UAE looks off-colour in index of happiness

Many people think life in the Emirates idyllic, but not those who created a scale that measures contentment against green living.

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For some, happiness is just a state of mind. But for others, it is a formula that can be calculated scientifically - and in a way that does not reflect well on the UAE. Camping, off-road motoring, even snowboarding in the Emirates may all be fun, but they are pleasures that come at too high an environmental cost for the UAE to be considered "happy", according to a new global environmental report.

Published last week, the Happy Planet Index ranked the UAE in 123rd place out of 143 nations. The report was compiled by the independent British think-tank the New Economics Foundation (NEF). It analysed life expectancy and general life satisfaction and set them against each nation's carbon footprint. It is heavily weighted to take into account responsible environmental behaviour. Despite the clear differences in lifestyle, several war-torn or politically unstable nations such as Burma (39th place), Sudan (121st) and Iraq (79th) outscored the Emirates on the happiness scale.

The happiest place on the planet was Costa Rica; Zimbabwe scored the lowest. Saamah Abdallah, a lead author of the Happy Planet Index, attributed the UAE's disappointing score to the nation's consumption of natural resources, which is among the world's heaviest per capita. "The UAE does badly simply because of the ecological footprint, where it's consuming resources as if there were four and a half planets," Mr Abdallah explained.

"That's perhaps not surprising when you have a country on top of an oil reserve." Mr Abdallah, who lived in Dubai for five years, noted that the UAE had the third-highest per capita carbon dioxide emissions in the world, a ranking corroborated by those in the environmental field in the UAE. However, he also pointed out that life expectancy was quite high at 78.3 years, based on 2005 data. "You do well in terms of well-being, so people report being happy in the UAE and satisfied with their life, and life expectancy is actually higher than in the US."

He said roughly 1,000 respondents in each country were asked to answer the question "All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole?" with a grading between 0 and 10. Aaron White, a British expatriate who writes a blog about off-roading to wadis and beaches in his Hummer H3, yesterday gave his lifestyle an 8.5 rating. "I'm really happy. I have a wonderful job, I have an amazing apartment and I drive amazing vehicles," said Mr White, who also owns an Audi Q7 SUV and an Audi A6.

The Dubai-based software businessman, 35, acknowledged the environmental impact of his hobbies. His best experiences of the UAE, however, are invariably linked to gas-guzzling machines. "I've done fantastic trips going through wadis in Fujairah and camping down at Dibba beach, but without the Hummer, I couldn't really go and experience those places." For RJ Murphy, happiness is the climate-controlled ski slope inside the Mall of the Emirates in Dubai. Few things match the pleasure of successfully completing a new snowboarding trick, said the American, even if the refrigerated ski centre was a drain on the world's resources.

The student and lifeguard, 17, estimated that he spent about 36 hours a week carving through the man-made snow. "Snowboarding is my escape from everything else because all I've been doing this summer is working," he said. "I guess there are only two things that can make me truly happy and that's probably either snowboarding or just spending time with people I really care about. When I'm snowboarding, I can put the two into one."

Mr Abdallah acknowledged that some of the results on the Happy Planet Index would surprise readers. For instance, wealthy, developed nations fell in the middle of the pack. The best-ranked Western nation was the Netherlands at 43rd, while Britain came in 74th. The US was placed 114th, largely because of its heavy carbon footprint. The lowest-scoring Arab country was Kuwait (128th), while Egypt and Saudi Arabia surprised the researchers by beating most countries as the 12th and 13th happiest places, respectively.

"Saudi Arabia is similar to the UAE but with a slightly lower life expectancy and higher life satisfaction," Mr Abdallah said. "Saudi has one-third of the CO2 emissions, and oil consumption is about half of the UAE's." The point was that a good life should be attainable without needing to damage the Earth, he said. "When you get to richer countries like the UAE, people there are not happier or healthier than people in many European countries with smaller footprints," he said. "It suggests that we need to reconsider how we define progress - beyond the economy - so we can achieve sustainable well-being." Mr Abdallah described the report as a "new compass" for measuring progress "in a bang-for-your-buck kind of way". "It divides health and happiness by how much natural resources we need to achieve that well-being." The concept of gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of progress should be retired, he argued, as economic activity was not the fundamental purpose of society. "Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, 'I wish I had more economic activity,' but it's quite easy to find out what people really want - happy, meaningful, fulfilling lives," Mr Abdallah said. "If we want those things now, people in the future will want those things, and they'll need a clean planet to start." More than 60,000 people downloaded the Happy Planet Index report in the first three days of its release, according to the NEF.