Forget Disneyland or any of those Scandinavian countries where placidly beautiful people sprawl around draped in exceptional knitwear; if Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum gets his way, Dubai will soon be the happiest place on earth. His government has even gone to the trouble of drawing up a “Happiness Agenda,” conceived to realize his dream of creating an environment where everyone can breeze through life pulsating with the nonstop purity of good vibes only.
It’s a nice idea, but someone should really mention this to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum himself, because he keeps publishing poems on his Web site, and, to put it mildly, they’re a bit of a bummer. His most recent, entitled “Affection in Your Eyes,” reads:
I have tried and tried again to meet you,
But my efforts to approach were in vain.
You have met my undying fervor with silence,
Why would you respond, when you deny I exist?
Oh! The agony those avoiding eyes have caused
They stole my sound sleep and were gone.
What could possibly be the cause of all this pained introversion? The most likely explanation is that one of his wives has left him, and left Dubai, and taken her children and $37 million, and is in the middle of seeking a forced-marriage protection order and a non-molestation order from the U.K.’s High Court on behalf of her kids, having apparently discovered some “disturbing facts” about one of her stepdaughters. Which, in fairness to the sheikh, would probably bring out the angsty teenager in anyone.
The Ones That Got Away
Princess Haya bint al-Hussein—the most junior of his six wives, plus a British-educated Olympic equestrian athlete and the only licensed female truck driver in Jordan—fled Dubai several months ago after 15 years of marriage, and is now thought to be in hiding in fear of her life in a $102 million London town house she purchased without the sheikh’s knowledge. Their impending divorce, which is taking place independently of the court orders, is likely to result in the biggest settlement in British legal history. As a story, it has everything: scandal, intrigue, wealth, power, and awful poetry that primarily serves as an extended Facebook “U OK hun?” status update.
Princess Haya bint al-Hussein is now thought to be in hiding in fear of her life in a $102 million London town house she purchased without the sheikh’s knowledge.
But this is only part of the reason why Haya’s departure has stirred up so much attention. The other is that this keeps happening to the sheikh. In 2000, his 18-year-old daughter Sheikha Shamsa shook off her minders during a trip to England before being tracked down and returned to Dubai two months later. And then last year her sister Sheikha Latifa made a similar bid for freedom, Jet Skiing to a yacht from the coast of Oman. The yacht was then intercepted by speedboats carrying armed personnel, and an Emirati special-forces helicopter.
A week after the interception, an extraordinary 39-minute video was made public in which Latifa, prior to her escape, detailed her plans to leave Dubai. In it she claimed that she had been repeatedly imprisoned and tortured by Sheikh Mohammed’s agents (who apparently told her, “Your father told us to beat you until we kill you”), that Shamsa has been drugged and imprisoned since her return in 2000, and that the sheikh was responsible for multiple deaths, including that of one of his wives. “This could be my last video,” Latifa repeatedly says to the camera.
She has been seen just once since she was returned to Dubai, when former Irish president Mary Robinson, a recipient of Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award, visited her for lunch. Robinson told the BBC that “Latifa is vulnerable, she’s troubled. She made a video that she now regrets.” Then she wrote off the whole incident as a family matter. Human-rights activists denounced Robinson as a pawn. So far, it’s hard not to see their point.
The Magic Kingdom
But what’s a little thing like several of your female relatives constantly trying to flee the country because they’re horrified by your behavior? And so what if human-rights organizations routinely target Dubai for its poor treatment of foreign laborers, forced disappearances, and prohibition of homosexuality, unmarried cohabitation, and public kissing? The sheikh wants Dubai to become the happiest place on earth, and by God nothing is going to stop him from achieving this.
He’s on track, too. According to the 2018 World Happiness Report, the U.A.E. is currently just the 20th-happiest place—sandwiched, hilariously, between the U.K. and the Czech Republic—but nevertheless happiness in Dubai has increased by 2.5 percent in the last 14 years. Last month a resident told Euronews that “Dubai really promotes a can-do attitude amongst the Emiratis and other people who choose to live here.” Unfortunately, nobody was at hand to reveal the attitude of those who don’t choose to live there, like many of the people related to Sheikh Mohammed.
The sheikh wants Dubai to become the happiest place on earth.
But a plan’s a plan. And you know Sheikh Mohammed’s plan to increase joy? Simple: by utilizing the power of crushing, all-consuming observation. In March, Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority unveiled a phalanx of A.I.-powered smart cameras that can recognize human faces before recording their movements and sorting them into one of seven different emotions. The cameras are also able to trigger an alert whenever happiness measurements drop below a pre-defined level. When this happens, actions can be taken to “restore customers’ happiness level.”
Which must be a tremendous reassurance for everyone in Dubai. Smile harder, everyone. He’s watching.
Stuart Heritage is a journalist and author living in Kent, U.K.