The Price Of Happiness

U.N. Power Broker Jeffrey Sachs Took Millions From the UAE to Research “Well-Being”

Mara Hvistendahl, The Intercept
December 29, 2021

STARTING IN 2016, the men who run the United Arab Emirates went all-in on positivity. They installed a giant smiley face on the dome crowning a Dubai police station. They created a Ministry of Tolerance and a Ministry of Happiness, as if inspired by George Orwell. And they began funding research, bankrolling prominent global intellectuals to study the psychology and science of bliss.

For women living a second-class existence, activists sentenced to years in prison because of their Facebook posts, and LGBTQ+ people jailed after kissing in public, the UAE is of course not a happy place, and the branding effort might have flopped if not for the efforts of one man: renowned Columbia University economist and United Nations power broker Jeffrey Sachs. Sachs helped the UAE take its message to the world. He supercharged the happiness drive, giving speech after speech linking it to pressing global issues. He called Emirati leaders “exemplary” and “wise.” At one point, he even sat on a Dubai stage with two other white male economists and CNN anchor Richard Quest and helped lead a crowd of Emiratis and expats in a round of “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands.”

A nonprofit led by Sachs, the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network, known as SDSN, has received at least $3 million from the UAE. The outlay has been used to fund work on the World Happiness Report, an annual ranking of countries’ quality of life, and on the Global Happiness Policy Report, a collection of cheery policy recommendations that accompanies the rankings. The UAE government has separately donated $200,000 to Columbia University for happiness research, according to Sachs, who provided The Intercept with the Columbia and SDSN donation figures in response to questions about their finances. Spending records from the Earth Institute, a research institute at Columbia formerly headed by Sachs, confirm that it has received UAE funding, but a spokesperson for the university declined to say how much.

The happiness project might be easy to dismiss if it didn’t confer legitimacy on a repressive government. Sachs has presented on SDSN’s happiness index everywhere from Google to “Morning Joe,” and within the U.N., where he has advised three successive secretary-generals, he has tethered the happiness work to official sustainability targets. A federation of seven states where political parties are banned, the UAE often finishes ahead of some European countries in the index — results that are touted on the UAE government’s website and in the local press.

“The second you
start taking money
from authoritarian
states to illustrate
happiness indexes,
dystopian doesn’t
even begin to
describe it.”

“It’s whitewashing,” scholar Matthew Hedges said of Sachs’s work. In 2018, while conducting research for a dissertation on the UAE’s security strategy, Hedges was detained by Emirati police. In his telling, he spent seven months in a windowless room, sedated with a cocktail of drugs, hearing screams through the walls. His captors repeatedly interrogated him, at one point for 15 hours on end. After being forced to sign a confession saying that he worked for MI6, Britain’s foreign intelligence service, Hedges was convicted without a lawyer present and sentenced to life in prison; he was released only after the U.K. applied diplomatic pressure. “The second you start taking money from authoritarian states to illustrate happiness indexes, dystopian doesn’t even begin to describe it,” said Hedges, who is now a postgraduate scholar at the University of Exeter. “It’s more like a nightmare.”

A frequent television commentator and prolific writer who once traveled sub-Saharan Africa with Bono to advocate for poor people, Sachs is one of the world’s most famous economists. After a controversial early career as a neoliberal reformer, he remade himself as a progressive, publishing searing and accessible critiques of the U.S. government that have made him a frequent guest on cable news shows. During the 2016 presidential election, Sachs endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders, conferring legitimacy on his campaign at a time when other experts wrote him off. Sanders wrote the foreword to one of Sachs’s books. Pope Francis appointed Sachs to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. Angelina Jolie made a documentary about him.

Sachs, now 67, is one of 17 celebrity U.N. Sustainable Development Goals advocates tasked by the secretary-general with promoting lofty objectives like boosting access to education, fighting the climate crisis, and ending hunger by 2030. Beyond the U.N., Sachs has been anointed an expert on a dizzying array of topics, including broadband access, energy engineering, and Covid-19. He heads a Lancet commission charged with addressing the economic and humanitarian costs of the coronavirus pandemic and, until recently, with investigating its origins.

