Human nature compels us to want to help our family and friends. Normally, this comes in the form of offering a ride, cooking a meal, helping with homework, and other innocuous expressions of affection and loyalty. It’s hard to imagine a culture in which this kind of mutual care is non-existent.
However, this impulse to help loved ones—which comes from a very good place—can sometimes be taken a step too far, reaching the point of nepotism or cronyism. It’s naïve to think that any culture or nation is immune to either. Nationals of every country can point to an example of bias towards “in-group” people. Whether you’re in Norway or Thailand, Peru or the U.S., the founder of a family business is more likely to hire someone from within their network of family and friends rather than choosing a total stranger – barring a very large difference in talent or qualifications. What differentiates countries and cultures is the degree to which such practices are the rule or the exception, and how much indignation is directed at people who engage in them.
In the Arab world, giving of favors or positions to close acquaintances is known as wasta. Arabs jokingly refer to it as “Vitamin W”! As I mention in my book, this translates to “go between,” and essentially means “who you know.”
Undoubtedly, wasta often flies in the face of meritocracy. Consequently, many young Arab entrepreneurs have made it a goal to improve company culture by eradicating wasta from their business practices. Nevertheless, wasta remains entrenched in many fields, especially in government departments, and often prevents better qualified individuals from advancing, thus stymieing progress.
However, like many things, wasta is a mixed bag. One person I spoke to, put it in a completely different perspective! He said: if I am in a senior position I know that there is pressure on me to deliver and succeed. So I need to have people around me whom I trust and who would have an invested interest in helping me deliver and succeed. Therefore, it makes absolute sense that I would chose to hire the close people to me – whether family or friends. They too would feel an obligation to return the favour, and would therefore do their best to do a good job in order to save my face and help me succeed. So if you see it from that perspective, it is a win-win for everyone.”
I really hadn’t seen it that way before.
A discussion of wasta is not one from which an easy conclusion can be drawn. In excess, it clearly isn’t a reflection of the best company culture, as it can hinder talent acquisition, retention, and promotion. Sometimes, though, it does facilitate actions that benefit all parties involved.
As with most things in life, there is a lot of nuance involved. One thing you can be certain of is that while not all organisations and people engage in it, wasta remains a reality in the Arab world. My advice to foreigners who work in the region is to be prepared for it and to use it judiciously.