(Editor’s note: “The Dutch rule the world” was originally posted in 2019. It’s reposted here with updated information.)
The Netherlands, a tiny country of 17 million people, suddenly rules the world, and it’s getting kind of weird. In every sport and in every industry from semiconductors to entertainment, the Dutch are not just players, but often dominate.
This occurs to me every time I turn on the tele and see Max Verstappen win a race, Michiel Huisman starring in another HBO series or Dutch companies developing next-gen tech in photonics or quantum computing.
This is more than a fluke. If it were one or two industries or one or two sports, yeah, we’d be talking about an anomaly. Like Giannis Antetokounmpo being the NBA’s most valuable player or the Finn’s dominance of digital games. Life is always about numbers, and the math is wildly against the Netherlands when it has to compete against the United States, with 330 million people, China with 1.4 billion or Germany with 82 million.
Which is why we
rarely never see countries of comparable size such as Switzerland and Denmark dominating across the board like the Netherlands.
Yet it does.
Though we have seen this movie before. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Netherlands dominated global trade from coffee shops to Tulip Mania, with colonies from what’s now New York City to South America to South Africa to the South Pacific.But in the modern era, Dutch domination seems unlikely when the entire country has a smaller population than New York State and global competition is so fierce.
Yet the evidence is overwhelming:
Autos, bicycle and motorcycle racing
In Formula 1, at a time when legends such as Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel are in their early 30s and in the latter stages of their careers, Dutch driver Verstappen became world champion last year at the tender age of 24. He is already heralded as the most dominating driver in the history of the sport, positioned ultimately to surpass both Michael Schumacher and Hamilton in the F1 history books.
In motocross, Jeffrey Herlings was one of the top-ranked riders in the world before he was injured. He sat out part of 2019, but is back with a victory in Turkey.
In bicycling, Mathieu van der Poel is a world-class competitor in cyclocross and road racing.
Dutch actors, producers and directors began playing outsized roles in Hollywood starting with “Blade Runner” star Rutger Hauer and director Paul Verhoeven (“Basic Instinct”) in the 1980s.
But since 2010, the Dutch are starting to rival the British as dominant with stars such as “Game of Thrones” Michiel Huisman, who – admit it – you thought was American. Carice van Houten has had hit after hit in the U.S. including Melisandre in GoT. Newcomer Marwan Kenzari is the “sexy Aladdin” in a movie that generated $1 billion in global box office. Kenzari has a major role in “Black Adam,” scheduled for release this summer.
There’s also Lotte Verbeek as the witch Geillis in “Outlander” and our personal favorite Gaite Jansen who played the buck-wild Russian princess in “Peaky Blinders: “When there are no rules, the women take charge.”
The line should have been “… the Dutch women take charge.”
Finally, no Dutch actor has had greater success than Famke Janssen, who landed roles as everything from a Bond Girl to playing Scottie Hargrave in the long-running TV series “Black List.”
Behind the scenes, dealmakers such as industry insider Pieter Jan Brugge, who has written for – or produced – some terrific movies and TV shows including “The Insider,” “Glory,” The Pelican Letter” and “Heat.”
Currently, Brugge is a producer for the hit TV series “Bosch,” which has Dutch touches. For instance, the main character is Harry Bosch, whose birth name is – wait for it – Hieronymus. Yes, the same as the famous phantasmagorical Dutch painter and native of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands.
See! This isn’t all in our imagination.
How did we forget this category with the first version of this post?
Dutch deejays/producers have ruled the electronic dance music circuit from Berlin to Amsterdam to Ibiza for 20 years, and they still do. The list of top Dutch DJs include Don Diablo, R3HAB, Tiësto, Martin Garrix, Hardwell, Armin Van Buren, Afrojack and a dozen others. That list is also the list of the top global EDM DJs … period.
Do not scoff. This is a multi-billion euro business that pumps money from record sales and festival tickets. These DJs write for, and perform with top global acts such as Dua Lipa and Khalid when they’re not at the mixing table at Berghain or Amnesia.
Ever since Rembrandt picked up a paint brush, the Netherlands has been the sine qua non for the arts. That hasn’t changed, wth Anton Corbijn the most famous fashion and music photographer in the world. Only 66 years old, the Dutchman has photographed every star on the planet from U2 to Damien Hirst.
It’s sort of forgotten that the Dutch once ruled rock’n roll, with the Dutch-born Van Halen Brothers, Golden Earring and others. Now, it’s the EDM scene, with half of the highest paid DJs from the Netherlands including Martin Garrix, Armin van Buuren and Tiësto.
The Dutch currently rule the photolithography business. Which means they rule the semiconductor industry. Some staggering percentage of computer chips are made with photolithography machines from ASML, which is located in our HQ city of Eindhoven.