But Sachs has another side. In 2013, he praised Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan for winning three consecutive general elections, “each time with a greater share of the popular vote,” without noting growing concerns about his repression of dissent. More recently, Sachs has downplayed concerns about China’s crackdown in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, including at a Chinese government online event hosted at a “guesthouse featuring traditional Uyghur-style decorations.” And in 2020, 16 months after the dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, he flew to Riyadh to speak at a forum hosted by a Saudi investment firm.

In some cases, Sachs has long-standing relationships with the leaders he praises. SDSN has affiliated centers in the UAE and China, and the nonprofit’s leadership council includes officials from both countries, among them the vice chair of the China Development Research Foundation, which reports to China’s State Council. Sachs also holds an advisory position at Beijing’s Tsinghua University that does not appear on his CV, his public LinkedIn profile, or his bios published outside China. The position is at an institute set up to promote China’s foreign policy goals within the U.N.

“I always had the sense that Jeffrey was not a person concerned about human rights and that he was often an apologist for abusive governments,” said Aryeh Neier, former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union and co-founder of Human Rights Watch. Neier oversaw the funding of Sachs’s work in the 2000s while serving as president of Open Society Foundations, during which he said he was bothered by Sachs’s willingness to work with Ethiopia’s government, among other concerns.

“I always had the
sense that Jeffrey was
not a person concerned
about human rights and
that he was often an
apologist for abusive

Sachs takes issue with such claims. He called the UAE’s financial support a “contribution to the UN effort to promote the worldwide use of happiness and well-being indicators and goals in national development policy design.” He later wrote: “If you believe that it is inappropriate for SDSN to accept funds from the Government of the UAE for academic work or for me to speak about energy decarbonization to a meeting in Saudi Arabia, then you are free to write that, though I disagree.” (Sachs declined to be interviewed by phone for this article, instead responding to a series of questions by email.)

“I speak and write very often about the importance of human rights and of the importance of the Universal Declaration and the work of the UN Human Rights Council,” he wrote, referring to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document adopted in 1948 that enshrines values such as nondiscrimination and freedom from arbitrary detention. He said that he was not paid for his Tsinghua position and that SDSN had not received any donations from the Chinese government, Chinese corporations, or individuals with close ties to the government. (The group received only $30,000 from “an international non-governmental organization based in Beijing devoted to decarbonization” to fund research assistants, he said.) “If there is an oversight on my CV, I will correct it,” he said. “I am proud of my cooperation with colleagues at Tsinghua University, which is a great university.” In general, he added, his work in China is driven by a desire for global peace and collaboration.

But human rights activists complain that Sachs mainly speaks about U.S. abuses, while minimizing those elsewhere in the world. SDSN has offices in New York, Paris, and Kuala Lumpur, and outposts or networks on six continents, and Sachs himself constantly appears at events across the globe. At the U.N., he has been caught up in an effort led by China to prioritize softer rights over political and civil rights.

In June 2020, as people across the United States took to the streets to protest the murder of George Floyd, he posted an eloquent letter to SDSN’s website. “I thank you, colleagues, for your daily efforts for global justice,” he wrote. “This work never stops, and it is obviously more urgent than ever.” Three days later, the UAE government reported that Sachs had joined leaders for the virtual launch of the Wellbeing Academy, an institute that trains UAE government employees on how to integrate happiness into their work. Acquaintances and former colleagues of Sachs said that he is driven by a genuine desire to do good in the world. But they also say that the former neoliberal economist never quite lost his taste for power.

Jeffrey Sachs, an economist and special adviser to the U.N. secretary-general, speaks to audience in Mchinji, Malawi, on April 5, 2010. (Photo: Amos Gumulira/AFP via Getty Images)

Dr. Shock and Mr. Development

Sachs has been in the public eye for decades, continually reinventing himself while showing a Teflon-like resistance to reputational damage. In the 1980s and 1990s, as a young Harvard University economist who had spent his career inside the ivory tower, he advised countries including Bolivia, Poland, and Russia to adopt a strategy known as shock therapy. These extreme market reforms helped plunge some countries deeper into collapse, later earning him the nickname “Dr. Shock.” Then in 2002, Columbia recruited him from Harvard with a plush package that included an $8 million town house on 85th Street in Manhattan. (The university bought the house but rented three of its five floors to Sachs and his family at what a spokesperson called a “normal faculty rate.”)

