“How long will it take until the Barack-fever gets here?” This is what many people were asking on 20 January, the new American D-day: The day we all watched Barack Obama enter the White House as the new American president. Something similar was experienced in Rotterdam a few weeks earlier, although on a slightly smaller scale: The city’s new mayor, Ahmed Aboutaleb, was sworn in.
With Ahmed Aboutaleb’s inauguration on 5 January though, came controversy about the future of the Dutch political scene. Much criticism surrounded Aboutaleb as he became Rotterdam’s new mayor. The most prominent of these was – and still is – that after having worked and lived in the Netherlands since the age of fifteen, he is yet to renounce his Moroccan passport.
Concern about this is seen in all levels of Dutch society, from other Dutch politicians such as Geert Wilders, to students like Marc Julianus: “Quite a lot of people feel that it is necessary for him to set his loyalties.” When asked by the press about this issue, Aboutaleb responded: “Frontrunners are always attacked and sometimes even eliminated. That is the price you pay for opening doors for following generations.”
Aside from his Moroccan descent, many have raised concerns about his previous work in Rotterdam’s rival city Amsterdam for the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA). Opinions are divided among Rotterdam’s citizens, with more traditional people saying that he will have a hard time filling the previous mayor, Ivo Opstelten’s shoes. On the other hand, the majority of students at Erasmus feel that this change could bring about a brighter future for Rotterdam and its cultural issues. BA freshman Sander Dolle says: “why not bring in something new?” Third-year IBA student Laila Boulhalhoul agrees and feels that “the most important things are his skills and knowledge, which Rotterdam can only benefit from.”
Since Aboutaleb’s appointment he has already shown interest with students and Erasmus University, and is even paying a visit. But will it be enough? Students have very high expectations regarding City Hall’s collaboration with the university, due to Opstelten’s persistent engagement with the students.
Opstelten is currently part of the Erasmus Advisory Board, and throughout his time in office, he has constantly tried to bridge the gap between the university and the city of Rotterdam. One of these efforts is the Erasmus Centre for Urban Management Studies, located in Rotterdam’s City Hall, which seeks to create a more direct link between education and the city.
One of the main goals of the city is to continue its business and economic development as well as refurbish its image as a student city. Part of this strategy is to retain education, research and entrepreneurship in Rotterdam so as to create a hub for business. For Otto Esser, the current President of faculty association EFR, this is an opportunity for both students and the city.
“We are in close contact with the municipality of Rotterdam, and I believe that by cooperating in the organisation of projects with students through EFR, both students and the city can band together and help develop the city. All we need is for Aboutaleb to take the initiative to interact with us students.”
Minorities in Rotterdam
However, students are not Aboutaleb’s only concern. Criticism against his background as well as the racial scene of Rotterdam will play a part in how successful he will be. Minorities in Rotterdam make up 45 percent of the city’s population, and some students feel that if he is able to use his double nationality as an advantage, he can bring something new to Rotterdam. Laila says: “He brings changes, and we are in need of something new in Rotterdam.” Otto shares these thoughts stating: “Hopefully he can have an Obama effect, and motivate the minorities of Rotterdam to take part in the development of the city.”
In the end, if Aboutaleb can meet everybody’s expectations, the citizens of Rotterdam will accept him as a good mayor. However, whether his political rivals will say the same, remains uncertain. So far, most students are not too concerned with the situation, and have a relatively positive attitude towards it all. In order to maintain such opinions, Aboutaleb will only have to keep up with his own promises and allow for his multicultural background to influence Rotterdam in the right way.
Written by Giovanna Sanchez and Mark van der Maas