VIPs and speaker guests from the Caspian Region gathered as the market opened for trading at the London Stock Exchange, before the Second Caspian Corridor Conference began. Photo by Matt Chung

The Euro Caspian Mega Pipeline is a massive infrastructure system designed to suck gas out of the Caspian into Western Europe. Construction of the pipeline involves politics and finance as much as it does concrete building materials,  and the conference I’m about to go to is one in a series of events attempting to make it a reality.

With the dome of St Paul’s cathedral towering over me, I step out of the public space of the pavement on Cheapside and into Paternoster Square. It’s a piece of pristine 1990’s classicism, championed by HRH the Prince of Wales. It bristles with CCTV cameras and has its own security personnel. The space looks public, but it is the private property of the Mitsubishi Estate Company. In one corner are the discreet doors of the London Stock Exchange. I pass through a security check and metal detector manned by LSX staff and am politely asked for my name at the check-in desk. I’m crossed off an attendees list by a man who tells me to go up the escalator and through a set of glass security doors. In another lobby my name and coat are taken by a woman with a lapel badge marked ‘contractor’. Next I pass through a second set of glass security doors and book in my name again with a woman at the reception table, who gives me a conference pack, a conference biro and a plastic lapel badge – with my name and company. Since I left the pavement I’ve been passing through a series of airlocks, a progression of chambers that provide insulation.

And I’m here a little late. The Caspian Corridor Conference is well underway. It is an all-day affair, from the breakfast reception starting at 8 am to the evening concert ending at 22:30. The main body of the event takes place at the Stock Exchange, followed by the Caspian Corridor Gala Concert 2014, an evening of classical Azeri music performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Central Hall Westminster. The whole event is financed by the International Bank of Azerbaijan – which is the national development bank of the country. It is co-hosted by the Britiain-Azerbaijan Business Council, which was established by the Azeri government in 2009 to ‘foster high-level relationships between the public and private sectors’and ‘to entrench Azeri-British business relations’. The Council is based at Asia House located at New Cavendish Street in the West End of London. The conference has been coordinated by the staff of Asia House. Not surprisingly, given that two of their ‘Champion Sponsors’ are the International Bank of Azerbaijan and BP – the latter being the largest foreign investor in Azerbaijan, and the UK’s third largest company. The concert is organised by Buta Arts Centre, in Baku, which was famous for hosting the Eurovision Song Contest in 2013.

Effectively it’s the Azeri state that has hired the London Stock Exchange and Central Hall Westminster. That has paid for the catering and conference packs, for the contractor staff who person the cloakrooms, the reception desks, the coffee breaks, the buffet lunch, the champagne reception, the shuttle buses that run from the conference by St Paul’s to the concert next to Westminster Abbey, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the three soloists (Yegana Akhundova, Natavan Guliyeva and Afag Abbasov) and the conductor Yalchin Adigezalov. It is possible that they’ve also financed the 50 panelists who are booked to speak – their flights to London, their accommodation and perhaps a fee. The day at the Stock Exchange is not particularly lavish, indeed perhaps it’s quite spartan compared to similar conferences, but an event like this requires a substantial outlay of capital. It is financed by funds, which in theory, belong to the citizens of Azerbaijan.

I try to take in what is happening. The programme at the Stock Exchange is anchored around a series of eight panel discussions, plus a ‘round up’ and a ‘closing remarks’. Each of the sessions follows a standard pattern: three or four men (all the 42 of the panelist booked to speak are men) sit behind a table facing the delegates in ten or so rows of cinema-style seats in a windowless lecture theatre at the heart of the building. Each of the speakers represents either a financial institution in the Caspian Region (the International Bank of Azerbaijan or the State Oil Fund of Azerbaijan); or some representative of a Caspian government (the Ministry of Energy of Azerbaijan or the Ministry of Oil & Gas of Kazakhstan); or a multinational doing business in the region (BP, KPMG, ING Bank, JP Morgan or Prudential Capital). The panels are chaired by staff from business media and consultancies (Financial Times, Reuters, IHS CERA), academics from prestigious universities (Cambridge and Harvard) or by representatives of the British Establishment – Lady Barbara Judge CBE, The Rt Hon Lord David Howell of Guildford, The Rt Hon Baroness Elizabeth Symons of Vernham Dean, and Sir David Wooton, former Lord Mayor of the City of London.

The format of the panels runs to a pattern. The Chair introduces. Each of the panelists speaks for 5 minutes or so. The Chair throws back a couple of questions, which are duly answered. Two or three questions are taken from the floor. And then the Chair closes. In some ways it’s impenetrably banal. The brown carpet, the brown veneer walls, the off-white ceiling, the constant temperature and light, the projector that throws slides on the screen above the panelists. I find the banality is sedating, and yet, when I think about it, what is happening here is quite strange. There are 150 to 200 attendees. The vast majority of these are men. Everyone is in a black suit or skirt & blouse. The majority seem to be from some part of the Former Soviet Union. Many chat among themselves in Russian, Azeri or Kazakh. So surely most of them have traveled here for the day. Perhaps 100 or so of these delegates have flown in from Baku, Almaty, Moscow or Ankara. Jet planes to Heathrow; limos, tubes or trains to the hotels; cabs to the Stock Exchange. Doubtless there’s little time to ‘take in’ London – perhaps a bit of shopping in the West End – before flying out again. This event is impossible without the burning of an intense amount of fossil fuels. Part of the strangeness of this event is the feeling of it existing outside any particular place. Despite the fact that these people are meeting in one ‘place’, and not communicating by video conference or ‘phone, the nature of these rooms makes the event feel remarkably ‘out of place’. Removed from the world behind that series of airlocks.

