Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

UAE Between Geo-Political Dangers and Happiness

Nieuw ministers in the UAE
UAE Minister of State for International Cooperation – Reem Ibrahim Al Hashimi, Minister of State for Happiness – Ohood Al Roumi, Minister of State for Youth – Shamma Al Mazrui, and Minister of State for FNC Affairs – Noura Al Kaabi, take part at the swearing-in ceremony for ministers on 14 February, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Photo WAM via AP.

On 8 February 2016, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Dubai, announced on Twitter the establishment of new ministerial positions. These included Ministers of Happiness, Tolerance, and Youth (the latter a young woman). Sheikh Mohammed explained during the world government summit that “A new post, Minister of State for Happiness, will align and drive government policy to create social good and satisfaction” and “The post of Minister of State for Tolerance has been created to promote tolerance as a fundamental value in UAE society.”

In 1971, the United Arab Emirates was established as a federation of seven polities—Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Fujairah, Ajman, Ras al-Khaimah, Umm al-Quwain, and Sharjah—each of which is governed by an emir, a hereditary ruler. Together, the emirs form the Federal Supreme Council from which a president is elected to govern the entire country. The current president is Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the emir of Abu Dhabi, which is also the capital of the UAE. Vice president Sheikh Mohammed succeeded in transforming the second largest emirate, Dubai, into a global city.

Dubai has been featured in popular Hollywood and Bollywood movies, such as Mission Impossible IV: Ghost Protocol, with Tom Cruise in the lead, and Bang Bang! featuring Bollywood favourites Hrithik Roshan and Katrina Kaif. Dubai is consistently in the news for its development projects and large-scale enterprises. In addition to building the largest skyscraper in the world, the Burj Khalifa; standing at 2,717 feet, Dubai is recognized in the media for its artificial island – Palm Jumeirah, for breaking more than one hundred Guinness World Records, and for its plans to build a 1.2-kilometre indoor ski slope in the desert city, which will be the world’s longest. Like its other Gulf neighbour, Qatar, which is set to host FIFA’s World Cup in 2022, the UAE is charged with staging a massive world event. In 2020, the World Expo is set to take place in the United Arab Emirates. This would be the first time the World Expo will be held in the MENASA region (Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia).

But the region is not as stable as it would like. The consequences of the Arab Spring (the uprisings and protests that burst out and spread throughout the Arab world in 2011) continue to haunt the Middle East. In particular, the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman—face common dangers, most notably the decline in the value of oil on the world market, the lasting impact of the global economic crisis with consequent strains on the undiversified economies of the Arabian Peninsula, and the rise of fundamentalism and extremism, exemplified by the formation of Islamic State (IS), on their borders and debilitating sectarian violence within. Some governments, such as those of Tunisia and Egypt, underwent regime change as a direct result of the Arab Spring, and Syria has been caught up in a civil war since 2010.

To combat the immediate threat of regime change, members of the GCC announced reforms and expanded their patronage of citizens in the forms of state bonuses for workers and pensioners and additional subsidies for the purchase of state resources (such as electricity and oil). The enhanced economic support, however, came during a turbulent period. Countries of the GCC first united to suppress protests in Bahrain and then in March 2015 engaged themselves in a costly war in Yemen in an effort to offset perceived Iranian influence in the region. Economic strains were further augmented by a massive decline in oil revenue. The collapse is due partly to a surge in American shale oil produced by hydraulic fracturing, which threatens the hegemony of Saudi Arabia as the world’s leading oil exporter. The market was flooded with Saudi oil in an attempt to offset US competition, thereby reducing the price of oil, a resource on which most GCC countries rely.

The UAE’s new cabinet was therefore created to address serious issues with a forward-looking perspective. On 10 February 2016, the prime minister stated on Twitter that “The new cabinet focuses on the future, youth, happiness, developing education, and combating climate change.” For instance, the Minister of Tolerance Sheikha Lubna bint Khaled al Qasimi, who became the UAE’s first female minister in 2004 and earlier served as Minister of Foreign Trade, needs to counter the ideologies of extremism and violence in the region. Members of the Sunni Gulf states are engaged in a war against the Shiite Houthis and allied troops under the control of former president Saleh in Yemen, and a proxy war in Syria against the regime of the Alawi president Assad, while simultaneously combating the Sunni IS, which is carrying out acts of terror in Shiite places of worship in the homelands of the GCC countries.

The minister of tolerance will presumably be reinforcing a sense of national belonging that transcends sectarian affiliation, reframing the convulsions in the region in secular and nationalist terms, and addressing the needs of 7.8 million migrants (out of a population of 9.2 millions) with their diverse spiritual needs and backgrounds.

According to the 2015 World Happiness Report, a survey of the state of global happiness that views the degree of national happiness as the “proper measure of social progress and goal of public policy,” the UAE is the 20th-happiest nation in the world, even with all the turbulent events rocking the region. In an article explaining the reasons for the new cabinet positions, Sheikh Mohammed wrote, “The changes reflect what we have learned from events in our region over the past five years.”

The UAE has indeed made many changes, focusing on the country’s youth while highlighting the values of tolerance and happiness. When asked by Fanack’s correspondent about the creation of a minister for happiness, Afra Atiq, leading Emirati spoken-word poet, said, “Happiness has been a key factor in the UAE’s strategic plans (Dubai’s insurance scheme for Emiratis is called sa’ada, “joy”) so really the idea of the ministry is not farfetched. It is a sign that, as it has always been, people and their wellbeing are at the centre of everything this county does.” The mood in the UAE is vibrant, and the new 29-member cabinet, of which eight are women, and a Minister of Youth, 22 year-old Shamma al-Mazrui, seems promising. To symbolize this moment, Ohood al-Roumi, the Minister of Happiness, was sworn in wearing a large golden necklace inscribed with the word “Happy.”

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