As the director of Columbia’s Earth Institute, Sachs shifted his attention to Africa, securing hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for an effort intended to jumpstart development across the continent. The Millennium Villages project had a noble goal: to improve health outcomes and basic living standards in impoverished areas. But Sachs had little experience in the region, and his approach of pouring money into communities and then cutting the purse strings so that they could become self-sufficient struck some critics as blunt and potentially harmful.

When George Soros pledged $50 million for the Millennium Villages project through his Open Society Foundations, he sparked an uproar within the organization. Neier, the former president, was among those who opposed the decision. “The countries included some which had authoritarian regimes,” he said. “I didn’t like to see scarce resources spent in those countries.” But according to Neier, Soros had promised Sachs the money and wanted to make good on his pledge. “I lost that debate.”

Some people who worked with Sachs on the ground admired his pluck and headstrong determination to end poverty. Rebbie Harawa was hired to head the Malawi Millennium Village, a role she held until 2009. She said that Sachs had a convincing manner with government officials and other influential people. At one point, Madonna visited the village. But Sachs was overly optimistic that he could replace aid dependency in countries like Malawi with investment, said Harawa, who is now with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in Kenya. “That was his dream,” she said. “But that’s not the way the world works.”

Sachs was often in the limelight, and others noted signs that to achieve his goals, he seemed willing to take funding from just about anyone. As the Millennium Villages project got underway, the writer Nina Munk tailed him on his travels, recording scenes that she eventually turned into the book “The Idealist.” At one point, Sachs urged a district commissioner in Kenya to dream big about his region’s potential. “What’s the chance of getting investors from the United Arab Emirates?” he asked the Kenyan official. At another moment, Sachs named the Chinese government and corporate donations as potential sources of funding for his development work. “The amounts required are very small,” he told Munk. “So if it ends up coming through companies, if it ends up coming through China, if it ends up coming through individual contributions … that is not really the main point. The main point is that it happens.”

Sachs told The Intercept that the Millennium Villages project did not receive funding from either the UAE or China. But it did not escape his notice that as Western nations declined to invest in his villages, China was funding desperately needed infrastructure throughout Africa. And the view he staked out during that period — that in decisions about accepting money for his projects, the end justifies the means — would follow him into his work elsewhere in the world.

After the Millennium Villages project petered out in the early 2010s, Sachs emerged as a strong progressive voice in the United States. He spoke and wrote extensively about rising inequality and the plight of migrants, and he ran for the presidency of the World Bank as a dark-horse candidate. He even showed up at the Occupy Wall Street protests, to the annoyance of activists who remembered his neoliberal past.

Sachs saw that discontent with capitalism was running high and that there was a growing recognition that traditional economic markers alone were insufficient. He became a proponent of one solution being floated at the time: measuring happiness. At first, he focused on Bhutan. The small country in the Himalayas was promoting the idea of “gross national happiness,” first proposed by Bhutan’s king in the 1970s, to reinvent itself as an idyllic paradise. In 2011, its delegates advocated for the U.N. to adopt Resolution 65/309, which proposed that member states look into measuring happiness alongside metrics of economic performance like gross domestic product. Soon after, Sachs flew to Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital, to co-chair a meeting on positivity. Bhutanese collaborations with Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs and the Earth Institute ensued, as did a paean by Sachs to the Bhutanese government. In the spring of 2012, Sachs spoke at a Bhutan-led U.N. “high-level meeting” on well-being, and soon afterward the U.N. General Assembly declared March 20 the International Day of Happiness. (Sachs was hardly the only prominent intellectual to embrace the idea of measuring contentment. His Columbia colleague Joseph Stiglitz also spoke at the U.N. meeting. Stiglitz, through his assistant, declined to speak with The Intercept.)

But a happiness metric also turned out to be a brilliant marketing tool. A Bhutanese government minister boasted in a World Economic Forum publication that between 2012 and 2019, the number of tourists visiting the country tripled. The campaign also helped drown out concerns about the Bhutanese government’s discrimination against the Lhotshampa ethnic group. Gross national happiness was, New Delhi-based journalist Vishal Arora wrote in 2014, “a cover for an inadequate human rights record.” Bhutan’s example would be replicated by the UAE.

A billboard showing Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, is seen on Feb. 17, 2021, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

“You Become Complicit”

In early 2018, the daughter of Dubai’s ruler fled the UAE on a Jet Ski, aided by her Finnish capoeira coach and a former French spook. In a harrowing video, Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed Al Maktoum accused her father of locking up her sister years earlier and restricting her own basic freedoms. The episode ended in a dramatic confrontation in international waters, in which Indian commandos stormed the yacht where Latifa was hiding, captured her, and handed her over to Emirati authorities. Her Finnish friend, Tiina Jauhiainen, was detained for three weeks before being released.

