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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

The happiness portfolio is no laughing matter

Can government deliver on issues like happiness and tolerance? HA Hellyer thinks the answer is yes
Ohood Al Roumi appointed as UAE Minister of State for Happiness (handout)
Ohood Al Roumi appointed as UAE Minister of State for Happiness (handout)

This week, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, declared a new federal cabinet. It included a new minister of state for happiness – a post that surprised some international observers. But beyond that bewilderment, what are the genuine and real challenges facing such a post?

Ministerial reshuffles are common in many countries, but usually due to public opinion against existing ministers, or political “wheeling and dealing” within political elites. That’s not the case here. The leadership is popular among citizens and the large expatriate community. The reshuffle in this case appears to be an internal strategising exercise.

The appointment of Ohood Al Roumi as minister of state for happiness might sound rather peculiar but if so, it’s not just the UAE that is peculiar. In the early 1970s, the King of Bhutan introduced the notion of gross national happiness (GNH) at an international conference. The GNH was described as being based on sustainable development, environmental protection, cultural values and good governance. Over several decades, the idea was developed in different private-sector and academic institutions. The International Institute of Management in 2005 proposed a gross national well-being index, and the Gallup Organisation, where I used to work as a senior practice consultant, has been measuring well-being worldwide for more than a decade.

In 2010, the University of Oxford launched the multidimensional poverty index that promotes analysis of psychological well-being, and in 2014, the UK government launched its own well-being statistics. In 2012, the United Nations general assembly adopted a resolution where it recognised “the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal” and stated that gross domestic product “does not adequately reflect the happiness and well-being of people”. 

Whether it is called happiness or well-being, the notion of measuring the comprehensive health of a population is well ingrained in the international community. This is not without good reason – and in the Arab world, there are at least two examples of where an ignorance of a country’s well-being preceded upheaval.

In 2010, studies on Egypt and Tunisia showed the countries’ economic well-being – that is, their respective GDPs – rising and doing well. Gallup, however, measured the two populations’ own well-being as diminishing. While the countries overall were doing well economically, at the same time their peoples were feeling more and more pessimistic about their futures, and their overall state of being. There was no trickledown – the rich were getting richer, but the poor, who were a majority, were getting poorer. A few months later, uprisings took place in both countries.

Five years after those uprisings, well-being in the region hasn’t increased. That’s not the fault of those uprisings per se. If those in authority in those countries in 2011 had focused on the needs of their people, the region would be in a much better state.

But Hosni Mubarak in Egypt refused to consider a preferable outcome, as did Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia.

If we return to the root of the well-being or happiness indexes that are now ingrained in the international community, there is a real opportunity for the UAE in the creation of this portfolio.

A serious effort would mean sustainable development, conservation of the natural environment, strengthening of values and the promotion of good governance. Those are the main pillars of the original philosophy – and in almost no country in the Arab world has this been pursued as a genuine government policy.

In more than one place, such pillars are used as slogans to avert responsibility and accountability – much like the vaunted notions of stability and security, which are all too often used to deny people their rights and civil liberties.

True stability is based on comprehensive human security – indeed, it is based on a realisation of fundamental rights and provision of opportunities.

The new happiness minister’s challenge is a real one and the stakes are high. This is true well beyond the UAE.

Rather than be surprised that there is a post of minister of state for happiness, we ought to see the position as incredibly important and scrutinise its developments.

Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC

On Twitter: @hahellyer