Ahmed Aboutaleb was born in 1961 in the Rif Mountains area of Morocco. At the age of fifteen, he came to the Netherlands. In 2004, he became a labour (PvdA) councillor in Amsterdam. From 2007, he served as State Secretary of Social Affairs and Employment, until he was appointed mayor of Rotterdam.

Marianne Klerk is a social historian with a focus on the city of Rotterdam. She is a senior lecturer in the Department of Humanities at Erasmus University College. She is also working on a book on the history of gentrification and is a programme maker at the Arminius debate and events venue.

How would you describe Aboutaleb as a mayor?

“For me, he really is the embodiment of Rotterdam law and order. Shortly after Aboutaleb’s appointment, there were the Hoek van Holland riots. A beach party got completely out of control. There were fights and stabbings, hooligans shouted anti-Semitic slogans and a 19-year old man was killed by police bullets. Aboutaleb was immediately the subject of heavy criticism. In a debate over the riots, Leefbaar Rotterdam councillor Marco Pastors dismissed him as a Muslim mayor, calling his legitimacy into question.

“As mayor, he is responsible for public order and safety, and he had to defend himself against the allegations made by Leefbaar. Maybe that’s what pushed him into the role of ‘governing with a firm hand’. But, one way or the other, Aboutaleb certainly made that role his own. He was a patriarch, a sheriff, a civic leader, someone who reads people the riot act.”

How does this strict approach manifest itself?

“After the Hoek van Holland riots, Aboutaleb introduced strict regulations on entertainment and events, such as limiting the number of night licences. He constantly increased those restrictions. With Aboutaleb, I wonder: when do you go from ‘necessity breaks the law,’ to ‘necessity makes the law’? For Aboutaleb, it always seemed to be a crisis. He invested in negative security; surveillance and repression. He clamped down on anti-social behaviour. He put more patrol cars on the road and he increased the number of surveillance cameras. On the other hand, he closed community centres, which actually promote positive safety and social cohesion. While research by criminologists, such as that of EUR colleague Marc Schuilenburg, increasingly demonstrates that this is counterproductive.”

Image credit: Bas van der Schot

What was the situation like when Aboutaleb was appointed mayor of Rotterdam in 2009?

“Since 2002, when Leefbaar Rotterdam joined the Council, law and order has been central to policy. Leefbaar’s motto was ‘a clean, respectable and safe city’. That was in the spirit of Rudy Giuliani, the then mayor of New York. Giuliani ‘swept’ the streets of New York ‘clean’ in the 1990s. By that I mean that all kinds of people who were regarded as different from the norm (the Other) had to be taken off the streets: homeless people, gay people, black people, squatters, drug users and sex workers.

“That happened in Rotterdam, too. For example, the Municipality closed Keileweg to get prostitution off the streets. And there was also the controversial Rotterdam Law, which restricted the number of people on low incomes in urban neighbourhoods. Whereas, previously, urban policy was based on the expansion of social services, the emphasis now was on the repression of crime. It happened in other cities too (take the national ban on squatting, for example) but Rotterdam was known for its innovative and radical policies.

“This was the political climate that Aboutaleb inherited. He arrived, as a member of the Labour party with a Muslim background, in a city with Leefbaar Rotterdam in the coalition, a party that made a name for itself through repression and anti-Islamic rhetoric.”

How did this anti-Islamic rhetoric affect his role as mayor?

“Aboutaleb came to the Netherlands as a practising Salafist, an intellectual orthodox Islamic movement. As a result, he has had to constantly defend and prove himself. You see this with other top politicians with a migration background. Yeşilgöz, for example, who must and will always emphasise that she is one of the good guys, that she works hard, that she abides completely by the law and observes the rules, values and norms of Dutch society.

“If something happened that might generate controversy against Muslims, he wanted to preempt the criticism and quickly took on the role of condescending father of his people. This was clear on two occasions, for which he also received praise. The first is his statement following the Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015: ‘If you don’t like it here, then pack your bags.’ Who was he addressing here? The Muslim community, and the ‘Muslim youth’ in particular.

“He responded in a similar way after the curfew riots on Beijerlandselaan in January 2021. Police quickly issued a statement that they did not have a clear picture of who the rioters were. But the rioters were quickly framed as boys with black hoodies and Louis Vuitton bags. That is a covert way of saying, Muslim youths, Dutch-Moroccan youths or young people of colour. Aboutaleb was really affected by this. He went on video, looked right into the camera, and said: ‘Aren’t you ashamed?’ He addressed those young people directly, like a father.

“After the COVID riots in the city centre in November 2021, he was also affected, but on that occasion he did not wag his finger so disapprovingly. That difference is very noticeable.”

Image credit: Bas van der Schot

How has Rotterdam changed under Aboutaleb?

“As well as law and order, the Aboutaleb era is one of gentrification. Repression and gentrification often go hand in hand . If the wealthy middle classes are to be attracted to the city, the ‘Other’ must be out of sight: the loitering youth must make way for the ‘cargo bike parent’. A good example of this is the Rotterdam City Lounge, a slogan for the regeneration of the city centre in around 2010. At the same time, there was a ban on gathering in public spaces. This begs the question: who is the city a lounge for, and who is not welcome there?

“Aboutaleb’s predecessor, Ivo Opstelten, did not make such an obvious mark on Rotterdam. But in the 1980s and 1990s, Rotterdam did go through a major transformation, under mayor Bram Peper. Even back then there was gentrification. With his Nieuw Rotterdam plan, Peper wanted to turn the post-industrial port city that was Rotterdam into a metropolis, with more wealthy and highly educated people.

“Like Peper, Aboutaleb invested in urban regeneration to make Rotterdam into a metropolis. Old warehouses became luxury lofts. There were more high-rise buildings and there was more city marketing. Under Aboutaleb, Rotterdam had the best café in the world. We were in the top ten of Lonely Planet’s top cities in the world. Aboutaleb was even voted best mayor in the world. We went from all kinds of negative lists to top international lists. And yet, poverty is on the rise, drug crime among young people is increasing, and there are explosions all over the place in the city.”

How will Rotterdam move forward without Aboutaleb?

“Leefbaar Rotterdam thinks it’s time for a Leefbaar mayor. But when you think about it, you could say that we’ve already had that with Aboutaleb. Rotterdam prides itself on being a city that is never ‘done’, that has to keep on moving on. ‘Rotterdam has no past and no stepped gables’, said Jules Deelder in his poem. I wish we had a bit more of a past and looked back a bit more. If you constantly emphasise the fact that things are not going well, it suggests that we’re not happy as we are. What does that say about the residents of this city?”

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