The ongoing Saudi anti-corruption drive has caught the region and the world by storm and nothing is now taboo in the anti-corruption campaign, including wasta or the use of connections to make corrupt gains. The issue of wasta is like the proverbial elephant in the room – everyone knows it exists but avoids mentioning the fact due to the sensitivity of the subject.
The term wasta is used all over the Middle East and stems from the Arabic root for “middle” or “medium”. It indicates that there is a middleman or “connection” between somebody who wants a job, a license or government service and somebody who is in a position to provide it. Even the World Bank has waded in and noted the corrosive effect of corruption and public expenditure waste in many countries.
Although the effects of wasta may also be positive, they are usually considered as negative and affect decision-making on all levels of Middle Eastern societies and other societies who use social capital networking in a negative manner. The use of wasta causes inequality and inefficiency when people without the necessary skills get jobs or are even promoted in case their inability becomes obvious.
Although wasta is not identical to corruption, a Western perspective would clearly regard it as an abuse of power to meet private ends. However, in traditional societies, to help members of the tribe, family or region seems to have become regarded as normal. Wasta is often deplored but mostly in an anecdotic manner when used by others.
The wasta social network concept of interpersonal connections is often rooted in family ties and is highlighted in many cultures and religionsDr. Mohamed Ramady
The social network concept
One frequently finds that those people who complain about wasta do not hesitate to use their own. The wasta social network concept of interpersonal connections is often rooted in family and kinship ties and is highlighted in many cultures and religions such as old boy network (UK), guanxi, (China), piston (France), svyazi (Russia) , “big man” (Africa) and naoberschop (Germany).
Rather than bribes, wasta relies on reciprocity. This and other aspects make it difficult to measure. In many countries, the phenomenon is often linked to oil wealth and the fact that some governments can afford the inefficiency resulting from wasta while others cannot. Furthermore, wasta relies heavily on tribal affiliations and is very likely to strengthen them to the detriment of the emergence of a national identity.
One will frequently find that people blame wasta for all kinds of economic ills but do not hesitate to make use of their own connections when needed. Wasta can be found in many spheres of life whether in education, employment, project awards and business management structures.
All the GCC countries have announced initiatives to combat corruption at the national level by promoting transparency in project awards to rationalize national spending and are publicly naming and shaming officials and contractors who have used wasta and influence to obtain projects.
The seeking and granting of wasta also involve a well understood but implicit value system whereby the larger or more complicated the wasta requested, the more the unspoken obligation on the recipient to reciprocate in kind when the “counter wasta” is later called upon.
If wasta is widespread, hence, not only “grand” but also “petty” wasta can make its way into decision-making at all levels of society. On a political and social level, further questions are raised whereby wasta potentially hampers the emergence of national identities, especially in the GCC, as it tends to make use and reinforce tribal, regional, familial and socio-ethnic ties.
However, some might argue that combating corruption and wasta in the GCC post the “Arab Spring” was more cosmetic than real until now under the wholesale crackdown by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
By all indications, the combating of corruption and ensuring a level playing field, for rulers and ruled, is an issue that has been taken very seriously by King Salman bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia, who stated in June 2015 to the Anti-Corruption Committee, that his government would have zero tolerance for corruption in the country and that he and other members of the royal family are not above the law and that any citizen can file a lawsuit against the king, crown prince or other members of the royal family.
His Crown Prince is now putting these words into reality. A serious discussion on wasta is no longer a luxury but a necessity for many countries.
Dr. Mohamed Ramady is an energy economist an geo-political expert on the GCC and former Professor at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. His latest book is on “Saudi Aramco 2030: Post IPO challenges”.