Depending on where equity markets go, ASML has been the most valuable tech company in Europe ranked by capitalization since 2020. The company is the sole maker of the $150-million extreme ultraviolet lithography machines needed to etch the most miniscule circuitry on silicon chips.
NXP is similar in that they make most of the chips used in phones and cars. So between the two companies, almost everything that depends on semiconductor technology connects back to the Netherlands, not just The Valley and China.
The Netherlands is also leading the development of photonics, using light photons rather than electrons for computing. And it’s emerging as a force in artificial intelligence. It’s hard to argue that the Netherlands is not the most technically advanced country in Europe.
Royal Dutch Shell was the most valuable company in Europe based on total revenue, taking in about $500 billion in 2018, generating more top-line revenue than Volkswagen. Now it’s fallen back to No. 3 and announced it was moving to London. That’s okay, because of its lenient tax laws, the Netherlands is also the HQ for Exor Group, the holding company for the Agnelli family that controls Fiat, as well as the headquarters for Ikea.
And Shell will be back. You heard it here first.
Beer and food
Heineken is the second largest brewer in the world behind next-door neighbor AB InBev, based in Leuven, Belgium. Which is not exactly a shocker. But what is is that this flat, chilly, wind-swept county is the No. 2 food exporter in the world behind the U.S.
How? Science ….
Fintech, banking and insurance
A preview of things to come? In 2019 Amsterdam-based fintech company Adyen replaced Peter Thiel’s legendary PayPal as eBay’s primary payment processor.
ING is Europe’s largest bank by revenue, and insurer Aegon is one of Europe’s largest insurance companies.
So, why do the Dutch rule the world? As an ethnic Jew, this is a sensitive question because anti-semites through history have always accused Jews of secretly controlling the world.
Some of the poorest kids I grew up with were Jewish, and none of the Jews I know are really in the same financial league with our most successful WASPy friends. While no one I know is really super rich, there’s no question that the majority of my Jewish cabal are middle-middle class to upper-middle class. Mostly that’s because we stress education and community.
Just like the Dutch.
Here’s why I think the Dutch excel, even if they don’t really rule the world. Well, not that we know:
• Education. Everyone talks about Finland, but the Dutch education system is a good deal more successful. It starts with Dutch parents giving their kids the freedom to explore and socialize instead of pushing them to the limit like American parents.
And this is going to sound silly, but the fact that literally from the time they can walk, Dutch kids bike everywhere (in a very safe environment) gives them a sense of freedom and mobility American kids just don’t have.
The universities here are among the best in the world and crank out top-notch engineers and physicists along with entrepreneurs, financiers, actors, producers and dealmakers.
• Quality of life: Americans burn out; the Dutch burn bright. Why? Because the Dutch take time off to be with friends and family while re-energizing so they can work when they need to work and focus when they need to focus.
The Dutch government assures quality of life with strict labor laws and lots of benefits for families including limits on predatory companies that exploit the free market in the U.S.
• Along these same lines, the Netherlands – like Sweden and Denmark – benefits from a more collectivist society that wants to see everyone succeed for the benefit of all, not just an elite few as in the U.S. To that end, education is available to everyone. Healthcare is available to everyone. The vast majority – 80 percent – of Dutch really are middle class.
• Little or no corruption. Are you going to strive to build a world-class company in an environment where a Putin or Orbán will come along and take it from you or make you sell it? What good is it to be rich if you’re dead or in prison?
We see talent arriving every day in the Netherlands from Russia, Romania and Bulgaria, where everyone is blatantly on the take.
• English. If you’re going to do business on a global scale or become famous, you’d better speak the language of international business and entertainment. Few countries have citizens as fluent.
• Multiculturalism that works because people assimilate. Talented, productive people come here from other regions including Africa and the Middle East and boom! They’re Dutch in one generation.
Alas, there is one category you’ll notice that’s missing here and – to the consternation of my Dutch friends – the Netherlands haven’t produced a whole lot of football stars since Marco van Basten and Johan Cruijff.
To me, that’s not really surprising, because what makes the Dutch most competitive is that they’re totally pragmatic, understanding the difference between competitive advantage and nationalist fantasy (cheap shot at Brexit). They leave it to the dysfunctional countries such as Brazil to create football stars, then use their unlimited wealth to import them to Ajax.
Obviously, the U.S. remains the dominant world power. But for the Netherlands to be so small, yet so influential, is testimony to the power of intellect and unity.
About the author:
Terry Boyd is co-founder of Dispatches Media, based in Eindhoven, Netherlands. Boyd has been a military reporter, business reporter and an entrepreneur, founding Insider Louisville, a pure-play digital news platform, in 2010. He’s originally from Fisherville, Kentucky.
Boyd & Family are long-time expats and have lived in Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.