Find your happy place: Where UAE residents go in the Emirates to lift their spirits

A recent YouGov survey revealed that more than three-quarters of new arrivals in the UAE believe the country is a “happy, welcoming and peaceful society”.

Relaxation on the Breakwater, Abu Dhabi. Christopher Pike / The National.
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The UAE has a Minister of Happiness. It also has a happiness rating, and for three years running has been the highest-ranked Arab country on the global Happiness Index, an annual list compiled by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, under the General Secretariat of the United Nations. It also ranks 21st globally.

A recent YouGov survey revealed that more than three-quarters of new arrivals in the UAE believe the country is a “happy, welcoming and peaceful society”. But everyone needs a little cheering up now and again, so when happiness needs to be topped up, what do you do? We decided to ask around.

Studio style

Jumana Al Darwish, co-founder of The Happy Box in Dubai, has a better claim than most to the title of the UAE’s queen of happiness. Last month, in a continued effort to embrace her mission of spreading happiness, she launched The Happy Studio, an eclectic, pop-art community space full of neon lights, unicorns, glitter, rainbows and a bathtub filled to the brim with bright yellow, squeaky rubber ducks.

Nestled in Alserkal Avenue, it is undoubtedly Al Darwish’s happy space where “we create and spread happiness”, she says.

“I’ve always been of the belief that you create your own happiness,” says the Jordanian entrepreneur. “It’s up to you to seek it and choose to be happy.”

The Happy Studio will host pop-art exhibitions and installations by emerging artists, and aims to be a space for people of all ages to come and play.

“I dare anyone to walk into The Happy Studio and not start beaming and grinning immediately,” says Al Darwish.

The perfect recipe

Food, in moderation, can be a great source of happiness. The pleasure, for example, Canadian mother-of-two Cindy Falle gets from shopping for locally grown organic produce at a farmer’s market such as Ripe, so that she can experiment with new recipes at home.

Or the joy of stumbling across a small, unassuming restaurant and discovering it can conjure up memories by recreating a much-loved dish from home.

Jessica Shameela Devi, from Malaysia, recently discovered this when she ate at Mamak, in the food court at the Adnoc stations between Saadiyat and Yas Island.

“Mamak serves Malaysian food very close to that from home,” she says. “It’s our favourite place to eat when we miss home, which makes us happy as a family.”

Dessert, in particular, is a great source of comfort and happiness for many. As a result, Raki Phillips, co-founder of UAE company SugarMoo Desserts, likes to say he is in the business of indulgent happiness.

“We’re all about celebrating occasions that make people happy,” says Phillips, an American who has lived in Dubai for almost 10 years.

Although he enjoys sampling his own wares, he seeks an adrenaline rush when he craves a moment of true happiness.

“I’m very adventurous – sky-diving, for example, really appeals to me,” he says. “My happy place is to drive out into the desert around Dubai with a bunch of guys early in the morning on a weekend and go quad biking over the dunes.”

However, since the birth of his daughters, spending time with them at play centres makes him happiest of all.

“I regularly take my older daughter, age 2, to trampolines and bouncy castles around town so we can jump up and down and act like monkeys,” he says. “I can’t wait until she’s old enough to take her to the trampoline park Bounce.”

All wrapped up

Fatma Al Khoori, the Emirati owner of a gift-wrapping store chain, makes the 90-minute drive to the Hatta Mountains to recharge her “happiness meter”.

“I launched Maska to dress up people’s gifts and make them look pretty and exciting,” she says. “People are always happy to receive a gift, and that happiness is compounded when the gift is beautifully and uniquely packaged.

“But for me, spending time at my family’s farm in Hatta is where I go to relax and find happiness. There’s a beautiful energy there, near the waters of the Hatta Dam. Being in the mountains, hiking and spending time outdoors – it’s the best.”

It all adds up

Emirati accountant Said Al Sharqi, who lives in Sharjah, says his happy place is close to home.

