Baku is known in both Azerbaijani and Russian as the “oil city,” says Leyla Sayfutdinova, a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Energy Ethics. Like Houston in the US and Abadan in Iran, it has been shaped by the oil industry, in Baku’s case over about 150 years.

While oil’s domination of Baku started off as a matter of economics and employment, she says, it now goes far deeper. Street names and public monuments often refer to oil-related people or achievements. As Sayfutdinova sees it, “You cannot have the image of modern Baku without oil, and that is unusual for a major city.”

Oil’s status in Baku means that the industry can get away with behaviour that would be unacceptable elsewhere. For example, some areas of the city are heavily polluted. Sayfutdinova says that rather than getting angry, the inhabitants tend to regard this “as a badge of honour.”

Lives and livelihoods across the world are changing as the hydrocarbon era comes to a close. In Baku, tourism and port activity are both thought of as possible replacements. But Sayfutdinova warns that Baku’s oil identity makes it hard for the city to become serious about developing an alternative future.

Photo credit: photo courtesy of Ван Стерх