However part of the power that the event draws to itself comes from the resonance of a very particular place. Britain. The conference gains status because it appears to have the approval of the British state and culture. Delegates arrive in the shadow of the dome of St Pauls, which is still the iconic cathedral of Empire. They enter the London Stock Exchange, which despite no longer housing a trading floor still represents The City. They attend a concert played by an orchestra that bears the title ‘Royal’. The event organisers enticed prospective attendees with a list of speakers that highlighted Boris Johnson, Mayor of London and George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer. Even though these two didn’t appear, the event was still graced by one Lord, one Lady and two Baronesses on the podium, as well as several other peers in the audience – including Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne. The Conference is the second such Caspian Corridor event. An earlier one in 2012 was held at Lancaster House and was addressed by The Hon Robert D. Blackwill, The Rt Hon Lord Marland, The Rt Hon Charles Clarke, The Rt Hon Lord Fraser of Carmylie QC and The Rt Hon Viscount Waverley, as well as Lord Howell, Baroness Symons, Lady Judge and (for good measure) the tennis star Boris Becker.

In the absence of George Osborne or Boris Johnson the keynote at this year’s Caspian Corridor is given by The Hon. Charles Hendry MP – Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change between May 2010 and September 2012, and now the Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy to Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. To the packed lecture theatre he says:

The Caspian region is presently one of the most exciting places in the world to do business and yet many people can’t place Kazakhstan on a map even though it’s bigger than Europe. The UK has a long history of working with the Caspian Region. Three quarters of cars on British roads 100 years ago were powered by fuel from Azerbaijan… Last year we took the British Prime Minister to Kazakhstan and it was the first time a British Prime Minister had been there since the country gained independence (from the former Soviet Union). He was two hours late for his meeting but the President said, ‘We have waited 20 years for this so don’t worry.” William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, made his first visit to Azerbaijan last year and we hope to have the first visit by the Turkmenistan prime minister to the UK in the coming weeks.”

Natiq Aliyev

The panel that followed Hendry was led by Natiq Aliyev, Minister of Energy of Azerbaijan – certainly one of the top two or three most powerful men in that country, and part of the ‘Aliyev clan’. Natiq Aliyev worked as part of Central Committee of the Azerbaijan Communist Party from 1984 to 1991, whilst Heydar Aliyev (formerly the First Secretary of the Azerbaijan Communist Party) was in the Politburo in Moscow. When in 1993, Heydar came to power as President of the newly independent Azerbaijan, he immediately appointed Natiq to be President of SOCAR, the state oil company. Six months later Heydar’s son, Ilham became his deputy as Vice-President of SOCAR – together they negotiated the ‘Contract of the Century’ signed with BP on 20th September 1994. After Heydar died his son Ilham became President of Azerbaijan – and he soon appointed Natiq to be Minister of Energy.

If the conference draws power from being located in Britain, then what is the connection between the attendees, or at least the panelists, and the citizens of this country?  Lady Judge was not elected, but has held a plethora of public posts, including Chair of the UK Atomic Energy Authority. The Daily Mail recently suggested she is the best connected woman in Britain. Baroness Symons was appointed as Labour life peer in 1996. Lord Howell gained his place in politics by being the MP for Guildford from 1966 to 1997. And Charles Hendry is still the elected representative for the Wealden Constituency in East Sussex. What is the responsibility of these people to those that gave them power? Are they here to represent them? Or are they here to represent the British government? Or are they here to represent the Azeri government that financed the conference and underwrites the business council that co-hosted it?

It is easy to consider a man like Natiq Aliyev to be unrepresentative of, and unaccountable to, the citizens of Azerbaijan but how representative, how accountable, are Lady Judge, Baroness Symons, Lord Howell and Charles Hendry? And what connection is there between the people on the panels and the world outside, the world beyond that series of airlocks? On one of the panels Gordon Birrell, BP President of Azerbaijan, Georgia & Turkey Region, spoke of the new gas pipeline and how “the hardware is going in the ground very soon”. Not surprisingly there was no mention of communities like Melundugno in Italy that are bitterly opposing the pipeline. Communities in the world beyond the airlocks. Charles Hendry was not only Minister of Energy but also of Climate Change. Many of those who elected him live in the town of Uckfield in East Sussex, which was hit by severe flooding in October 2000. Helping to pull more carbon out of rocks of the Caspian region will only make such extreme weather more common. Do those electors really know what their MP is doing on the other side of the airlocks?

Reflecting on the conference, I find myself thinking of the words of Tony Benn, recently sadly deceased, who was also an Energy Minister. He said, “Democracy transfers power from the market place to the polling station, from the wallet to the ballot.” In the case of Hendry and Howell it seems that the polling station has given them power which they utilise for themselves in the market place. However Benn’s well known ‘5 Questions to Power’ I find as a useful guide to thinking about the speakers on the day:

1) What power have you got?

2) Where did you get it from?

3) In whose interests do you exercise it?

4) To whom are you accountable?

5) How can we get rid of you?