Ahmed Aboutaleb: Promoter of Peace, Freedom and Equal Rights

Illustration by Ali Mandalawi
Illustration by Ali Mandalawi

Ahmed Aboutaleb: Promoter of Peace, Freedom and Equal Rights

Ahmed Aboutaleb, a Moroccan-Dutch politician of the Labour Party (PvdA), journalist, and mayor of the Dutch city of Rotterdam, won the award for the best mayor in the world for the year 2021.

Aboutaleb won this award, which is granted by the London-based City Mayors Foundation, as a culmination of his professional style of managing the city, and his treatment of all citizens as "residents of Rotterdam," regardless of their origins and backgrounds.

The jury described Aboutaleb as a promoter of peace, freedom, equal rights, and dignity, which are very important points for social cohesion. In addition, it emphasized that Aboutaleb realizes that cities need to be more resilient, social, and environmentally conscious to withstand natural disasters.

Moreover, the award jury praised his courage, patience, humility, and exceptional leadership, especially during the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that he showed great awareness of the vulnerability of some minorities in society.

"City Mayors” explained that Aboutaleb remains "one of the oldest and most respected mayors in Europe," noting that "he has led the city of Rotterdam since 2009 with courage, patience, and humility." Other mayors presiding over major cities across the world competed for the award, such as Washington (USA), Delhi (India), Buenos Aires (Argentina), Ankara (Turkey), and Milan (Italy).

Reacting to the coronation event, Aboutaleb said "I am speechless. It is a great honor to be nominated by the people of Rotterdam for this purpose. So I feel very much appreciated by the people of this beautiful city. A city with so many different people. We live together, I have the best job you can imagine."

Ahmed Aboutaleb was born on August 29, 1961, in Beni Sidel in Morocco. He grew up as a son of a Riffian Berber Sunni imam in a small village in the Nador Province, Rif region. Together with his mother and brothers, he moved to the Netherlands in 1976, when he was 15 years old.

Aboutaleb had already noticed how he differed from other kids. As he said in an interview, “I was so different, such a school dork. I wanted to learn, I wanted to know everything.”

Aboutaleb then studied electrical engineering with a specialization in telecommunication at different schools but concluding at the Hogere Technische School, where he obtained a Bachelor of Engineering degree.

After graduating, he found work as a reporter for Veronica TV, NOS-radio, and RTL Nieuws. He also worked at the public relations department of the Dutch Health Ministry.

In 1998, Aboutaleb became director of the Forum organization, an institute dealing with multiculturalism in the Netherlands. He also obtained a post as a civil servant with the municipality of Amsterdam. In 2002, he applied for a government position with the Pim Fortuyn List party but chose not to take it up after disagreeing with the LPF's policies. He joined the PvdA a year later.

In January 2004, Aboutaleb succeeded the scandal-plagued Rob Oudkerk as an alderman in Amsterdam.   In his book Wat Wouter Wil (What Wouter Wants), Labour Party leader Wouter Bos said that if the Labour Party were involved in forming the next cabinet after the 2006 election, Aboutaleb would be offered a ministerial post. Aboutaleb himself claimed at the time he wanted to focus on his work as an alderman and that it was "important first that the PvdA wins the election."

When the Labour Party really did become part of a new coalition, Aboutaleb was offered only the position of State Secretary for Social Affairs but said that he did not mind the lesser function and believed he could learn a lot from Piet Hein Donner, the Minister of Social Affairs.

Along with another deputy minister, Nebahat Albayrak of Turkish descent, Aboutaleb was criticized by Geert Wilders at the time of their announced appointments for holding two passports. According to Wilders and his party, government ministers should not have dual citizenship, which they say implies dual allegiance.

On October 31, 2008, Aboutaleb was appointed as Mayor of Rotterdam (in the Netherlands, mayors are not elected). Aboutaleb, who came to the Netherlands from Morocco, is the first mayor of a large city in the Netherlands who is of both immigrant origin and the Muslim faith. He is of Riffian Berber ancestry and a dual citizen of the Netherlands and Morocco.

He is known for his outspoken stances on the issue of immigration and radicalization among Muslim youth in the Netherlands, as well as for his social and administrative policies at the local government level. He has also previously won the title of Person of the Year in the Netherlands, awarded by the Dutch magazine "Elsevier," and has several times topped the list of the most respected and popular politicians in the Netherlands.

As for his administrative work, Aboutaleb says that he “devotes part of his time to getting to know the details about the course of events in the city and to learn about all aspects of the lives of its residents.”

Aboutaleb is also a great fan of poetry, especially Arabic poetry. He translated the poetry of Adunis, the most famous living poet of the Arabic language, very little of whose work had been previously translated into Dutch.

In June 2010, he presented a few of his translated poems in Arabic during the Rotterdam festival “Poetry International.”


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