I chuckled. My initial reaction was that the appointment didn’t seem to be the kind of thing that should be taken seriously. But I wondered what the motives of the UAE government might be.
Some commentators have suggested that the appointment of a Minister for Happiness in the UAE was Orwellian. That sent me looking to see whether Orwell had a Ministry of Happiness in Nineteen Eighty-Four. He didn’t. He had ministries of love, peace, plenty and truth. The distinguishing characteristic of each those ministries was the pursuit of policies that were the opposite of what was implied by the label. For example, the Ministry of Love pursued enforced loyalty to Big Brother through policies of fear and repression.
If North Korea establishes a Minister for Happiness it would be reasonable to presume an Orwellian motive, but I doubt that applies to the UAE.
I am not sure that the Orwellian motive even applies to the establishment of a Ministry of Supreme Social Happiness by president Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela in 2013. His motive was probably to distract people from the decline in their economic well-being, occurring even then as a consequence of the government’s economic mismanagement. It is unlikely that the Ministry is helping people to feel any less miserable as the Venezuelan economy now collapses around them, with falling crude oil prices adding to their woes.
Given the fall in oil prices over the last year, the distraction motive might also help to explain the appointment of a happiness minister in the UAE. The IMF has reduced its growth forecasts for the UAE, even though it is more diversified than many other oil-producing countries in the Middle East. The fall in oil prices is causing fiscal deficits to rise and the government is responding by reigning in government spending. The flow-on effects of this might make life more difficult for the large expatriate community (83.5% of the population) most of whom are from South Asia.
In announcing the appointment of a minister for happiness, the UAE prime minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, claimed that the objective was to "align and drive government policy to create social good and satisfaction". The appointed minister, Ahood Al Roumi, was previously Director-General of the prime minister’s department and will apparently retain that position.
The appointment is part of a government shake-up involving appointment of more young ministers and more females. Women now make up more than one-third of all ministers in the government. The government of the UAE has previously announced the vision for their country to be among the best in the world in the Human Development Index HDI and to be “the happiest of all nations”. The UAE currently ranks 41st of the 188 countries included in the HDI.
It is tempting to dismiss all that as window dressing, but there is a chance that the government of the UAE is actually trying to find a way forward toward a better society. In terms of the “good society” indicators I used in Free to Flourish there is a lot of room for improvement in the UAE, even though it stacks up better than a lot of other countries. Of the 110 countries included in the analysis, the UAE ranks 39th in terms of peacefulness, 24th in terms of opportunity and 17th in terms of economic security.
It will be interesting to observe whether Ahood Al Roumi attempts to use her new role to make the UAE a better society.