For many, the incident was a wake-up call to repression in the country. But Sachs had been taking money from Sheikha Latifa’s father, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, to research the very thing the princess had so desperately wanted to attain, and he continued to do so. Most of the UAE money for Sachs’s happiness work came from Sheikh Mohammed’s office and was donated to SDSN between 2017 and 2021, Sachs told The Intercept. The nonprofit names “the Prime Minister’s Office of the United Arab Emirates” as a donor on its website, along with over two dozen others. (Although electoral freedom is limited in the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed technically holds the title of prime minister.) After Sheikha Latifa’s capture, SDSN accepted at least $1 million from Sheikh Mohammed’s office.

In 2019, Sheikh Mohammed was again accused of mistreatment when one of his wives, Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein, fled to the U.K. with their two children, seeking political asylum.

Sachs does not draw a salary from SDSN, according to its tax forms, but the nonprofit has helped fund his research at Columbia, according to Earth Institute spending records and the tax filings. When asked whether he had ever raised concerns about Sheikha Latifa’s treatment, he did not reply.

Jauhiainen, who lived in Dubai for 17 years before helping Sheikha Latifa escape, finds Sachs’s involvement in the happiness drive deeply troubling. “The UAE is a police state where all your moves are monitored,” she said. “You’re scared to criticize anything in your social media because you’re scared of the consequences. How can people possibly be happy living in a society like that?”

Sachs formed SDSN in the wake of the U.N.’s 2012 summit in Rio de Janeiro, where member states discussed what would become the Sustainable Development Goals. The nonprofit’s launch was announced in a press release from then-Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who explained that the new network would help “business, civil society, UN agencies and other international organizations to identify and share the best pathways to achieve sustainable development.” But although it uses the U.N. name, SDSN is registered as a nonprofit in Delaware, and practically speaking, it is Sachs’s baby. Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, told The Intercept that “the UN and SDSN collaborate on a range of projects and knowledge products,” but said that the nonprofit “has no formal legal relationship with the United Nations.” For a while, SDSN’s administrative work was done at Columbia’s Earth Institute.

The U.N. goals the nonprofit was set up to promote are broad and somewhat open to interpretation, leaving a lot of leeway for SDSN in its work. Although aimed at reducing poverty and injustice, the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, avoid addressing the sort of serious structural changes that would actually reduce inequality and improve living conditions in developing countries, according to a recent report by Philip Alston, U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and co-chair of New York University’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice. The goals also do not require commitments to specific civil and political rights, making them attractive to authoritarian regimes.

“By creating
partnerships with …
individuals like Jeffrey
Sachs, they’re trying
to bring prestige but
also establish for the
UAE an international

For Emirati leaders, who have been seeking to expand the UAE’s influence globally, sustainability and happiness offer a way in at the U.N. “By creating international partnerships with respected global institutions like Columbia and with individuals like Jeffrey Sachs, they’re trying to bring prestige but also establish for the UAE an international profile,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

Tax forms for 2017 and 2018 filed with the New York State Attorney General suggest that in those years, the UAE was SDSN’s second largest government donor, behind the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. The Intercept was not able to obtain government donor lists for later years.

The Emirates Competitiveness Council, a government group, has separately funded research at the Earth Institute since at least 2013. Sachs stepped down as the institute’s director in 2016 to lead a smaller organization under its umbrella, the Center for Sustainable Development.

At first, UAE donations to the Earth Institute and SDSN went toward work on a world happiness index. The rankings are calculated using data from the Gallup World Poll. Gallup asks people from around the world to answer questions about life satisfaction on a scale of 1 to 10. Sachs and colleagues then attempt to explain each country’s ranking by assessing the roles played by factors including social support, life expectancy, and perceptions of corruption, and comparing the outcome against a fictional unhappy nation called Dystopia.

But while northern European countries typically top the ranking, further down the list, governments pay no apparent cost for repression, such that some actual dystopias end up doing just fine. In the most recent report, Saudi Arabia ranked ahead of Spain, Bahrain ahead of Japan.

