Ranking in the top quarter of the UN Human Development Report is a significant achievement for the UAE, but progress is still needed in important areas, experts say.
Now the 30th most sustainable and equitable country and the highest among the 20 Arab states, the Emirates rose two spots from last year, and stays among nations with "very high human development".
This year's report, Sustainability and Equity: a Better Future for All, was released on Wednesday and ranked 187 countries by factors that affect human capability and development. They include social policies, environmental risks and financial gaps.
Rima Sabban, an assistant sociology professor at Zayed University, said it was well known that Gulf countries were performing well with quality of life indicators such as income, affordability of goods and access to technology.
"But when we come to liberties we're still lagging," Ms Sabban said. "This refers to political participation, freedom of speech and other freedom indicators. You hear it a lot from expats, that if they express their opinion they could be out [of the country] the second day."
Other areas that need to be looked at, she said, included socioeconomic equality and the employment rate of UAE nationals.
"Whenever the market is flooded from the outside, the country has to work hard in terms of developing employment programmes and building the capacity of its nationals," Ms Sabban said.
Yet the fact that the UAE continues to stand strong in the middle of the Arab Spring is an achievement in itself, she said, although this could be attributed to a trade-off made discreetly between quality of life and freedom.
"A balance needs to maintained between the two," Ms Sabban said. "Rebellion often comes out of tight economic necessities. Qatar is the most amazing in this regard. It's almost like a deal made with the people: take a good life but leave security up to us."
It is the UAE's ability to fulfil the needs of its people in vital aspects that has allowed the country to reach such success, said Maryam Sultan Lootah, an assistant professor of political science at UAE University.
"A high income on its own doesn't directly translate into a high quality of life," Ms Lootah said. "It is other important, life-impacting factors such as public and social policies, access to education and health services that allow an individual to enjoy an exceptional quality of life in the UAE."
And the country should not stop at number 30, she said.
"We should always strive to be the best," Ms Lootah said. "And we hope that all Arab countries will witness such success."
Among the other Arab states, Qatar was ranked at 37, Bahrain 42 and Saudi Arabia 56.
Life expectancy in the UAE remains at nearly 77 years, with a gross national annual income of about Dh220,000 per capita.
The overall life-satisfaction rating in the country stands at seven out of 10, and nearly 30 per cent of residents believe humans cause global warming, the report says.
Norway, Australia and the Netherlands were the top three on the Human Development Index (HDI), followed by the US and New Zealand.
Despite the need for progress in critical areas, the overall change is a positive one, Ms Sabban said.
"It's like a beautiful bride with a black stain on her white dress," she said. "We hope that the UAE will continue to progress on all levels."
The report comes ahead of the June UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, which will assess progress, address emerging challenges and renew political commitment to sustainable development.