Mayor on the radio

Community engagement is a hot topic on Placesbrands.

Last week, we travelled to Amman to meet the city mayor and talk about his unusual approach to governing Jordan’s capital city.

The mayor of Amman, Akel Biltaji, invited Placesbrands editor Samantha North to join the audience of his live radio show. In this twice-weekly event, Biltaji spends two hours fielding questions from members of the public. Questions range from constructive and praising to just plain angry. Biltaji answers them all.

The radio show has been a prominent feature of his mayorship. He was appointed in September 2013, with the goal to engage with the Amman public and encourage them to share their views on the city’s workings. At the end of the show, an old man stood up in the audience and declared, loudly and at great length, that he thought Biltaji a ‘hero’.

Biltaji’s commitment to the mayor’s role was impressive, especially as mayors in the region rarely interact this closely with their citizens. In fact, as Biltaji himself pointed out later during our conversation, many Arabs would still consider the collaborative approach to governing to be a form of weakness. But this is how Biltaji works best, and so far he’s done very well in Amman.

After the show, Placesbrands interviewed Biltaji about his approach to governing Amman in more detail. We were curious about his views on various aspects of city branding, especially the value of citizen engagement – a topic often covered on Placesbrands. We also hoped to learn more about Biltaji’s plans for the city during the remainder of his time as mayor. Here’s the Q&A.

Samantha North: I get the impression that Jordan, and the city of Amman itself, are both very tolerant places, especially towards differences in religion. Would you agree that this is the case?

Akel Biltaji: Look at the Supreme Court and next to it is the parliament – it is judicial, legislative etc. Next to that you find a mosque, and across the street a church. Next to both of them is the Ministry of Education. When you put these together in such close proximity, you can see how the tapestry of that area really represents Amman.

I don’t go for the word tolerance, as it’s too condescending. I’d rather use the words ‘acceptance’ or ‘embrace’. Amman is a city that embraces diversity. This is something I’d like to highlight. Tolerance is more a case of, ‘perhaps I don’t like you, but nevertheless I’ll put up with you if I have to.’

SN: When you took office in September 2013, you identified five key pillars for Amman’s development (environments, public works, zoning & planning, socio-economic integration, and cultural) How much progress have you made so far?

AB: These are challenges more or less, and we’re working on them I think, such as the environment, and appearance of the city. We’ve done very well with fixing the refuse problem, the garbage and the trash that we’ve converted to energy – ‘trash to cash’ – definitely there’s been progress made in achieving cleaner air. Pollution has gone down to a minimum, the openness of the city helps us with this. We have sensors in the city for pollution and we have done well so far with this challenge.

Also, the area of public works and transportation is a challenge, especially public transportation, which we still have problems with. Although we have sorted out the little issues in fluidity of traffic, there is still far to go. More tunnels to dig, more bridges to build.

Another challenge we have is encouraging local communities to get involved and help out. There’s been a bit of disenchantment, and we want to change this. So on this particular issue we are focusing on reducing unemployment, working with some SMEs to dedicate money to help with this. We need more people to move away from the street peddler type of orientation and into steady employment.

The next pillar is the city identity. Amman is a city of emigrants and guests, We have 4.5 million people on any one day, consisting of both of residents and of people in transit. We also have 1.2 million cars. That’s a heck of a lot. The challenge now is how to bring this to more of an identity in the sense of rallying around – as you saw yesterday – people were shouting, “Jordan Jordan Jordan”, partly because of solidarity heightened after the cruel incidents with Da’esh (ISIS).

Amman people are also rallying round in terms of corporate citizenship. There are basic issues that we have with staffing and administration here in the municipality – these are doable and we’re already handling them, improving them. We’re cutting salaries and reducing staff numbers, aiming for more efficiency all around.

SN: So those five areas – how did you identify them?

AB: I always roam around and talk to people, finding out what they have to say on many issues in the city.

SN: Were you always so deeply engaged with the people, even from your first days in office?

AB: Reaching out is part of my character. People don’t scare me – on the contrary – I find security in the ‘other’ – I always find that the other complements me in what I lack. I love to embrace diversity I look at every person with positive vibes and energy, rather than the negative.

I’m 74 years old and I’ve gone through some tough times in life. I’ve learned from my mistakes. But this is the job where I feel most at ease inside. Even though I’m not satisfied totally with what has been done so far. I’d like to have things done faster and better. But still, the pressure, the criticism, the punching on the nose – I don’t react fiercely to it. Some people appreciate this approach, but others may see it as a sign of weakness.

This radio show is literally the first experience of its kind that we know of. The World Bank even mentioned it as part of their democratisation programme – they thought it was a great programme – to promote democratisation among the community. This is one part of the brand that we like to focus on.

Our vision statement is to be a liveable, friendly and attractive city – a safe and secure city. This is THE thing that we need to keep in mind. People here tend to mix up the product with the brand, they don’t always understand the distinction.

SN: What’s the single biggest challenge for Amman at present?

AB: Without a doubt – it’s public transport. Amman is not known for having good public transport. Our strategy is first to restructure and enhance our existing system, adding 400 new taxis and bringing in 100 electric cars by the end of the year.

We’re also looking at introducing the ‘she-cab’ for ladies only, with lady drivers, as they have in Dubai. There will also be a BRT (bus rapid transit) system constructed, with buses that will run in their own lanes cutting through the traffic.

SN: We’ve talked about the challenges – but what are Amman’s biggest assets?

AB: Its location, its assets in the sense of its historic antiquities, the people, the diversity of the people, the richness of this great mixture of all Arabs, Chechens, Armenians, etc – all religions. That’s what stands out about Amman. The Royal Family being so well known and respected around the world has also helped, with Jordan being the land of the Hashemites and Amman their capital.

SN: Jordan stands out in the Middle East as a beacon of tolerance and acceptance. How does it achieve this?

AB: The word in Arabic translates to English as ‘spiritual energy’ – that of the legends, the relics, the diversity and having His Majesty directly descended from the Prophet Mohammed. This gives great recognition all the way down and carries a link to all the religions of the region, not just Islam. Spirituality is embodied in the spirit of the sky here. And you see it in practice every day. Jordan is an ‘oasis of peace’ within the region, as His Majesty often says.

SN: What springs to mind when people hear the name “Amman”?

AB: They may be afraid because of Jordan’s proximity to its unstable neighbours. But they should look beyond, at the true stability of Jordan, which has been maintained decade after decade. There should be that level of confidence and trust that the situation in this country is secure.

SN: And finally, what do you hope to achieve by the time you leave office?

AB: Making great progress in the following: introducing green building codes, improving public transport, blue energy (solar and so on), turning trash to cash, hopefully seeing the opera house emerge (but that’s been pushed down the priority list and probably won’t arrive on my watch). I’ve got one and a half years left to go as mayor. It’s not very long but it’s enough for them to hate me! (laughs)

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