Deputy FM of Azerbaijan to Asharq Al-Awsat: Relentless Efforts for Comprehensive Cooperation with Saudi Arabia

Azerbaijani Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Yalchin Rafiyev (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Azerbaijani Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Yalchin Rafiyev (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Deputy FM of Azerbaijan to Asharq Al-Awsat: Relentless Efforts for Comprehensive Cooperation with Saudi Arabia

Azerbaijani Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Yalchin Rafiyev (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Azerbaijani Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Yalchin Rafiyev (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Azerbaijani Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Yalchin Rafiyev stressed Saudi Arabia’s pivotal role in enhancing security and stability in the region, and pushing towards activating Arab-Islamic joint action mechanisms to stop the war on Gaza.

On Saudi-Azerbaijani relations, Rafiyev said: “Bilateral relations are strong and well-established. We support each other within international organizations and in many initiatives,” pointing to his country’s backing of the Kingdom’s nomination to host Expo 2030 and its initiative to host the 2034 FIFA World Cup.

In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, the Azerbaijani minister noted that during his recent visit to Riyadh, he discussed with his Saudi counterpart, Al-Waleed bin Abdul Karim Al-Khereiji, new areas of cooperation and the means to push bilateral relations towards new horizons.

“We presented our views on various bilateral, regional and global issues, and discussed opportunities for economic and humanitarian cooperation,” he stated.

According to Rafiyev, the volume of trade exchange between Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan does not reflect the level of bilateral relationship.

“We are talking about $26 million annually in trade volume, which is of course at the desired level, but in the past few years, investment cooperation has been steadily increasing,” he remarked.

Rafiyev added that Saudi ACWA Power was investing in the wind energy sector in Azerbaijan in 2025, pointing to new projects that would be undertaken by the company in the future.

“Our two governments have concluded agreements for cooperation in the field of energy. This gives us hope that there will be more investment projects coming in the near future,” he said, revealing a visit by the Azerbaijani Foreign minister to Saudi Arabia, early next year, to discuss ways to expand economic cooperation.

The deputy minister of Foreign Affairs said that tourism cooperation with Saudi Arabia has been growing very steadily throughout the past ten months.

“We received about 70,000 Saudi tourists last year, and the volume of Saudi tourists coming to our country demonstrated the closeness of our cultures, our similarities, and the commonality of our traditions,” he underlined.

Rafiyev continued: “We look forward to strengthening cooperation in the field of green energy, green economy, and smart technology in our economic and agricultural systems for the benefit of the entire world.”

Asked by Asharq Al-Awsat on Azerbaijan’s stance on the Gaza war, the deputy minister underlined the need to immediately stop the hostilities and the killing of civilians.

He added: “Azerbaijan’s position on this issue is clear. It calls for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, and the need to stop the ongoing hostilities immediately.”

He also stressed that negotiations should be resumed in order to find a long-term solution to the conflict.

Regarding the latest developments in the Karabakh file, Rafiyev said that Azerbaijan regained its “sovereign territorial integrity, over its entire territory, last September.”

He continued: “We took measures to combat riots and terrorism in the area... Our priority is to normalize our relationship with Armenia to build a peaceful future for our region. We offered peace to Armenia, and the final draft was submitted in September, awaiting reactions from the Armenian side.”

Fakhri Karim: I Conveyed Talabani’s Advice to Assad on Terrorists

Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Fakhri Karim: I Conveyed Talabani’s Advice to Assad on Terrorists

Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)

The late Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, excelled at delivering messages subtly. In private meetings, he spoke more freely than in public statements or interviews. His chief advisor, Fakhri Karim, often joined these discussions.

Luncheons were lavish, showing Talabani's respect for different opinions, though he rarely followed doctors’ advice.

Talabani believed that Iranian leaders were smart and hoped they wouldn’t try to control Baghdad from Tehran, citing the failed attempt to manage Beirut from Damascus.

He noted that Iraq’s independent spirit makes it hard for the country to follow the US, Iran, or Türkiye. Talabani also admitted giving refuge to 80 Iraqi officers who had fought against Iran, after they were targeted by certain groups.

Talabani praised Syria’s late President Hafez al-Assad for his invaluable support, providing accommodation and passports.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Karim revealed he had warned President Bashar al-Assad, on behalf of Talabani, that militants allowed into Iraq to fight US forces might later turn against Syria.

This, Karim noted, did happen.

