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Can the UAE export happiness to Egypt?

Rated the happiest country in the Arab world, a UAE initiative aims to export happiness to neighbouring countries, starting with Egypt
Egyptians gather outside the presidential palace to celebrate former Egyptian army chief Abdel Fatah al-Sisi's victory in the presidential vote in Cairo on 5 June, 2014 (Reuters)

CAIRO - In a region marred by political and economic instability, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is keen on branding itself as one of the world’s happiest countries – a strategy that is arguably working.

With a recently founded Ministry of State for Happiness, the country was rated the happiest country in the Arab world in the 2018 World Happiness Report, ranking 20th worldwide. 

A general view taken on 14 March 2018 shows the Burj al-Arab in Dubai ( AFP)
In a bid to share its metaphorical wealth, the UAE launched an initiative to export happiness to a number of its less fortunate neighbouring Arab countries, starting with one of its strongest political allies, Egypt. The initiative also includes Lebanon and Jordan.

Unlike its ally, Egypt is not so lucky on the happiness index. The country ranked 122 out of 156 countries in 2018, down from its 104 ranking in the 2017 report.

Happiness means a safe life, and life for many is not safe, especially for women

- Mai Mohamed

Dubbed “Happiness A-Z,” the initiative aims to “instil the culture of positivity, tolerance, and happiness in the behaviour of individuals in order to transform happiness to a behaviour and a habit,” according to a statement by its co-founder Tahani al-Terry. Though the project is not directly linked to the UAE's Ministry of Happiness and is an "individual" effort, it is following the country's plans. 

The initiative, founded in March, is a collaborative and volunteer effort by a number of Arab human development and “happiness experts” who chose the UAE as their starting point, given the country’s profile in promoting happiness as a state policy, the statement added. A cooperation protocol between the initiative’s founders and the Egyptian foundation, the Arab Achievers, as well as Skylines Egypt, which is a training and consulting agency, was signed last month. 

In an interview with Middle East Eye, al-Terri explained that the initiative in Egypt will include several stages and will target school and university students, as well as employees. Scheduled for July, a number of free workshops, lectures, seminars, training sessions, and brainstorming sessions will be organised.

Al-Terri added that when it comes to happiness, interventions can be made in the day-to-day details of every person’s life. “We work on surrounding people with positive thinking and optimistic lifestyle in face of pessimism, depression and wars."

Unhappy Egypt

Egyptian Mai Mohamed, however, is sceptical about the initiative. The 28-year-old works two jobs - one in customer service and the other as a social media specialist - in order to afford basic living expenses and pay off debts incurred when she and her husband recently got married. This includes paying instalments for furniture and home appliances, as well as their monthly rent. Due to a busy work schedule, she only sees her husband on the weekends. 

“We do all of this to barely make ends meet, not even to live a luxurious life. Happiness is not a material thing to be exported. You need a good living standard to be happy, and many Egyptians live under the poverty line," Mohamed told MEE.

Egyptians shop at a vegetable market in Cairo, Egypt on 11October, 2017 ( REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)
According to 2015 figures by the government statistics agency, around 28 percent of Egyptians live under the poverty line with an annual income of less than LE6000 ($340.00). With figures for the 2017/2018 year expected to be announced in October, experts are expecting the poverty rate to exceed 35 percent due to the recent austerity measures.

Succumbing to a strict austerity plan imposed in the wake of an International Monetary Fund $12 billion loan to Egypt in 2016, Sisi adopted a series of harsh economic measures that have lead to the country’s worst economic conditions in decades.

In November 2016, Egypt floated its currency, devaluing it by 50 percent against the dollar. This raised inflation to an all-time high.

A man smiles as he carries subsidized sugar and oil, after goods shortage in retail stores across the country, in downtown Cairo, Egypt, on 7 November, 2016 (REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)
And while some economists believe that Sisi has managed to revive economic growth this year, Egyptians continue to suffer in the aftermath of the currency devaluation and the withdrawal of many subsidies. The country still plans to further cut food, fuel and electricity subsidies in the financial year starting in July.

How [would] attending a few sessions make me happy if everything around me is making me unhappy?

- Mai Mohamed

“Happiness also means a healthy and stable sexual life, and Egyptians suffer from sexual frustration. Happiness means a safe life, and life for many is not safe, especially for women,” Mohamed explained.

Over the past seven years, the country has been embroiled in a state of political and economic instability that was heightened in 2013 after Egypt’s army ousted President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. His successor Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has since been widely criticised for his human rights violations.

