Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – The annual Gallup report on happiness by country came out this week. It is based on a three-year average of polling.

What struck me in their report is how unhappy the Middle East is. The only Middle Eastern country in the top twenty is Kuwait (for the first time in this cycle). Kuwait has oil wealth and is a compact country with lots of social interaction. The high score may reflect Kuwait’s lively labor movement. That sort of movement isn’t allowed in the other Gulf States. The United Arab Emirates came in at 22, and Saudi Arabia at 28.

These countries are all very wealthy and their people are very social and connected to clans and other group identities, including religious congregations.

But everyone else in the Middle East is way down the list.

As usual, Gallup found that the very happiest countries were Scandinavian lands shaped by social democratic policies. It turns out that a government safety net of the sort the Republican Party wants to get rid of actually is key to making people happy.

Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden take the top four spots. Israel, which also has a Labor socialist founding framework, is fifth. The Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland and Luxembourg fill out the top nine.

The Gallup researchers believe that a few major considerations affect well-being or happiness. They note, “Social interactions of all kinds … add to happiness, in addition to their effects flowing through increases in social support and reductions in loneliness.” My brief experience of being in Australia suggests to me that they are indeed very social and likely not very lonely on the whole. Positive emotions also equate to well-being and are much more important in determining it than negative emotions. The positive emotions include joy, gratitude, serenity, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and altruism, among others.

Benevolence, doing good to others, also adds to well-being. Interestingly, the Gallup researchers find that benevolence increased in COVID and its aftermath across the board.

They also factor in GDP per capita, that is, how poor or wealthy people are.

Gallup Video: “2024 World Happiness Report; Gallup CEO Jon Clifton”

Bahrain comes in at 62, which shows that oil wealth isn’t everything. It is deeply divided between a Sunni elite and a Shiite majority population, and that sectarian tension likely explains why it isn’t as happy as Kuwait. Kuwait is between a sixth and a third Shiite and also has a Sunni elite, but the Shiites are relatively well treated and the Emir depends on them to offset the power of Sunni fundamentalists. So it isn’t just sectarian difference that affects happiness but the way in which the rulers deal with it.

Libya, which is more or less a failed state after the people rose up to overthrow dictator Moammar Gaddafi, nevertheless comes in at 66. There is some oil wealth when the militias allow its export, and despite the east-west political divide, people are able to live full lives in cities like Benghazi and Tripoli. Maybe the overhang of getting rid of a hated dictator is still a source of happiness for them.

Algeria, a dictatorship and oil state, is 85. The petroleum wealth is not as great as in the Gulf by any means, and is monopolized by the country’s elite.

Iraq, an oil state, is 92. Like Bahrain, it suffers from ethnic and sectarian divides. It is something of a failed state after the American overthrow of its government.

Iran, another oil state, is 100. Its petroleum sales are interfered with by the US except with regard to China, so its income is much more limited than other Gulf oil states. The government is dictatorial and young people seem impatient with its attempt to regiment their lives, as witnessed in the recent anti-veiling protests.

The State of Palestine is 103, which is actually not bad given that they are deeply unhappy with being occupied by Israel. This ranking certainly plummeted after the current Israeli total war on Gaza began.

Morocco is 107. It is relatively poor, in fact poorer than some countries that rank themselves much lower on the happiness scale.

Tunisia is one of the wealthier countries in Africa and much better off than Morocco, but it comes in at 115. In the past few years all the democratic gains made during and after the Arab Spring have been reversed by horrid dictator Qais Saied. People seem to be pretty unhappy at now living in a seedy police state.

Jordan is both poor and undemocratic, and is ranked 125.

Egypt is desperately poor and its government since 2014 has been a military junta in business suits that brooks not the slightest dissent. It is 127. The hopes of the Arab Spring are now ashes.

Yemen is 133. One of the poorest countries in the world, it suffered from being attacked by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates from 2015 until 2021. So it is war torn and poverty-stricken.

Lebanon ranks almost at the bottom at 142. Its economy is better than Yemen’s but its government is hopelessly corrupt and its negligence caused the country’s major port to be blown up, plunging the country into economic crisis. It is wracked by sectarianism. If hope is a major positive emotion that leads to feelings of happiness, it is in short supply there.

Some countries are too much of a basket case to be included, like Syria, where I expect people are pretty miserable after the civil war. Likewise Sudan, which is now in civil strife and where hundreds of thousands may starve.

Poverty, dictatorship, disappointment in political setbacks, and sectarianism all seem to play a part in making the Middle East miserable. The role of the United States in supporting the dictatorships in Egypt and elsewhere, or in supporting wars, has been sinister and certainly has added significantly to the misery. For no group in the region is this more true than for the Palestinians.