The UAE has plans to raise the quality of life, but what does that mean?

There are any number of metrics to define what is a broad concept, but the ambition to do so is an important one

By many measures, the UAE is already performing well in areas of society that contribute to quality of life. Delores Johnson / The National
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It is often the simplest questions that are the hardest to answer unambiguously, such as a straightforward "how are you?” enquiry from a colleague or friend.

For many people, the instinctive temptation will be to reply with something like “good” or “OK” – we often are, although sometimes we’re not – before deflecting the same question back to the enquirer. But even those seemingly perfunctory replies may occur after a series of lightning-speed calculations of mood, situation and familiarity.

We all show varying degrees of candour, depending on whether we’re comfortable sharing or not with the person asking after us. Not so straightforward after all, and a reminder that windows onto an individual’s world are almost always a little opaque.

Now think about that in the context of surveys, which are often used to measure things like consumer happiness and require participants to offer stock responses like “satisfactory”, “neither satisfactory nor unsatisfactory” and “unsatisfactory” to questions such as “how would you rate your experience today?” These are typically posed by strangers or, increasingly, soulless chatbots from the digital world.

Each individual’s response might be subject to significant variation, and may be affected by something as seemingly trivial as whether they had a bad night’s sleep the night before, whether they feel pressured into answering questions in a certain way or are time-pressed and really don’t want to answer the survey at all.

Other factors may also come into play. A football fan may give you a different response to questions around happiness depending on whether their team has won or lost their most recent match or is having a good season or not. Ask Al Ain supporters how they feel next week and you may receive an almost entirely Asian Champions League final-related response.

By many measures, the UAE is already performing well in areas of society that contribute to quality of life

Surveys may end up providing unreplicable and volatile snapshots, rather than unimpeachably reliable predictors of feeling, mood or standing.

One recent global happiness survey found Finland to be the “happiest country in the world” while Kuwait ranked as the happiest nation in the GCC. The report used economic and social data, as well as respondents’ own assessment of their happiness to end up with a league table of nations. By way of a benchmark, the UAE ranked as the second-happiest nation in the Gulf in that same survey, but remember those caveats about situation and state of mind when considering anything to do with feelings.

However, are these reliable indicators of quality of life? Undoubtedly, they tell some of the story.

In recent weeks, there have also been at least two high-level meetings to discuss quality of life strategy in the UAE.

The World Health Organisation defines quality of life as an “individual’s perception of their position in life in the context of the culture and value system in which they live and in relation to their goals, expectations, standards and concerns”, but even that captures only some of it.

Other metrics of quality of life might be situational, subjective and ambiguous.

By many measures, the UAE is already performing well in areas of society that contribute to quality of life, such as the provision of good health care and education, access to leisure facilities, trust in government and the excellent safety and security of the nation at large.

But this is a complex puzzle for governments and societies to solve or legislate for, and often boils down to how satisfied a person is with their life and that might even be related to how old they are or any number of other variables. So much of how the individual views such issues can also be down to intangibles that are difficult to measure consistently and reliably, like those result-dependent football fans or that person telling you how they are or even a survey that seeks to take the pulse of a community and make sweeping projections from it.

Talk to a work colleague on pay day, for instance, and they may exhibit a different level of job satisfaction than they might a couple of weeks later. At the same time, money often isn’t the single or most important arbiter of quality of life, although as has often been observed, it helps.

Quality of life is, then, an entire basket of circumstances, some of which will respond to policy and other parts of it won’t. While measuring something like standard of living can produce an accurate result, based on income levels, employment and current levels of inflation, among others, quality of life is harder to pin down.

For most of us, these are individual or familial calculations that build positively and negatively to the overall picture. Weakening trust in politicians in some parts of Europe or the US, as has been evident over a number of years, may end up damaging perceptions of the quality of living. In fact, it is highly likely to.

The answers to these big questions are rarely straightforward or uniform, but that shouldn’t stop consideration of them or response formulation based on ethos, experimentation and engagement. Doing otherwise might risk stagnation or decline.

Published: May 23, 2024, 2:00 PM