The UAE typically finishes high as well. In one comparison from the most recent report, the country ranked at 19 out of 95 countries in overall happiness for the 2017-2019 period. For 2020, the UAE slid to 27 in the same assessment, but Sachs and his co-authors took care to explain that this was due to a drop in life satisfaction among the Emirates’ migrant workers and foreign population, who make up 88 percent of residents. The report added that “life evaluations of the locally-born increased.” Sachs did not respond to a question about potential bias in the survey. An FAQ on the index says that his team merely interprets and does not determine the results, which are based on the Gallup survey scores.

One major problem with the index lies in its design: Gallup representatives conduct lengthy interviews with people over the phone or in their homes. But they face limitations on how and where they can collect data; in China, the survey excludes residents of Tibet and, until 2020, excluded residents of Xinjiang, where there is widespread discontent with government repression. Also until 2020, Gallup’s UAE survey was only conducted in English and Arabic, leaving out South Asian migrant workers who might not be able to answer in those languages. In other places where speech is monitored or restricted, people might not always tell the truth about how happy they are.

Gallup itself has ties to the UAE that raise questions. From 2010 to 2012, the polling company had a center in Abu Dhabi funded by the Crown Prince Court. A Gallup executive told Fast Company that while Gallup maintained full editorial control over projects, Emirati leaders assisted “on topic selection.” (Gallup did not respond to emailed questions.)

Researching happiness in the UAE requires a sort of moral gymnastics, said Ulrichsen: “You have to take a position that involves turning a blind eye to a lot of internal developments in the country. And to some extent, you become complicit.”

“Close Partnerships”

Sachs’s leadership of the Global Happiness Council, the group that devises policy recommendations to accompany the annual happiness rankings, brought him still closer to the Emirati government. The UAE announced the council’s formation at U.N. headquarters in New York on the International Day of Happiness in 2017. In an interview at the event, the UAE’s then-happiness minister, Ohood bint Khalfan Al Roumi, linked the effort to the SDGs. Fully $1 million of Sheikh Mohammed’s donations to SDSN have been earmarked for the council, Sachs told The Intercept. 

The council’s reports are unapologetically subjective, often praising the UAE government. At one point, the Global Happiness Council’s membership included an Emirati government official: Aisha Bin Bishr, the director general of Smart Dubai, a program that has included the installation of thousands of surveillance cameras around Dubai.

Bin Bishr was the lead author of a chapter on smart cities in the 2018 report that cited a tech-driven collaboration between Smart Dubai and local police to solicit feedback on traffic fines. The project, called HappyToPay, “not only increases transparency, but also gives people a way to voice their opinion to the city leadership,” the chapter claimed. It did not mention Smart Dubai’s expanding use of facial recognition. (Bin Bishr did not respond to The Intercept’s requests to comment.)

In the same report, Sachs wrote of the Emirati happiness drive: “It is the responsibility of scholars and moral leaders everywhere to encourage the UAE’s important initiative and help it grow.”

“The UAE’s use of surveillance technology against human rights defenders — most famously Ahmed Mansour, now in prison for exercising his right to freedom of expression — stands as a caution on its own,” said David Kaye, a law professor at University of California, Irvine and former U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression. “The idea that a government with such a nefarious approach to surveillance technology would be lauded for the surveillance cities it proposes building is just preposterous.”

Kaye said that he did not have specific knowledge about Sachs’s work on happiness and the SDGs but noted: “Any human rights organization would be cautious, to put it mildly, in taking funds from the UAE or otherwise cooperating with it. Most would refuse it on principle.”

Sachs’s relationship with the UAE may not be all that singular, though. SDSN has a center in Beijing hosted at Tsinghua University’s Institute for Sustainable Development Goals, which was founded in 2017 on the sidelines of a major Chinese Belt and Road Initiative conference. Sachs chairs the institute’s international academic committee.

China’s U.N. delegation has sought to link Belt and Road, a massive effort to finance infrastructure and extend Chinese influence across more than 130 countries of all income levels, to the SDGs. China’s broader campaign to gain influence within the U.N. has thrice landed businesspeople in prison in the United States; all three were convicted of using sustainability-linked ventures to bribe former U.N. General Assembly presidents. (One former U.N. official was charged as well, but he died in 2016 while awaiting trial, after a barbell fell on his neck.)

Sachs has faced scrutiny for his apparent ties to one of the people convicted in the bribery probes, though he denies the connection.

