Vitamin W

Often jokingly referred to by Arabs as Vitamin W, wasta is the magical lubricant that smoothes the way to jobs, promotions, university places and much else besides. In fact, with the right connections, it can solve almost any kind of problem. Wasta, the blogger known as Secret Dubai wrote, is “arguably the most valuable form of currency in much of the Middle East, far more effective than bribes and certainly more effective than following due process”.

“Everything goes through wasta,” said Salam Pax, the Iraqi blogger. “Whether you are trying to get a good bed in hospital for your aunt, whether it was me trying to dodge military service, you can make your life much easier. It’s almost expected.” Wasta, he explained, is an extension of “this feeling that a family or a tribe will look after each other … If you are from tribe X, and you meet someone else from tribe X you are expected to help them. If you don’t – then, hey!”

Wasta, which roughly translates as connections, clout, influence or favouritism, comes from an Arabic root (w-s-T) conveying the idea of “middle”, and a wasta is someone who acts as a go-between. The same word, as an abstract noun, refers to the use of intermediaries. The intermediary in cases of wasta must be someone with influence (in order to secure the favour) but not necessarily a relative or even a close friend; quite possibly just a passing acquaintance or sometimes a complete stranger. By using his influence to perform a service, the wasta acquires prestige and honour but, perhaps more importantly, the person receiving the favour incurs a debt of gratitude which may have to be repaid in unspecified ways at some point in the future.

The origins of wasta are by no means disreputable. It has a long and generally respectable history as a way of managing relations between families, clans or tribes through intermediaries. In the event of a blood feud, for example, wastas – either an individual or a group of elders respected by both sides – could be called upon to resolve the matter through negotiation and compromise while salvaging the honour of the parties involved.

Besides mediation, wasta is also traditionally used to intercede – for example to approach one family on behalf of another with a view to arranging a marriage – and it is this form which has evolved in insidious ways to become rampant throughout the Middle East. Intercessionary wasta, as practised today, is basically a way of circumventing problems rather than confronting them.

The development of Arab states in the 20th century, far from banishing wasta, created new opportunities for it to adapt and flourish. The expansion of the Jordanian civil service during and after the 1960s, for instance, led to a situation where senior officials filled new posts with employees from their extended family or region. Governments were happy to let this happen at the time, since they were less preoccupied with building a smooth-running state than establishing their own legitimacy among the populace – and this was one way of doing so. “That’s how wasta and nepotism spread and gave birth to thousands of unqualified and unproductive employees who do nothing but wait for their salaries at the end of the month,” according to Dr Adnan Badran, president of Philadelphia University in Jordan.

Although wasta, as an almost inescapable aspect of daily life, is often depicted in Arabic novels, films and TV dramas, there has been surprisingly little research into the phenomenon apart from two studies published in 1993 and 2002 in relation to Jordan – the latter by the Amman-based Arab Archives Institute (AAI) which had earlier conducted a survey of public opinion.6 Jordan clearly has a serious wasta problem, though the country is by no means unique in that respect.

As in many Arab countries, the public sector in Jordan is the largest employer. An estimated 500,000 people receive salaries from the state – which probably means that as many as one family in two depends financially to some extent on the state. Salaries account for around two-thirds of the national budget. Among the many burgeoning arms of government, the state-run television corporation has long been regarded as among the most overblown. According to the AAI report, an internal investigation found that over a five-year period it had hired around 1,000 superfluous employees – and it is easy to see how this happened. 

On one occasion the director-general was approached by the prime minister to hire “some acquaintances of his”. A couple of hours later security staff at the main gate reported that a bus had arrived carrying twenty people who said they had been sent by the prime minister. The director-general then contacted the prime minister: “There are tens of people out there,” he remonstrated. But the prime minister was insistent: “Just appoint them, quickly,” he replied.

Although Jordanian television has had periodic mass clear-outs of staff, “there were employees of high qualifications among the dismissed ones and many others, appointed by wasta, remained at the top of their jobs”. Often, there is little or no attempt to conceal the use of wasta. Faisal Shboul, a newly-appointed director of the state-run Petra News Agency, admitted to the press that he had been appointed through wasta – adding that this was no different from the way the eleven previous directors had been appointed.

For politicians, being known as someone who can deliver on the wasta front brings obvious electoral advantages while the popularity of any who refuse to play the game is liable to suffer. At an electoral gathering in the northern city of Salt, Abdullah Nsour, a former deputy prime minister of Jordan, revealed that he appointed thousands of people from his district while in office. In a newspaper interview, a former mayor of Amman, Mamdouh Abbadi, condemned wasta but admitted to appointing many people from his own tribe. Resisting the expectations of their supporters can be extremely difficult – especially if rival tribes or other districts are seen to be benefiting. 

On the other hand, politicians who use wasta extensively are liable to become overburdened with more and more demands from their constituents. This has a distorting effect on the activities of parliament, diverting members’ attention from legislating and monitoring the government’s performance, according to the AAI: “Voluntarily or out of social pressure, parliamentarians’ role in mediating, or, in other words, using wasta between the citizen and the state, is increasing dramatically and becoming their main task.” Politicians cannot be blamed for that entirely: it is driven by popular demand, institutional weakness, arbritrary enforcement of laws, lack of transparency and bureaucratic complexity. One member of parliament, Khaled Tarawneh, grumbled that citizens are more interested in obtaining wasta than discussing the issues of the day.

Although wasta often provides the means for people to obtain a benefit they are not entitled to, there are other situations where, as a result of maladministration or defective governance, wasta can help them obtain their rights. This has led to an argument that wasta can also be benevolent – a “poor people’s weapon” where those lacking the means to deal with the authorities effectively can secure just treatment through intervention by others who have influence. The problem with this approach is that it does not address the underlying reasons for the maladministration and, in the long run, probably makes matters worse by alleviating any pressure to reform the system. Among various people interviewed about this by the AAI, Hakim Harb, a film producer, refused to give examples of “benevolent” wasta, saying that whether mischievous or benevolent it should not exist in a society that respects individuals’ rights: “When we live in a real society, progressive, and civilised, and when we live in an atmosphere filled with freedoms, democracy and human rights, everyone will obtain his/her rights and the right people will be in the right places without the need for any form of help.”

The widespread dislike of wasta was highlighted in 2000 by a survey among Jordanians.Eighty-six percent agreed that it is a form of corruption and 87% thought it should be eliminated. At the same time, though, 90% said they expected to use wasta at least “sometimes” in the future and 42% thought their need for it was likely to increase, while only 13% thought their need would decrease.

Source: What's Really Wrong with the Middle East, by Brian Whitaker (Saqi Books, 2009).