron Curtain. I could never have imagined that someday my home state and the city of Baltimore would be the beneficiary of a donation to help high school seniors succeed. The ten students from Baltimore's public schools may not have heard of Azerbaijan before, but the donation from this newly independent country may change their lives.

Looking out across the bay of Baku into the Caspian Sea, Baltimore seems far away, but this distance has been permanently bridged.

Rob Sobhani is CEO of the Caspian Group and a Ph.D. from Georgetown University.