Yes, you read that right. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on April 7 swapped his usual suit-and-tie look for the white robes of a Muslim pilgrim to Mecca. His wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, and daughters Leyla and Arzu, the country’s glamor-icons, and teenage-son, Heydar, came along, too.
Azerbaijan may be a predominantly Shi’a Muslim country, but this is the first time that its all-powerful ruling family has been known to circumambulate the Haram Mosque’s Kaaba, the high holy point for Islam.
Religious piety, in fact, has never been seen as the strongest of suits for the 53-year-old Aliyev, who was born to a Soviet nomenklatura family and essentially inherited the presidency from his father, Heydar Aliyev, a Soviet-era leader of Azerbaijan.
Indeed, in keeping with that Soviet past, the Azerbaijani government and much of Azerbaijani society itself also remain resolutely secular. Azerbaijan has arms and energy deals with Israel, and did not flinch at hosting what clerics in neighboring Iran termed the “gay,” “Zionist” Eurovision Song Contest in 2012.
Yet with popular devotion to Islam on the rise within Azerbaijan, Aliyev most likely feels the need to show he’s in tune with the times; as the extensive photo-spread on the president’s official site suggests.
The fact that Aliyev and his family made it inside the Kaaba, solemnly observed the state-run Azertag, is "a manifestation of the importance the Islamic world attaches to the personality and activity of President Ilham Aliyev.”
That said, the surprising tableau could also have been seen as good for business. Energy-rich Azerbaijan, it appears, has its eye on Arab investment.
During an April-7 meeting with Saudi King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Aliyev discussed oil-and-gas cooperation as well as ventures in tourism and agriculture. A Saudi business delegation will head to Azerbaijan next month, the pro-government Azernews.az reported.
Praising Azerbaijan’s “good relations with all countries of the region” (apparently, Armenia does not count), the publication predicted that Azerbaijan “may also become a springboard for Arab countries both in terms of economic cooperation with other countries in the region and investment making.”
Some deal-making already has been in the works with the United Arab Emirates.
But how Azerbaijani society will interpret the Aliyev family’s profession of faith at Mecca remains to be seen. Polls show that the number of Azerbaijanis embracing Islam is growing, but the government, local observers say, traditionally has tried to manage Islam so that it complements, rather than challenges its authority.
Some believe that, if anything, the Aliyev government prefers to come up with a national version of Islam. To that end, the Caucasus Board of Muslims, for one, essentially functions as a loyal regulatory service for religion; the Board’s director, Allahşükür Paşazadə, joined the Aliyevs on their Mecca pilgrimage.
For now, no one is suggesting publicly that Aliyev has undergone a religious awakening. In the past, he also has made a few displays of observing Islamic traditions. Arguably, performing the Umrah, a minor version of the Hajj, comes as the latest in such displays.