World Mayor 2020

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World Mayor Essays
Ahmed Aboutaleb
Mayor of Rotterdam, Netherlands
By Jan Anthonie Bruijn*

OTHER ESSAYS: Mayor of Ankara ||| Mayor of Braga ||| Mayor of Bratislava ||| Mayor of Grigny ||| Maire de Grigny (Français) ||| Mayor of Mannheim ||| Mayor of Raqqa ||| Mayor of Rotterdam ||| Mayor of Saint-Omer ||| Maire de Saint-Omer (Français) ||| Mayor of San Bellino ||| Sindaco di San Bellino |||

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I started my study of medicine at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam in 1976, the same year that Ahmed Aboutaleb moved to the Netherlands from his native Morocco with his mother and his siblings to be reunited with his father. He was 15 years old at the time and did not speak any Dutch. In the ten years that followed he completed lower, middle, and higher technical education, specializing in telecommunication.

By the time I finished my PhD degree in 1988, Ahmed Aboutaleb had just taken up his first job in journalism. For several years, he worked for a number of broadcasting corporations, such as Veronica Radio, Dutch national broadcasting corporation NOS, and Dutch national commercial broadcasting corporation RTL, to name a few. Later he became spokesperson for the Minister of Education, Culture and Sciences.

Clearly, our lives had taken very different routes before we met for the first time in 2005. In my capacity as educator as Professor of Pathology at Leiden University Medical Center, I had become a member of the so-called Education Council, an advisory group to the Dutch government on education policies.

Ahmed Aboutaleb had already been a member of the Education Council since 2000. We were seated next to each other, maybe in alphabetical order because of our last names. He was Alderman in the City of Amsterdam at the time, responsible for jobs and income, education, youth and diversity and large cities policies. It was his first function as a politician on behalf of the PvdA, the Dutch Labour Party.

From journalism to politics is a route not uncommon in the Netherlands and we’ve witnessed it also in the case of Boris Johnson, who was a journalist before becoming Mayor of London. Whether Ahmed Aboutaleb will follow his footsteps in becoming Prime Minister as well? Who knows! He certainly has the capacity to do so.

Let me return to the Education Council where we first met. Ahmed Aboutaleb was already a well-known personality at the time, because of his criticism of the radical Islam, and had been under protection since 2004. His security officers guarded the entrance of the room where the Education Council held its meetings. I was immediately impressed by his courage. But that was not the only reason I was impressed. Seeing him operate within the Council, the way, and the speed in which he processed information was impressive as well. Above all, I was impressed by his approachable and warm personality.
In the Education Council Ahmed Aboutaleb was, and he still is, a strong advocate of secondary vocational education, where students from the age of about 16 up to 20 years are trained in practical professions, ranging from cooking and nursing to automotive technology and electrical engineering. His advocacy stems from his strong belief that underprivileged youth deserve to be emancipated through education.

When he became State Secretary for Social Affairs and Employment in 2007, he had to stop his work in the Education Council, and we lost sight of each other for several years. Of course, I followed his career with great interest.

Mayor for Rotterdam
In the meantime, Ahmed Aboutaleb had become Mayor of Rotterdam in 2009. His nomination was not without discussion. Both the fact that he had been Alderman in longtime rival city Amsterdam and his Moroccan descent led to a row in the Rotterdam City Council. In the end the majority of the City Council supported his candidacy, and he was appointed to the function of Mayor of the City of Rotterdam at the beginning of 2009.

The city grew on him and he grew on the city. In the Netherlands the people of Rotterdam are famous for their motto: ‘niet lullen, maar poetsen’, or in less explicit words: ‘geen woorden, maar daden’ which translates into ‘stop talking, just do it!’ This suit fits Ahmed Aboutaleb as was it meant to be.

Right from the start he showed that he was Mayor of and for all Rotterdammers, from Kralingen in the north to Katendrecht on the South bank of the Maas River. His clear, no-nonsense approach resonated in Rotterdam and made that Aboutaleb soon became popular. His toughness on injustice, misconduct, and fraud, and his focus on bridging the inequality between the different parts of the city and the fact that he is not afraid to call things as he sees them, contributed to his popularity. Regularly he visits an area in the city, sometimes anonymously, to speak to the residents about their situation and their wishes for the neighbourhood and the city.  

During the covid-19 pandemic these visits have of course been difficult, because of the lockdowns. But Aboutaleb kept looking for ways to stay in touch with the Rotterdammers. For a large part the policy of the City of Rotterdam in combating the spread of covid-19 is to target the different groups in the city with information especially focused on them, such as students, minority groups, and children.

