What Does Oil Do to A City?
It’s fair to say that, given the right conditions, if a country has access to a vast amount of resources, the potential for sustainable, long-term growth is huge. The potential for development that lifts people out of the doldrums of poverty is fascinating. Azerbaijan is a country that has unfettered access to a vast amount of oil. Once that is put into place, the opening score should start, the political and economic actors should assume their places, and, given the incredible amount of economic and political literature describing “correct” policies for development, the script of the development play should be able to direct itself.
Yet, that play seems to stumble right from the first scene far too often, and Azerbaijan’s production is no exception. What I am interested in here is the effect the oil boom has on the social landscape in Baku and along the pipelines that traverse the physical landscape. I wrote a few things in this previous post about the relationship the government has with its citizens and how it interacts with its more restless citizenry, creating a tenuous brand of stability. I think it’s fair to say that Azerbaijan’s actions pursuant to this stability are related to its goals of attracting foreign investment and foreign companies (i.e., BP), as much as they are towards maintaining a grip on the current power structure. And this is how you end up with stories like this, of mysterious arrests and stifled speech.
Another aspect of attracting foreign companies is the prospect of weaving expatriates into the social fabric, colored with a social restlessness that translates into astonishing behaviors by said ex-pats. I’ve been to a few Baku bars, seen the nightlife of Baku a few times, witnessing not only how drastically different it is from life in the regions of Azerbaijan, but also how the behaviors are more generally bizarre and undesirable. Paul Theroux writes rather bluntly, in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, “…deep-water oil-rig specialists had to be brought in from Britain and the United States. These foreign oil workers swarm the bars, fill the hotels, and get into drunken brawls…” And because this is the only exposure most Azerbaijanis have to foreigners, that is idea formed in their minds of how foreigners behave. That, and what they see in movies. He doesn’t even mention the obscene presence of prostitutes roving the expatriate karaoke clubs and bars of Baku.
To be sure, that doesn’t describe the entire city. However, the most developed parts of the city, the parts attracting tourists, oil-workers, and other expatriates, such as embassy workers, international consultants, and so on, are so different from the rest of Baku that the contrast is glaring. I can’t speak to oil-growth cities in other developing countries, such as Lagos, Nigeria or Caracas, Venezuela or Astana, Kazakhstan, but this paper from Stanford professor Terry Karl highlights a few of the social problems in oil-growth cities:
…the most likely local result of an oil boom (along with higher than average local inflation, increased migration, chronic underemployment, and food shortages) is increased prostitution, AIDS, and crime….The migration of workers and the conditions of their housing lead to an increase in the incidences of communicable diseases, such as AIDS, other sexually transmitted diseases, tuberculosis and cholera. Along the Chad-Cameroon pipeline, for example, temporary encampments have led to the rise of prostitution and, consequently, the appearance of HIV/AIDS (P. 25-26)
I can imagine that the smell of black gold bubbling up from the ground hasn’t necessarily inspired the positive virtues we would like to see growing in developing countries.