UAE launches major government shake-up in bid to create new age of happiness - despite poor human rights record

World View: Oil-rich Abu Dhabi's crackdown on dissent has proved somewhat uncomfortable for Dubai’s efforts to locate itself as a tourism and business hub with a reputation for tolerance

Bill Law
Wednesday 10 February 2016 21:35
Comments
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum says he is considering privatising most services
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum says he is considering privatising most services

In a region in turmoil, happiness is high on the agenda in the United Arab Emirates.

A major government shake-up, including the creation of a Happiness Ministry, comes ahead of plans for significant economic reforms in the federation of seven small emirates which includes Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Unveiling the changes in a three-hour “tweetathon”, the UAE vice-president and ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, described his desire for “a young and flexible government” that would, he said, fulfil “our youth’s aspirations and achieve our people’s ambitions”.

Happiness, according to Dr Suad Al Marzooqi of UAE University’s department of psychology, is high on the Sheikh’s agenda. She described the Happiness Ministry as “an umbrella position for all the ministries, as you need every minister in the government to search for the people’s happiness”.

The ministry is one of only three in the world. The others are in Bhutan and Venezuela. Ironically, a Saudi-led policy, supported by the UAE, to flood the world market with cheap oil has brought Venezuela to the edge of economic ruin and presumably left its Happiness Minister struggling with a lot of very unhappy citizens. The sheikh also announced the creation of a youth council that will advise the government and be led by a female cabinet minister who must be no older than 22. No reason was given for the age limit.

Sheikh Mohammed also indicated that he was considering the privatisation of “most government services”. Critics will argue that privatisation may not open up the country’s economy but rather will benefit the ruling families and those business elites with close ties to them.

The creation of the Tolerance Ministry has raised eyebrows given the UAE’s poor human rights record. Noting the harsh treatment of activists, Shazia Arshad of the International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE, dismissed Sheikh Mohammed’s claims that a Ministry of Tolerance would change the country for the better: “The intolerant attitude of the UAE authorities to the calls for reform have led to an increasing number of detentions, trials, deportations and enforced disappearances.”

She cited the case of a prominent economist, Dr Nasser bin Ghaith, who had supported calls for political reform in the UAE.

The emphasis on tolerance comes at a time when other Gulf states, and particularly Saudi Arabia, are ratcheting up attacks on Shia Iran. It is a statement of intent from Dubai that it has a more nuanced approach, one that seeks to place itself at the heart of new trade opportunities with Iran.

By announcing the shake-up via Twitter, Sheikh Mohammed has restaked his claim to be the strongest and most appealing Emirati leader. It was a position that was dented when Dubai had to be bailed out in 2009 by Abu Dhabi after the global property crash left Sheikh Mohammed’s ambitions in urgent need of cash.

The two states have long competed for ascendancy, with oil-rich Abu Dhabi leading a crackdown on dissent. That has proved somewhat uncomfortable for Dubai’s efforts to locate itself as a Middle East tourism and business hub with a reputation for tolerance, one that has been carefully cultivated with lavish spending on public relations campaigns.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in