Last month, the United Arab Emirates made headlines when its rulers announced they were appointing a ‘Minister for Happiness’. Sceptics scoffed that it was little more than a publicity stunt in keeping with a nation probably best known for Dubai’s brash ostentation.Human rights groups which have long documented violations – from abuse of migrant labourers to crackdowns on political dissent – behind the UAE’s glossy facade were scathing.
“You can be happy [in the UAE] as long as you keep your mouth shut,” Nicholas McGeehan of Human Rights Watch told the ‘New York Times’. “That is the sort of social contract that is in place there.”
The creation of the minister of happiness post, along with a minister of tolerance, is part of the biggest government revamp the Gulf state has experienced in its 44-year history. It was announced on Twitter by the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, who also serves as the country’s prime minister.
The UAE, with a population of 10 million, most of whom are expatriates, has weathered several storms over the past decade. Of its component parts, Dubai was the worst affected by the 2008 global financial crisis. Many expatriate workers fled and the emirate’s construction frenzy ground to a halt. Dubai has since bounced back albeit with its wings more clipped.
The Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest skyscraper, now towers above a cityscape where building continues but at a more modest pace than before, particularly as the drop in global oil prices begins to bite.
“People have become a bit more realistic, a bit more cautious,” says one long-term resident.
“The overweening ambitions of a decade ago have been checked to a degree and you could say that was perhaps a good thing.”
The wave of revolutions and uprisings that swept across the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 left the UAE untouched.
But the turmoil it left in its wake, particularly in places like Syria, Libya and Egypt, has prompted many young Arab professionals to move to the Emirates to seek their fortunes. They are drawn by a relaxed immigration regime and an economy more robust than most in the region.
“There are more opportunities in the UAE and many of us think it is better to hunker down here and progress in our careers until our home countries stabilise a little more,” says one Libyan, who moved to Dubai two years ago as his country descended into a civil war which continues today.
“Life is pretty good here but of course it is not home.”
Other UAE denizens continue to fret about the economy. A local newspaper recently reported on market research that showed 53pc of residents polled at the end of 2015 believed that they were in recession, a 10-point increase from the previous quarter. Optimism about job opportunities was also found to be declining, with only 58pc saying they feel positive about employment prospects.
Plummeting global oil prices mean the UAE’s economy is predicted to grow at a much slower rate this year and its rulers have had to slash their budgets accordingly.
The emergence of Isil in different parts of the Middle East has also caused jitters in the UAE. Security has been stepped up at Dubai’s luxury hotels and gigantic shopping malls which draw hundreds of thousands of tourists each year. There are fears that Emirati military involvement in Syria, Iraq and Yemen could result in some blowback.
Mariam al-Mansouri, the UAE’s first female fighter pilot, has become a cause celebre in her homeland, feted by Emirati officials at the Dubai Women’s Forum last month as a symbol of empowerment. Al-Mansouri has been among the coalition forces taking part in US-led airstrikes against Isil in Iraq. But not everyone is happy with al-Mansouri being held up as a role model. “I’m uneasy with the idea of a fighter pilot being seen as the best example of an Emirati woman,” one young woman from Dubai told me. “We need to have a range of role models.”
The UAE has always struck a delicate balance between its broadly conservative indigenous population and its much larger cohort of expatriates who range from Asian construction workers to professionals from across the world. Maintaining that equilibrium amid falling oil prices and rising security threats will be key to its future.