My homeland is in turmoil but should look to Dubai as it looks to rebuild

Sat 28 Nov 2020 09:37 AM

Ulviyya Hasanzade, an expat working as an executive at a US multinational based in Dubai, hopes for a brighter future for Nagorno-Karabakh

War has not been good to my homeland. For thirty years, the once prosperous region in the Caucasus, Karabakh, has been cut off from the world. Deprived of investment, it has become impoverished and depopulated.

The economy of Armenia has been unable to support its development. No international bodies have been prepared to invest in this unrecognised self-declared ‘state’ of Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan. Instead, it has become a grey zone, outside the rule of international law. With the new peace deal, this may now change.

My family is part of the 700,000 strong Azerbaijani refugees of Nagorno-Karabakh and its surrounding provinces. Dispossessed and adrift, this community lost their homes in the early 1990s, when Armenian forces invaded and occupied these lands.

Now I live in Dubai. Here, from unique regulatory zones to innovative social programmes, I have encountered an array of development frameworks. Much could be borrowed when rebuilding Nagorno-Karabakh.

First among them are free zones – special economic areas with tax concessions, customs duty benefits, nominal fees for land allocation to industrial projects, and free flow of capital if its toward investment and entrepreneurship.

Take the Dubai International Financial Centre. Established in 2004, it operates under an independent jurisdiction from UAE, allowing foreign investors and entrepreneurs to bypass obstacles to doing businesses in the country. Similar zones could be considered for Nagorno-Karabakh: clear incentives must be offered to temper the current drawbacks.

Crucially, these free zones can also create opportunities for women to start their own small businesses. Dubai offers tailored female-only business registration packages (for instance, fees for registering a business are cheaper). Tragically, there will be many women in my country who have lost their husbands and fathers during this and the last conflict. Especially for those with families to provide for, facilitating women’s entry into the marketplace is now urgent.

Of course, the economic power of the Azerbaijan state must also be brought to bear. Clever regulation is one thing, but it doesn’t work in isolation. The success of them will depend upon the infrastructure – physical, technology and social – that is put in place.

Azerbaijan has a track-record in the area: during the past two decades, revenues from oil and gas have been ploughed into nationwide development in infrastructure, housing, schools and hospitals, new technology and economic diversification. Now it must deliver the same for Nagorno-Karabakh.

My own generation of refugees also stands ready to play its part. Many have sought professional and business opportunities around the world, learning skills and building experience. An injection of their knowledge and expertise will help revive the damaged and stagnant economy of the region we still call home.

Many of them now wish to go back. When our village, Gecegozlu in Fizuli, was recently liberated, my mother immediately phoned me. For my family and others like us, what this liberation means is that every refugee’s dream – and legal right – to return home is now a reality.

But while we have the right to return, the ethnic Armenian citizens of the region – our former neighbours – equally have the right to remain. Azerbaijan’s President has stated that both communities will be equal in rights. But what the world needs to see now is a framework outlining the ways in which parties to a conflict will work together in a new, post-conflict context, and laying out a structure for the rebuilding of society.

Whilst examples of reconciliation and reconstruction can be found around the world – for example, France and Germany following the second world war — it is clear that moving on from this conflict will difficult for those that have lost family. One thing should, however, unite both returning refugees from Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenian residents: the desire to rebuild and create a better, more prosperous future.

I believe we can rebuild this lost society if all parties commit to peace. But there are several steps to be taken to achieve that.

First, reconciliation involves dealing with the past. One way of addressing this is through ensuring those who committed crimes during the conflict are held accountable. Second, development needs to come back to the spectral cities of Karabakh. New homes and new schools need to be built, new jobs need to be created, and new industries need to be pursued. Communities will be able to set aside hatred once economic prosperity offers opportunity to all.

We must find a way to live together beyond historical animosity. The economy, after three decades of decline under the dispute, is an apt place to begin.

Ulviyya Hasanzade is an expat working as an executive at a US multinational based in Dubai