Most administrative centers in countries around the world usually share one common characteristic: they are also the capitals of their respective countries.

That is not the case with The Hague. Due to a unique set of Dutch circumstances, it is the administrative center of the Netherlands, where all key government and parliamentary institutions are located, the Dutch king has his working and living quarters, and all foreign embassies have their seat.

On the other hand, Amsterdam is the capital and key tourist center of the Netherlands; Rotterdam is the largest city and port in the world; and Utrecht is the key transportation and infrastructure center of the Netherlands.

By the current count, only 12 countries have separate capitals and administrative centers. This, for example, is the case for Commonwealth countries like Canada (Ottawa), Australia (Canberra) and New Zealand (Wellington).

For quite a while, The Hague had shared some of the characteristics with its Commonwealth counterparts. It wasn’t the largest city, or even second largest, in the country, and when business, economic and cultural life were in question, it had always lagged behind the likes of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and even Utrecht.

Netherlands Parliament Hague SmartCamp

Parliament in The Hague (Courtesy of SmartCamp)

From a Sleepy Administrative Center to an International Legal One

For a long time, even being the administrative center of the country did not help The Hague rise from the level of an average Dutch town.

Besides being somewhat of a tourist attraction with the largest European casino on the North Sea, the location of a few international institutions (International Court of Justice and Carnegie Endowment) and the place where one of the largest jazz festivals in Europe was held (North Sea Jazz Festival), not much was there to elevate it.

For example, the Royal Palace in the center of the Hague was not restored to its function until the 80s; it was not possible to find an open store on Sundays—even an emergency drugstore—until early in the 21st century; and until the early 90s, the city had very strict regulations concerning restaurants that were utilizing outdoor space.

But then at the beginning of the 90s, with the advent of the UN’s International War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the decision to place its seat in The Hague, the city began to develop the concept of becoming the key international legal center and all that such a concept and title entails.

Currently, the city hosts more than 160 international institutions that employ approximately 19,500. This is quite a number considering that as of April 2016, The Hague itself had just over 520,000 inhabitants.

Among these institutions, and along with the International Criminal Court and ICTY, there is Europol (EU version of Interpol), OPCW (Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons), as well as a few others, particularly legal international institutions.

In 2013, it took a 203-page guide to list all of them! And the number is still growing.

Rebuilding and Restructuring

So how does a city like The Hague handle the transformation from a fairly sleepy administrative center to a busy international legal one?

The first change has involved extensive rebuilding within the city. Due to Dutch circumstances—and The Hague, in particular—it’s always required intricate building processes, keeping in mind that the land has been rescued from the sea and is mostly below sea level. Also, what ground found there is mostly composed of sand.

The Hague Sea Pier (Den Haag Marketing, Maurice Haak)

The Hague Sea Pier (Photo: Maurice Haak)

In such circumstances, some projects are a real success, including the Hoftoren and Ministry of Public Health, Welfare and Sports complexes, located close to each other.

On the other hand, some haven’t turned out so successful, like the attempt to build an underground city metro, the completion of which was prevented by underground flooding. Part of the project was salvaged and the space that was reclaimed has been used as a system of underground parking garages and tramways.

All incoming international organizations have gone through a dual process of seating. One has involved building completely new structures in place of old ones, like in the case of the International Court of Justice (replacing an old army garrison) and Europol (replacing part of the old Congress Centre, which itself was restructured).

The other has been repurposing buildings that had a different use; the UN’s ICTY was placed in the old seat of one of the largest Dutch insurance companies, for example.

A relatively new flagship building of the once-unified Dutch post, telephone and communications conglomerate KPN—instead of being left unused or sold at a low price when the public company was split up—was first utilized as a temporary seat of the ICC and now as a temporary seat of the recently formed Kosovo Tribunal and Eurojust (Europol’s prosecution counterpart).

Each of these organizations will soon get their new seats—Eurojust in a building currently being constructed and the Kosovo Tribunal in one that’s being repurposed.

Hague Den Haag New and Old (Bill and Jen's Adventures)

The Hague New and Old (Courtesy of Bill and Jen’s Adventures)

Internationalization of The Hague

Another factor that is changing the makeup of The Hague is the rise in the number of international residents.

The city has started to adapt accordingly, with the development of an international center, not only as a particular institution but as a part of the city where most of these organizations are located, designated as an international zone.

The life in the city, in general, has started to adapt too, changing even some of the well-established habits of its citizens.

Nightlife is steadily growing and the trend of stores being open on weekends and after-hours is now a normal part of city life.

Also, there’s been a tendency for most of the so-called “coffee shops”—semi-legal outlets that sell soft drugs, which are common in the center of Amsterdam, for example—to move from the middle of The Hague and relocate to more remote parts of town.

Although local culture and entertainment are branching out, an interesting contradiction has developed, becoming a sort of characteristic of The Hague.

While some of the key large cultural festivals are either leaving the town (North Sea Jazz Festival, one of the largest in the world has moved to Rotterdam), dwindling (innovative Crossing Border Festival, which combines music and literature, is losing its more attractive acts to Utrecht’s Le Guess Who? Festival), or simply ceasing to exist (State-X New Forms Festival), the music club and venue scene (particularly jazz) is on the rise.

Hague Le Guess Who Festival Deer Hunter CHIME

Le Guess Who? Festival – Deer Hunter Performance (Courtesy of CHIME)

It’s not that The Hague isn’t making attempts at widening the festival and big events scene. For example, the city, as the seat of one of the best modern ballets in Western Europe, also organizes the biennial dance festival CaDance.

But that is not an easy process. Attempts to replace the departed North Sea Jazz Festival have not been so successful, the latest one being “The Hague Jazz Days,” an event organized at the Kyocera Stadion (host of the local ADO Den Haag football club), just outside the city itself.

This contradictory process—where the dwindling big events scene is yet to be fully rekindled, and the club and low-key scene is bustling—has produced new forms of entertainment and engagement not only for the international crowd but also for local inhabitants.

The number of clubs offering music and other events is steadily growing, and along with established clubs—like the jazz stalwarts Murphy’s Law and De Paap and revitalized all-around club center Paard Van Troje (Trojan Horse)—new ones appear and reappear, like the specialized and often-packed Acoustic Alley. The fact that the Royal Music Academy is also located in The Hague has lent a helping hand in this rise.

All of this has culminated in The Hague experiencing a state of flux, transforming from just another midsize Western European town into a full-fledged international center.

It is, of course, a process of growth not devoid of missteps and errors, but overall, this change has had a positive influence, making The Hague a city on the rise.