Over the past two weeks, I have heard and read many questions, comments, and news stories regarding recent changes to the government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Why, everyone seems to want to know, did we establish a ministry of happiness, tolerance, and the future, and why did we appoint a 22-year-old minister of youth?
The changes reflect what we have learned from events in our region over the past five years. In particular, we have learned that failure to respond effectively to the aspirations of young people, who represent more than half of the population in Arab countries, is like swimming against the tide. Without the energy and optimism of youth, societies cannot develop and grow; indeed, such societies are doomed.
When governments spurn their youth and block their path to a better life, they slam the door in the face of the entire society. We do not forget that the genesis of the tension in our region, the events dubbed the “Arab Spring”, was squarely rooted in the lack of opportunities for young people to achieve their dreams and ambitions.
We are proud that the UAE is a young country. And we are proud of our youth. We invest in them and empower them precisely because they are our future. We believe that they are faster than us in acquiring and processing knowledge, because they have grown up with tools and techniques that we lacked at their age. We entrust them with driving our country to new levels of growth and development, which is why we have now appointed a cabinet minister of their age and created a special council of youth.
We have also learned from hundreds of thousands of dead and millions of refugees in our region that sectarian, ideological, cultural and religious bigotry only fuel the fires of rage. We cannot and will not allow this in our country. We need to study, teach, and practice tolerance – and to instil it in our children, both through education and our own example.
That is why we have appointed a minister of state for tolerance. We believe that a legal framework should formalise the tolerance our society already displays, and that our policies and initiatives will provide an outstanding example to our neighbours.
When the Arab world was tolerant and accepting of others, it led the world: From Baghdad to Damascus to Andalusia and farther afield, we provided beacons of science, knowledge, and civilisation, because humane values were the basis of our relationships with all civilisations, cultures, and religions. Even when our ancestors left Andalusia, people of other faiths went with them.
Tolerance is no catchphrase, but a quality we must cherish and practice. It must be woven into the fabric of our society to safeguard our future and maintain the progress we have made. There can be no bright future for the Middle East without an intellectual reconstruction that re-establishes the values of ideological openness, diversity, and acceptance of others’ viewpoints, whether intellectual, cultural, or religious.
With every lesson we learn comes a decision that will shape our future. But we also know that we can learn by looking to the future, not just the past or present. Simply put, we must think of what life will be like in a post-oil economy. That is why we have invested heavily – more than 300 billion dirhams ($81.5 billion) – in establishing a focus for the UAE’s path ahead, with the aim of preparing for a diverse economy that frees future generations from dependence on the ever-fluctuating oil market.
Achieving that goal requires reconsidering our legislative, administrative, and economic system fully to move away from dependence on oil. We need a strong and appropriate regulatory infrastructure to build a sustainable and diverse national economy for our children and their children.
In writing this commentary, I want to send a clear message to others in our region that change happens by our hands only. Our region does not need a super-strong external power to stop its decline; we need the power from within that can overcome the hatred and intolerance that has blighted life in many neighbouring countries.
I am writing to send a message that governments in our region and elsewhere need to revise their roles. The role of government is to create an environment in which people can achieve their dreams and ambitions, not to create an environment that government can control. The point is to empower people, not hold power over them. Government, in short, should nurture an environment in which people create and enjoy their own happiness.
We are not new to this talk about the government’s role in promoting happiness. Since the dawn of history, happiness is all that humanity has sought. Aristotle said the state is a living being which develops in seeking the achievement of moral perfection and happiness for individuals. Ibn Khaldun said the same thing. Likewise, the United States Declaration of Independence upholds the pursuit of happiness as every person’s right.
In our own time, the United Nations is now calling for changes in the criteria used to measure governmental success from economic indicators to measures related to human happiness and well-being. It has dedicated a UN World Day for Happiness to emphasise the importance of this shift.
Focusing on happiness is both feasible and fully justified. Happiness can be measured, and its evaluation is already the subject of many programmes and studies. Moreover, it can be developed and its achievement linked to material objectives. Studies have shown that happy people produce more, live longer, and drive better economic development in their communities and countries.
The happiness of individuals, families, and employees, their satisfaction with their lives and optimism for the future, are crucial to our work, which cuts across every sector of government. That is why there must be a minister to guide and follow up with all government institutions (as well as provide leadership to the private sector).
Ours is no empty promise. We will seek to create a society where our people’s happiness is paramount, by sustaining an environment in which they can truly flourish. And we hope our formula benefits others in the region. The formula is straightforward: national development based on core values, led by youth and focused on a future in which everyone achieves happiness.