In at least one instance, an SDSN center like the one in Beijing was established following donations to the nonprofit. To set up the Jeffrey Sachs Centre on Sustainable Development at Malaysia’s Sunway University, property magnate Jeffrey Cheah told the Asean Post that he endowed SDSN with $20 million over five years.

Sachs confirmed Cheah’s donation, writing that some of the money went directly to SDSN and that some went to SDG-related programs in Malaysia, but said that the Beijing center is set up differently. “SDSN is a voluntary network of organizations, mainly universities,” he said. “The universities fund themselves,” adding: “There is little transfer of money to or from member institutions.”

According to its website, the Beijing center focuses on promoting “close partnerships” with the United Nations and other international organizations. Sachs recently said in a video address to the U.N. mission in China that he is a “big fan of the Belt and Road Initiative.”

As with the UAE, Sachs’s stances on human rights issues in China have baffled experts. In April, he downplayed concerns about the Xinjiang internment camps by evoking a post-September 11 narrative about terrorism. In an op-ed titled “The Xinjiang Genocide Allegations Are Unjustified,” co-authored with the legal scholar William Schabas, he wrote that although “there are credible charges of human rights abuses … we must understand the context of the Chinese crackdown in Xinjiang, which had essentially the same motivation as America’s foray into the Middle East and Central Asia after the September 2001 attacks: to stop the terrorism of militant Islamic groups.” Schabas had represented Myanmar’s government against genocide charges in the International Court of Justice.

Sachs also recently appeared at an event hosted by No Cold War, a group that often promotes Chinese foreign policy interests, including on human rights issues. Its supporters recently clashed with Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters at an anti-racism rally in London.

“There was a saying when I was in college,” Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch, said of Sachs’s involvement with No Cold War. “You want to keep an open mind, but not so much that your brain falls out.”

Sachs says that he is merely countering Beltway hawkishness. “I have been writing and speaking on China for decades,” he wrote. “My overarching view is the importance of peace and cooperation between the US and China, not the cold-war mentality that is prevalent in Washington, and that perhaps characterizes your own thinking.”

Video still shows Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed Al Maktoum speaking into a mobile phone camera in an unknown location. (Photo: Tiina Jauhiainen/David Haigh via AP)


This past spring, Sachs spoke at a virtual happiness conference in conversation with Luis Gallardo, author of the book “Why Happytalism Matters for the Continued Existence of the Human Race.” Gallardo heads the World Happiness Foundation, a Florida-based nonprofit that has given awards to UAE leaders. In one breath, Sachs took easy swings at Donald Trump, who was no longer president. In the next, he complimented the Chinese government for its low Covid-19 death toll. Partway through, Gallardo asked a softball question about equity, praising Dubai leaders for their approach to happiness. Sachs took the bait. “You mentioned three places: New Zealand, Scotland, and the Emirates,” he said. “In all three, the leader of the happiness initiative is a woman.” He was referring to either the UAE’s former happiness minister, Al Roumi, or to the current minister of community development, Hessa bint Essa Buhumaid. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence.” He elaborated: “Men just seem more hard-wired for conflict, more hard-wired to find division. Women, probably, psychologically and biologically are more caring.” Happiness, he continued, “comes easier to women.”

Happiness was not coming easy for the daughter of Sachs’s primary Emirati donor. The month before, the BBC program “Panorama” had aired smuggled footage in which Sheikha Latifa said she was being held in a villa with barred windows, with no access to medical help. She also said that during her failed escape, commandos had forcibly injected her with tranquilizers before forcing her limp body onto a private jet. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights had asked the UAE government for proof that Sheikha Latifa was still alive. At the time of the happiness festival, the commissioner had not yet received it.

Images of Sheikha Latifa later surfaced, but so did evidence that her phone had been hacked with the spyware Pegasus. Last month, a British court cited her capture in a decision ordering Sheikh Mohammed to pay his ex-wife Princess Haya and her two children £554 million, or about $734 million, following their own 2019 escape.

In his riff on women at the happiness event, Sachs did not mention Sheikha Latifa or Princess Haya, or the fact that UAE law still effectively gives men control over their wives. Instead, he brought the discussion back to U.N. targets. “One thing I would recommend for all of us is more women in politics and more women in power,” he said. “And that is SDG No. 5: Gender Equality.”