“It’s no hidden gem, but I really love strolling around the Sharjah Blue Souq in the evenings,” he says. “I marvel at the architecture. It’s six buildings connected through tunnels with the most beautiful, blue tiling, and I never tire of the view over the Khalid Lagoon at sunset.”

His wife, he says, loves to browse through the 600 shops nestled inside the buildings.

Another person who heads to his happy place with his wife by his side is Furqan Ahmed, a contracts department secretary from the Philippines, who lives in Abu Dhabi.

“Our happy place is to head out for some karaoke,” says Ahmed, who adds that his favourite spots are: “Himig Karaoke Bar in the Emirates Plaza hotel, and Tambayan in Al Ain Palace Hotel. But mostly, just at home – not so fancy, but always fun.”

Rocks and stroll

No list of happy places in the UAE is complete without a mention of one of Abu Dhabi’s most notable spots: the rocks at both the Mina Zayed Port area at one end of the Corniche, and the corresponding area near the Heritage Village on the Marina Breakwater, at the opposite end.

Freya Jaffar, a Briton who lives in Abu Dhabi, has claimed a little part of the beach close to the Heritage Village as her “spot”.

“I like to sit there alone sometimes,” she says. “It’s really peaceful and beautiful. The view is something my eyes will never tire of. The Abu Dhabi city skyline over the aqua water still takes my breath away, nine years on, and brings a sense of calm and happiness.”

Samihah Zaman, a writer from Pakistan, recalls that this has been a popular spot since the 1990s, when the Breakwater area was constructed.

“This was before Marina Mall and the yacht club were built,” says Zaman. “Many families, including ours, would go there for small picnics.”

Now more than ever, balance is important in our lives, and we all need a happy place – make sure you find yours.

UAE residents’ happy places


Desert quad biking. Galen Clarke / The National

Trupti Gokani Ruparelia (India)

Qudra Lakes, an area with 20 to 30 man-made lakes in the middle of the desert in Dubai. “I go there to spend a few hours during the day, or sometimes overnight camping with friends. When the weather is right, you see innumerable species of birds there – it’s home to thousands of migrating birds. The sunrise and sunset there are spectacular.”

Helen Gilbank (United Kingdom)

Sitting on an abra crossing the Creek in Dubai immediately makes her feel happy.

Huda Aage (India)

Sitting on the steps of Souk Al Bahar, Dubai, by the Fountain, watching people from all over the world pass by. “This place has something about it.”

Manzer Qayyum (Pakistan)

“My go-to happy place is any bookstore. I like the smell of books, especially new books. It clears my mind of all negativity.”

Stephanie Hatton (Australia)

An early morning walk on Saadiyat Beach. “I’ve seen dolphins in the winter time, and a couple of weeks ago an oryx came into the dunes. It’s so beautiful.”

Kathleen Vermeiren (Belgium)

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi makes her feel like a princess.

“A magical place where all nationalities find peace.”

Casey Corley (United States)

Driving out towards the eastern coast of the UAE. She heads for the mountains, to “Dibba and other small towns nearby, by the beach, and at sunset”.

Mahmoud Manna (Jordan)

“Any place where I can throw my rod in the water and start fishing. That’s my happy place.”

Elizabeth Conley (United States)

“I like to arrive at Yas Mall at seven in the morning. I park there and go for an hour’s walk on the island, along the tree and flower-lined sidewalks, while it’s still cool and quiet.”

Sarah Perry (Ireland)

The Beach House at the Park Hyatt and Turquoiz in the St Regis, Saadiyat.

Nawras Abulhaija (Jordan)

She heads with her children to Riverland at Dubai Parks and Resorts. “There are usually street performers and acrobats that we like watching. We like the European vibe and atmosphere and we enjoy walking around there and eating at the food outlets.”

Reem Moraisel (Saudi Arabia)

Al Tabaq Al Hijazi restaurant in Abu Dhabi, for a taste of home.

Helen Pletts (United Kingdom)

Umm Al Emarat Park. “When we first arrived in Abu Dhabi and having a wobble of a ‘what have we done’ moment, visiting the park brushed away all our fears. Going there is like exhaling for us.”