To reach the student population in Rotterdam during the pandemic, he went to the student areas in the city to bring them a box with information about the virus, masks, and posters to hang in their dormitories. The content of the box was composed in collaboration with the students themselves. Aboutaleb had awarded 10,000 euro for the best idea to make students aware of the importance of the covid-19 measures.

During the vaccination campaign, the City decided to distribute information leaflets about vaccinations in nine different languages, against the wishes of one of the right-wing parties in the City Council. Aboutaleb said at the time that it was important to reach everyone, also those who are not fluent in Dutch. Early on he wrote a letter to all the children living in Rotterdam, calling on them to help and follow the corona measures. He also answered children’s questions, such as why the lockdown was extended and when the schools would reopen.

Ahmed Aboutaleb was also not afraid to voice his criticism of the national covid-19 measures when he was convinced it was not maintainable on the local level. He was for instance a strong advocate of wearing mouth-nose-masks, long before the Dutch government decided to make masks mandatory.

Fast forward to when our paths crossed again. After the most recent local elections in Rotterdam, I was asked to lead the negotiations between the political parties to see what coalition was willing to cooperate in governing the city. In the Netherlands the Mayor is no part of these talks, since it is an appointed and not an elected position.

Ahmed Aboutaleb’s role during the process therefore was to stay aside while the parties negotiated an agreement. The talks were complicated. Rotterdam, a left-wing city by origin, had been overtaken years before by right-wing parties and still is politically very divided. At that time our good relations manifested. He did not impose himself on the process and respected the situation. Once in a while I informed him of the progress that was made and again I was struck by his approachability, one of the qualities that make him a great Mayor.

In Dutch the word for Mayor is ‘burgemeester’, literally ‘master of citizens’. When a Mayor is close to his citizens he often is called ‘burgervader’, which translates into ‘father of citizens’. In my opinion Ahmed Aboutaleb is a true father of the citizens of Rotterdam.

He is the personification of inclusivity in a city that houses 650.000 people from over 170 nationalities. He represents them all and is the connecting link between the different cultures. In his own words, his main tool is the ‘ontmoeting’, the meeting between adversaries, to work on stability of the city, to combat the, sometimes, false opposites that erose the cohesion in Rotterdam society. Aboutaleb has shown to be able to connect the cultural, economic and safety interests of Rotterdam. This is also of considerable national interest, since Rotterdam has one of the largest ports worldwide, and the largest in Europe.

World Mayor
Just a few months ago I joined Ahmed again, upon his invitation, for the worldwide broadcasted Eurovision Song Contest that was held in Rotterdam, after it was postponed for one year because of the covid-19 pandemic. During the event, I watched him as he carried full responsibility for the event, both in security terms as in safety issues as the pandemic was still a big threat. With all this responsibility he still had a friendly word for everyone who approached him, in the meantime showing himself as a proud father of his daughter who accompanied him.

At the beginning of this year he has been appointed for a third term with, by now, broad support from the citizens and the City Council of Rotterdam.

Ahmed Aboutaleb deserves to be honoured by the World Mayor Project, since he has shown true leadership in the past 12 years as Mayor of the City of Rotterdam. He can balance the major responsibilities that come with his role as Mayor on the one hand, and never loses sight of the individual citizens on the other hand. He listens to their concerns and offers hope and perspective. This makes him a true father of his citizens.

*Jan Anthonie Bruijn
President of the Senate of the Netherlands
Professor of Pathology at Leiden University Medical Center
Former member of the Education Council
Prof.Dr J.A. Bruijn Jan Anthonie Bruijn (1958) became a senator in the Dutch Parliament in 2012. He was spokesman on Healthcare and Education, and vice-chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Welfare, and Sport. On July 2, 2019, he was elected President of the Senate. Bruijn studied medicine in Baltimore (Johns Hopkins University) and Rotterdam (Erasmus University). He obtained his PhD degree and specialized in Clinical Pathology in Leiden (Leiden University) and Boston (Harvard University). He completed seminars on Innovation and the Future of Healthcare in Fontainebleau (INSEAD summer school 2001, 2003). Since 1996 he is professor of Pathology at Leiden University Medical Center. In 2010, 2012, and 2016 Bruijn was chairman of the writing committee of the national political manifesto for the Dutch Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). He was a member and chair of several national advisory and institutional supervisory boards in the fields higher education and healthcare. He was Crown member of the national Council on Education, chair of the national Council on Science, Technology, and Innovation, and president of the International Renal Pathology Society. Dr Bruijn is a member of the Royal Dutch Society for Sciences and chairman of the supervisory board of the Amsterdam University of the Arts.