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Profile: Abid Sharifov

Azerbaijan's Deputy Prime Minister

I don't want a photograph of me at my desk,' says Abid Sharifov. 'It is too untidy.' He agrees instead to pose in front of the large map of the country.

The state of Sharifov's desk reflects the size of his job. As well as being Azerbaijan's Minister for Transport and chairman of the State Committee on Construction and Architecture, he is also Deputy Prime Minister.

Sharifov is responsible for the reconstruction of Azerbaijan's infrastructure. This is an enormous task given that the country is larger than Scotland, has nearly double the population and has been virtually bankrupt since the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Its infrastructure has fallen into decay. Everything from the water supply to the transport network needs rebuilding.

However, Sharifov is well qualified for the job. Throughout his career as a civil engineer, he has been involved in the construction of much of the country's infrastructure. Before entering government he ran the state- owned construction company.

As a young man, Sharifov left his home town of Sheki in the north to study civil engineering at Baku University. 'Ever since I was a boy I dreamed of becoming a civil engineer,' he enthuses. 'A civil engineer's work is creative. They make everything and leave behind them a bit of history. The Russian writer Maxim Gorky wrote: 'Civil engineers know and remember, you are the most important men on earth'.'

After graduating in 1962, he worked on various construction projects around Azerbaijan. He even spent two years in Turkey working on railway electrification. His enthusiasm for the profession has not diminished. 'There is nothing about construction that I dislike.'

He sees his background as invaluable to his current job. 'I was appointed because of my experience,' he explains. 'I worked on many different projects during the Soviet period, including the President's palace here in Baku and many transport projects.' His background taught him important skills for his current role. 'I always do my best to be professional and to finish jobs on time. Even in the Soviet period we had time limits on projects.'

He is well aware of the magnitude of his current job. 'In all fields we need technology and techniques,' he explains. 'We want to get away from outdated Soviet technology. We need investment to modernise.'

Most of Azerbaijan's foreign investment to date has been in the oil sector. But the country's location between Europe and Asia has attracted outside investment in its transport system. The European Union's Transport Corridor Europe Caucasus Asia programme is financing the redevelopment of the ancient Silk Route between Europe and Asia. 'Azerbaijan is a small country but its location makes it very important,' says Sharifov.

'We are blessed with lots of opportunities,' he claims. 'We have very highly qualified personnel and great potential in many sectors. In the coming years Azerbaijan will extract between 60Mt and 70Mt of oil, and that is just oil. There will be a boom in all areas. The companies already here are lucky. They are settled. Now is a chance for others to choose.'

When asked if he has a message to companies interested in coming to Azerbaijan, Sharifov's face lights up into a mischievous smile. 'For those that are not here yet, there is a Russian proverb,' he says. 'Better late than never.'

Richard Thompson

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