Egypt is notorious for its crackdown on freedom of expression, civil society, the LGBT community and its discrimination against religious minorities. It also has a track record of jailing dissidents, enforced disappearances and torture. Egypt was also ranked the third worst jailer of journalists by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

An Egyptian woman marches in downtown Cairo to mark International Women's Day on 8 March 2013. Faced with a spike in sexual violence, Egyptian women are overcoming stigma (AFP)
When it comes to women, Cairo was named the most dangerous city for women out of a list of 19 megacities, according to a 2017 poll by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“When I wear a dress, I get scared of being sexually harassed. I fear of losing my job because of the economic conditions, and I must work 16 hours to afford paying for the financial commitments I have. How [would] attending a few sessions make me happy if everything around me is making me unhappy?” she said.

Happiness: A capitalist phenomenon

For graduate student Maha Omar, happiness is difficult to achieve because it is directly linked to satisfying material needs.

Happiness is a modern and capitalist phenomenon, not a real human one. Once you satisfy a certain need, you want more

- Maha Omar, graduate student

“Happiness is a modern and capitalist phenomenon, not a real human one. Once you satisfy a certain need, you want more. There is satisfaction, which is the ability to accept life and embrace its difficulties. If you consider happiness to be a materialistic thing, then yes it can be exported, simply by linking it to certain products or lifestyle. But you cannot achieve true satisfaction and peace of mind this way,” she explained.

A supporter of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi holds an Egyptian flag while celebrating at Tahrir square in Cairo on 28 May, 2014 (Reuters)
On the other hand, Rania Nabil, an employee at a private company, believes that the UAE can export happiness to Egypt.

“It is like a virus that spreads among the people. Imagine yourself walking in the street while you are upset or depressed, and suddenly you found a street festival where people are singing, dancing, and their laughs are so loud. If you looked at your mirror at this moment, you would see a big smile on your face,” she explained. 

Yes, laughter is contagious, and you can export it. But happiness is not just about laughter and optimism

- Ola Hassan, psychotherapist

Psychotherapist Ola Hassan said that while laughter is contagious, happiness, on the other hand, is a very abstract idea that is difficult to export.

“The problem is what we mean by happiness. Do we mean being funny? Being less pessimistic and more optimistic? Yes, laughter is contagious, and you can export it. But happiness is not just about laughter and optimism," she explained."Egyptians are known to be very funny, and always satisfied with the little things they have. The issue is way deeper than simply exporting happiness through a series of workshops."

Barely making ends meet

Psychiatrist Abdallah Adel believes that following the criteria put forward by the World Happiness Report would make Egyptians “doomed with depression for eternity”.

The happiest countries showed high values for the six key variables that have been found to support well-being in the World Happiness Report: income, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, trust and generosity.

Such [an] initiative would generally be like a pain killer. It won’t address the problems within

- Abdallah Adel, psychiatrist 

“But thinking about income, life expectancy and freedoms won’t work. We are far from achieving happiness this way,” Adel explained.

For Adel, the feeling of happiness is internal, and people generally seek happiness from the outside world as a temporary solution. “So such [an] initiative would generally be like a pain killer. It won’t address the problems within.”

Shoppers are seen in Dubai Mall, one of the world's largest shopping malls on 27 February, 2009 (REUTERS/Steve Crisp)
On her part, Hassan said that the indicators used by the World Happiness Report are a real reflection of Egypt’s current problems.

Egyptians are known to be very funny, and always satisfied with the little things they have

- Ola Hassan, psychotherapist

“You can’t ask people to be happy and positive when they are poor and have no basic access to health or good education. It would be provocative to them. Look at the UAE, look at the average income there. The gap is huge,” she added.

According to the latest official figures in 2015, the average annual household income in Egypt is EGP 44,000 ($2,470), which is expected to be much lower after Egypt floated its currency in 2016, devaluing it by 50 percent against the dollar. In comparison, in 2015, the UAE's average household income was placed at AED 199,501 ($54,313) by the Dubai Statistics Centre.

A loofah (sponge) pedlar stands next to his cart in the Al-Attaba market in the centre of the Egyptian capital Cairo on 21 February 2018. Egypt is facing a serious economic crisis and many Egyptians are having a hard time making ends meet (AFP)
However, for al-Terri, anything in this world can be “manufactured,” even happiness.

For her, it is important to focus on happiness as a feeling whose origin is from within the people, not their surroundings.

“If we focused on changing people’s perspectives and ways of thinking, people’s perception of reality and their interaction with it will change. We focus on the individual and how they think of themselves,” she explained.

A man walks by a poster of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for the presidential election, in Cairo, Egypt on 19 March, 2018. (REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)
But even Egypt’s president himself acknowledged that a UAE-branded type of happiness still has a long way to go.

In a public address on 16 May at the National Youth Conference, Sisi said that for 100 million citizens to be happy and content, and “for us to establish a Ministry of Happiness in Egypt, we need 50 oil wells”.

“It’s Ramadan, so pray to God [that happens],” he said.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.​

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