As oil prices plummet, United Arab Emirates creates ministry for happiness

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: Maybe money can't buy happiness, at least not at current oil prices.

So the rulers of the United Arab Emirates had a novel idea. They decided to name a minister of happiness.

It seems that being the Persian Gulf nation known for building the biggest indoor ski slope and an island that looks like a palm tree just was not cutting it anymore. At least not in the happiness department. Oh, and it seems that tolerance is also in short supply.

So the UAE government will appoint a minister of tolerance, too.

The sheikhs who rule the UAE have announced the most sweeping government reorganisation in their country's 44-year history, which included the creation of the two new ministries.


The announcement was made with all the trappings of a royal decree by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the horse racing identity, ruler of Dubai and UAE prime minister, on Twitter.

"It is the beginning of a new journey of achievement and giving to the people, and we ask God to help us serve and take care of them," Sheikh Mohammed said in one post in Arabic.

"A new post, Minister of State for Happiness, will align and drive government policy to create social good and satisfaction," Sheikh Mohammed said in another post in English.

He added in another English-language post: "The post of Minister of State for Tolerance has been created to promote tolerance as a fundamental value in UAE society."

Both ministries will be headed by women - Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid al-Qasimi, a member of the ruling family of the emirate of Sharjah, at tolerance and Ohoud al-Roumi at happiness.

Another woman, 22-year-old, Western-educated Shamma al-Mazroui, was made state minister for youth affairs.

It is not exactly clear how the new ministers will pursue their mandates. The rulers of the UAE like to do things in their own way.

Along with the world's tallest man-made structure and the fastest rollercoaster, the country has recently claimed accolades for the most nationalities washing their hands at the same time, the largest number of people eating cereal in one place and the world's biggest breakfast table (the last two were achieved simultaneously at one landmark event).

"The government feels that we have provided basic services so far, education and health, so now we should strive for higher goals," said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political scientist.

Not everyone is convinced.

"The Ministry of Happiness sounds sort of Orwellian and sinister given that this is a surveillance state, but it is in line with their quite high self-regard," said Nicholas McGeehan, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

The government remains dominated by unelected royals, and those who criticise them or engage in political activity risk arrest, prosecution and imprisonment.

"You can be happy as long as you keep your mouth shut," Mr McGeehan said. "That is the sort of social contract that is in place there."

The country's active economy and open immigration rules have made it a magnet for international talent, and large numbers of skilled professionals from Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon have sought to pursue their fortunes, and their happiness, in the UAE as conditions in their own countries have deteriorated.

The cabinet lineup left the same figures in the critical portfolios of finance, economy, energy, defence and foreign affairs.

Sheikh Mohammed had announced earlier this week plans to outsource most government tasks to the private sector, as energy-rich Gulf Arab states have been hit by low oil prices, encouraging them to streamline institutions and attract more foreign investment.

But the majority of the foreigners in the United Arab Emirates are low-paid Asian labourers, and it remained unclear how interested the state was in increasing their happiness.

Internationally, the country is already pretty happy.

The 2015 World Happiness Report ranked it No. 20, above Britain and below Belgium. Switzerland was No. 1, and the United States was No. 15.

Israel, at No. 11, was the happiest country in the Middle East, but the United Arab Emirates still beat all other Arab countries. 

The creation of a minister to promote happiness recalled Bhutan's adoption in 1972 of its Gross National Happiness measure, an alternative to gross national product, although the Asian nation's current prime minister, Tshering Tobgay, has largely abandoned it.

New York Times, Reuters