How good is your wasta?

Wasta is an Arabic term that can best be translated into English as "clout, connections, influence, or 'pull'." The use of wasta is a form of corruption that involves using of one's connections and influence in places of power to get things done outside of the normal procedures. Wasta often goes by the nickname "vitamin waw" because waw(و) is the Arabic letter equivalent to the English letter "w." This nickname also highlights the way wasta gives the user power. John Slattery, an American who lived in Saudi Arabia for nineteen years, described wasta as such:
With enough wasta, anything can be done: any lawful punishment can be escaped, any employment can be attained, any problem can be brushed aside. Perhaps the worst situation a Saudi citizen could find him/herself in would be to be 'wasta-less.' For those who have no wasta, even simple daily tasks, such as opening a bank account or getting a driver's license, can become obstacle courses that require considerable time and effort to achieve.
Still confused about how exactly it all works? Here are some hypothetical examples of wasta in action:
  • You need to get a certain license. You think a trip to your local DMV is hell, imagine the process under a truly totalitarian government. You must travel to a city many miles away, wait in line to file it, and then wait many weeks or even months only to find that you've been turned down. Or, you could call up your friend who works in the relevant office whom you once did a large favor for. He accepts your form in your own hometown and clears it through the bureaucracy in a few hours, you've been approved!
  • Your son needs a job and one of your good friends happens to be the nephew of a prominent person in a local company. You pull some strings through this contact and before you know it, your son has been hired even though he has absolutely no experience in the field his new job is in.
  • You've just gotten into a car accident and it was clearly your fault, but you're not worried. You have some good connections within the police department and justice ministry. As a result, the other driver is determined to be at fault and pays for the damage to your car.
Before I continue, I must caution readers against lazily buying into the racist notion that wasta is a product of the innate proclivities of a certain people. Wasta is not something any human is born with, it is learned. And though some of wasta's origins are customary, it is much more a product of contemporary political realities that the vast majority of Arabs are unable to change, as much as they do want to. All Arab countries are to some degree illiberal societies, even in countries that are at least nominally democratic, such as Lebanon. Freedoms are extremely limited and state power is omnipresent and highly oppressive. Still, life must go on. People must get jobs, bank accounts, licenses, etc. Wasta is in this way a very pragmatic solution many individuals have come up with in order to deal with the monstrously inefficient governmental bureaucracies of the Arab world that control all aspects of life. Thus, the widespread use of wasta is more a reaction to an Arab's daily circumstances than a throwback to ancient Arab cultural practices and is in no way an inborn racial trait of Arabs. Likewise, something akin to wasta does occur in all societies around the world. Anyone familiar with American business or politics understands that such cliché phrases as "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" and "it's not what you know but who you know" are not mere words.

Though wasta can make life easier, its effects on Arab society are often extremely deleterious. First and foremost, many incompetent people are appointed to critical positions where such incompetence can cause serious problems. Also, with so many jobs being given to those with connections, there are often very few left for the genuinely qualified applicants. Since there is little guarantee that hard work and dedicated studying will pay off with a good job, wasta can and often does have a devastating effect on one's motivation. Take, for example, the story of a young Saudi named Fahd Khusheim, as relayed by Khaled Al Maeena, Editor-in-Chief of the Arab News and senior columnist at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper:
Fahd was an excellent student who, along with many others, applied for a job with a major oil company after completing high school. From his first days at school until his last, he was always an "A" student. His homework and examination papers were regularly reviewed by the Ministry of Education and he was given high praise. At times he even helped his teachers analyze complex mathematical problems and they too praised his dedication and abilities. In short, Fahd is just the sort of Saudi we can point to with pride and wish that there were hundreds of thousands more like him.

In addition to his God-given talents, he was also fortunate to have parents who were eager — and able — to help him develop his abilities. Every summer from 1995 to 2000, they sent him to do both English language and Internet courses in the UK or the US. In the summer of 1999 he took the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test which is required of all American students prior to entering a college or university) and the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language which is required of all students whose native language is not English prior to admission to American colleges or universities). He got high marks on both. Among other things to his credit, he was the No. 1 student for the last four years in the private schools of Jeddah. He was also one of the highest scorers in chemistry. His percentage rating when he graduated from high school was 99.03! The principal of his high school said that if Fahd went to the US, he might not come back. He might become a part of what is known as the "brain drain." With his record and talents, many universities would happily give him a full scholarship and once he had completed his university course, companies would compete with each other to employ him. And yet... and yet... with all this potential, the oil company here in the Kingdom refused to employ him.

What is going on? Surely this is just the kind of young Saudi to gladden the hearts of all employers. Fahd told his mother that the rejection shattered his confidence, especially as he could see no reason for it. There were other applicants for jobs in the same company and some of them were in fact accepted before their final high school results were announced. At long last, I finally understand the power of "vitamin waw" and how destructive that power can be.
Khaled Al-Maeena goes on to rightly point out that wasta is actually forbidden under Islam. He says, "In the best Islamic society, justice and fair play should have the most prominent roles. There is no place for 'vitamin waw' in a society that is genuinely Islamic." Of course, just like in any society including the United States, the adherents of a particular religion always fall short of the tenets of their religion.

Wasta is derived from the Modern Standard Arabic word "Waseet"( وسيط) which commonly means medium but also often means something akin to intermediary, intercessor, or middle-man. The base noun for wasta is wasat(وسط) which simply means middle or center, hence the Arabic term for the Middle East: Asharq(east) Al-Awsat(middle).

Further Reading:

Bel Wasta. By Isam Bayazidi June 28, 2005 http://isam.bayazidi.net/archives/2005/06/bel-wasta/

Living inside the Saudi Kingdom, part 7: Wasta – Vitamin Waw. By John Slattery February 14, 2005 http://www.freenewmexican.com/news/10507.html

Vitamin waw. By Khaled Al Maeena http://www.arabview.com/articles.asp?article=81

'Wasta' at US Embassy. By Syed Rashid Husain August 2, 2005 http://www.artarabia.com/artman/publish/article_118.shtml

Corruption in Arabia - wasta meets meritocratic appointment practices. By William G. Ridgeway July 20, 2005 http://www.socialaffairsunit.org.uk/blog/archives/000511.php

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