The UAE's blighted quest for happiness
On 20 March the UAE's new Happiness Minister will be hosting meetings in Dubai in celebration of the International Day of Happiness. The new minister was appointed by the prime minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum in a bid to shake up the authorities and as part of a plan to bring about "happiness" for his citizens in the UAE.
The International Day of Happiness has been adopted by the United Nations and will be celebrating its fourth year this year. Events around the world will take place to celebrate the day. The irony of events in the UAE to celebrate happiness has not been lost on many. The UAE has become a pervasively oppressive country and since March 2011, this has intensified significantly. The suffocating nature of repression has spread across the UAE since 2011 as the authorities have pursued harsher and harsher measures to quell any form of dissent or opposition.,
Yet somehow, in stark contrast to this the authorities have taken direction from the famous dystopian picture painted in George Orwell's 1984 and implemented a policy of forced happiness despite the authoritarian approach to the country.
The month of March has been met with marked sadness by many families in the UAE, as they commemorate the trials of the UAE 94 - which led to the arrest and detention of scores of activists. The UAE 94 defendants remain stuck in prison or in exile and separated from their loved ones. Their "crime" was the signing of a petition which called for democratic reform of the UAE, a sign that activists in the UAE were not so happy with the autocratic status quo. Ironically, that petition was also signed in March, some five years ago. Five years later, the country is no closer to reform and certainly no closer to achieving "happiness" for all its citizens. The World Happiness Index noted that the UAE had dropped from 20th to 28th place in their ranking of happy countries.
This happiness endeavour by the authorities is in fact part of the public relations campaign by the UAE. The Emirati's have spent huge funds on promoting a positive image of a country that can be the play, work and fun palace of the world. To attract investors, businesses and tourists they have created the image of a country where happiness certainly is a prime commodity.
Behind this image lies the reality of serious human rights violations. The United Nations have condemned the authorities for their treatment of prisoners, who often face unfair trials and are at real threat of torture. Freedom of expression and association is under constant threat in the UAE - cyber crimes laws can see residents as well as citizens locked up for even the most innocuous Tweet or Facebook message.
Various human rights NGOs have reported on the worsening situation in the UAE and despite the pretense of a a "happy" country, the appointment of a new happiness minister and celebrations for happiness day - the reality is that for many in the UAE happiness is actually a long way off.