Making my way down the corridor of the magnificent Stadhuis, Rotterdam's city hall, a pre-First World War architectural landmark, towards the office of the mayor, I was greeted with the familiar words, "As Salaam Alaikum." The Stadhuis, office of the mayor of Rotterdam, is, sadly, one of a very few buildings that survived the relentless bombardment by the German Luftwaffe in May 1940 and today stands as a symbol of regeneration and hope in this city of 600,000.
During my recent sojourn in the Netherlands, I had the opportunity to meet with Ahmed Aboutaleb, Rotterdam's mayor and perhaps one of the most accomplished emigrants in Europe.
Aboutaleb was born in Morocco in 1961 and emigrated with his family to the Netherlands as a child. I ask him how he feels carrying on his shoulders the double responsibility of serving his nation and setting a positive example for other immigrants and minorities not only in his country but also across Europe.
"There is a huge group of people in the Netherlands that is happy that there is someone who is Muslim-born and is part of the power system," he says, "but if I fail in this mission it will be difficult for people to participate in this field."
Aboutaleb likens his struggle to that of Dutch women in the 1960s. "Fifty years ago there was only one female professor in the Netherlands, today there are so many."
His proudest moment was during one of the elections in his pre-mayor era, "I received the highest number of votes, 50,000, and amongst those who voted for me were Jewish people, Muslims and Christians."
I ask Aboutaleb about the contentious issue of his being a dual citizen of the Netherlands and Morocco. "I was told that in Morocco no one can renounce his citizenship unless he dies." In any case, he says, "It's not breaking the law" of the Netherlands in his particular office.
Speaking flawless Dutch, Arabic, English, French and Berber, the trained engineer showed me his library that includes books on Albert Einstein, the Quran and studies by Ian Buruma, a British-Dutch academic specialising in Asia, a continent that Aboutaleb is particularly interested in.
Until it was unseated by China's rise and Singapore, Rotterdam had the largest port in the world. Even today the Port of Rotterdam is the world's largest outside Asia and competes neck and neck with our own port of Dubai in the world's top 10 largest container ports category.
Aboutaleb's face lights up when he talks about trade with Asia, India and China in particular. "I don't just promote Rotterdam when I visit, but the entire country, with Rotterdam as its gateway," he says. He initiated celebrations for the Chinese New Year and is planning to lend a Dutch collection to the Shanghai Maritime Museum. "It's too simple to think that one can promote a city for business without sharing the culture and identity of the country." Aboutaleb sees a bright future for the so-called Brics countries, saying, "Rotterdam must have contact with these countries; business comes as a result of building ties amongst people."
Aboutaleb's style of governing is very much hands on. "I reply to every single email myself, whether from citizens, prime ministers or CEOs of large corporations." He boasted that his email can be found on the City Hall Website (I checked) and said sometimes he surprises people who email him by picking up the phone and calling them back personally.
Aboutaleb completes three years as mayor of Rotterdam in January, when he will be on yet another visit to Asia to promote his city and plans to visit the UAE by the end of 2012. What are his ambitions, I ask. Nothing short of redeveloping the entire area of Southern Rotterdam that houses 200,000 people. "We need both human development and social development, sports and culture," he adds. This task will take no less than ten years. "I hope someone in the future will say South Rotterdam was regenerated by Aboutaleb 25 years ago."
His other major aim is to "bring together" the economies of Rotterdam with its close neighbors, such as the Hague and 24 other cities. "The economy today is no longer one of cities but of metropolises, so we can compete with other larger economies of the world."
Aboutaleb says that physical appearance of success, in reference to bridges, dams and infrastructure, is only half the work. "The other half is investing in people, when you invest in a child you see the result in 20 years, the real investment is in people, it is a message in the Bible and the Quran." He then cites from the Quran, "God will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves."
Perhaps that verse specifically sums up best the struggles and achievements of Ahmed Aboutaleb.
This article first appeared in Gulf News on December 16, 2011.