In March 2010, Ibrahim Ibrahimov was on the three-hour Azerbaijan Airlines flight from Dubai to Baku when he had a vision.
“I wanted to build a city, but I didn’t know how,” Ibrahimov recalled. “I closed my eyes, and I began to imagine this project.” Ibrahimov, one of the richest men in Azerbaijan, is 54 and has a round, leathery face with millions of tiny creases kneaded in his brow and the spaces beneath his eyes. He walks the way generals walk when they arrive in countries that they have recently occupied. In the middle of his reverie, Ibrahimov summoned the flight attendant. “I asked for some paper, but there wasn’t any. So I grabbed this shirt in my bag that I hadn’t tried on. I took the tissue paper out, and in 20 minutes I drew the whole thing.”
Once he arrived in Baku, Ibrahimov went straight to his architects and said, “Draw this exactly the way I did.” Avesta Concern, the company that governs his various business interests, subsequently commissioned the blueprints for Ibrahimov’s vision. The result will be a sprawling, lobster-shaped development called Khazar Islands — an archipelago of 55 artificial islands in the Caspian Sea with thousands of apartments, at least eight hotels, a Formula One racetrack, a yacht club, an airport and the tallest building on earth, Azerbaijan Tower, which will rise 3,445 feet.
When the whole project is complete, according to Avesta, 800,000 people will live at Khazar Islands, and there will be hotel rooms for another 200,000, totaling nearly half the population of Baku. It will cost about $100 billion, which is more than the gross domestic product of most countries, including Azerbaijan. “It will cost $3 billion just to build Azerbaijan Tower,” Ibrahimov said. “Some people may object. I don’t care. I will build it alone. I work with my feelings.”
It’s not surprising that Ibrahimov, who plans to live in the penthouse of Azerbaijan Tower, had his epiphany on a flight from Dubai. The vision behind Khazar Islands, after all, is not a vision so much as a simulacrum of a vision. The fake islands, the thousands of palm trees and the glass and steel towers — many of which resemble Dubai’s sail-shaped Burj Al Arab hotel — are all emblems of the modern Persian Gulf petro-dictatorship. And two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union — its final custodian during 23 centuries of near-constant occupation — Azerbaijan could be accused of having similar ambitions. The country, which is about the size of South Carolina, has 9.2 million people and is cut off from any oceans. It builds nothing that the rest of the world wants and has no internationally recognized universities. It does, however, have oil.
In 2006, Azerbaijan started pumping crude from its oil field under the Caspian Sea through the new Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. Now, with the help of BP and other foreign energy companies, one million barrels of oil course through the pipeline daily, ending at a Turkish port on the northeastern corner of the Mediterranean Sea. This makes Azerbaijan a legitimate energy power (the world’s leading oil producer, Saudi Arabia, produces 11 million barrels every day) with a great deal of potential. If the proposed Nabucco pipeline, running from Turkey to Austria, is built, Azerbaijan would become a conduit for gas reserves, linking Central Asia to Europe. This could strip Russia, which sells the European Union more than a third of the gas it consumes, of one of its most potent foreign-policy levers. It could also generate billions of dollars every year for Azerbaijan, which between 2006 and 2008 had the world’s fastest-growing economy, at an average pace of 28 percent annually.
Sitting on a couch in the temporary headquarters at the construction site of his future city, Ibrahimov mulled the possibilities. The headquarters, which looks like a very modern log cabin, features a big conference table, flat-screen televisions, a bar, pretty assistants and a dining table that is always set. There is a gargantuan portrait of the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, hanging from a wall, next to the bar. Spread out on the conference table were blueprints for Khazar Islands, which looked like battle plans. Men in leather jackets picked from crystal bowls filled with nuts and dried fruit and caramels in shiny wrappers.
Ibrahimov had slept five hours, he said, but was not tired. He started the day with an hourlong run, followed by a dip in the Caspian Sea, followed by a burst of phone calls over breakfast, followed by meetings with some people from the foreign ministry, then the Turks, then his engineers and architects. Now, while sipping tea, Ibrahimov’s attention was back on Khazar Islands, which he insisted was not modeled after Dubai. “Dubai is a desert,” he said. “The Arabs built an illusion of a country. The Palm” — a faux-island development in Dubai — “is not right. The water smells. Also, they built very deep in the sea. That’s dangerous. The Palm is beautiful to look at, but it’s not good to live in.”