After the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982, Karim relocated to Damascus. There, he expanded his Al-Mada organization, focusing on publishing, translation, and organizing book fairs, alongside his political activities.

This allowed him to build relationships with top civilian and military officials.

In 2000, after Bashar al-Assad came to power, he met with Karim.

“I felt Assad was eager to listen, especially given my connections with many intellectuals,” recalled Karim.

“I told him dissenting voices exist but are mostly positive. You talk about modernization and renewal; this is a chance for some openness, even in elections,” Karim said he told Assad.

“Do you think anyone could really compete with you, given your position as the Baath Party's leader with all its resources?” Karim questioned.

Karim then discussed the situation of Syrian Kurds with Assad, noting that many lack identification papers, even basic travel documents. He also mentioned seeing historic Kurdish areas in the Khabur region with their names changed to Arabic, which causes sensitivities.

“I am not satisfied with this situation. Rest assured, this issue is on my agenda, and you will hear positive news about it,” Karim cited Assad as saying at the time.

In a later meeting, after the change in Iraq, Karim met Assad several times.

On one occasion, Karim recalls conveying Talabani’s greetings and concerns about armed fighters moving into Iraq and the dangers this posed to both Iraq and possibly Syria.

“We have deployed large forces to secure the borders, but what can we do? There are tribes and smugglers,” Assad complained about the situation.

“I told President Assad that as Fakhri Karim, I couldn’t share with the Americans what I know. I assured him that terrorists enter Iraq from a specific location I’m familiar with, not from all borders,” Karim recounted to Asharq Al-Awsat.

“I also noted that Syria tightly controls its airspace, shooting down any foreign aircraft,” he added.

Assad then responded to Karim and said: “We’re prepared, let us know what we can do.”

In reality, Damascus was worried because there were reports suggesting that Syria’s Baath regime could be the next target for the US army at its borders. Additionally, Damascus was concerned about the sectarian divisions—Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish—in dealing with Iraq and the potential impact on Syria.

Repairing Kurdish Relations

Karim has spent years working on repairing the relationship between Kurdish leaders Talabani and Masoud Barzani.

This history began with the split that gave rise to the ‘Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’ from the ‘Kurdistan Democratic Party.’

Despite bloody conflicts and external meddling, Karim believes Kurdish leaders unify in the face of danger to their people and region, a pattern he expects to continue.

Karim believes that the Kurdish leadership, symbolized by Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, made a big mistake at the beginning by focusing only on regional issues, ignoring Baghdad’s affairs.

He thinks they should have aimed for a federal democratic system that respects citizenship rights.

Karim pointed out that without a unified Iraq, the region’s rights would be uncertain. He also criticized the Shiite-Kurdish alliance, which he sees as odd.

Additionally, he mentioned mistakes in failing to unify regional institutions and increasing corruption, with party interests often trumping competence in appointments.

Asked about the personal bond between Talabani and Barzani, Karim said: “Both have moved past their tough history, but they haven’t done enough for the future.”

“I want to highlight an act by Barzani that shows his character. When Talabani was sick, Barzani made it clear to anyone thinking of harming Talabani or his family that there would be consequences,” he revealed.

“This isn’t hearsay, it’s firsthand,” affirmed Karim.

“Barzani also refused to discuss the presidency or a successor during Talabani’s illness. I personally organized a gathering for Talabani’s family, where Barzani reassured them, ‘I’m here for you, I’m family.’ His words moved everyone, showing a strong emotional connection,” he added.

When asked about Barzani’s character, Karim said: “He's been a long-time friend, and our relationship has been politically aligned and personally warm from the start.”

“I see him as a loyal friend, and he's shown that loyalty on multiple occasions. He’s smart, decisive, and listens carefully, often changing his mind after thorough consideration,” he noted.

“Once Barzani commits to something, he finds it hard to go back on his word. There was a moment during negotiations with Saddam Hussein when he stood firm despite my advice to reconsider,” recalled Karim.

Regarding the aftermath of the independence referendum, Karim believes that the negative turn in the political landscape began during Nouri al-Maliki’s tenure.

Al-Maliki’s attempts to shift alliances and his refusal to compromise exacerbated tensions.

The referendum itself wasn’t the problem; rather, it was exploited by some to punish the Kurdistan Region.

However, Karim emphasized that holding referendums is a citizen’s right, and the purpose of the Kurdistan referendum was to affirm this right, not to declare independence.