If you live in Saudi Arabia chances are you’ve heard the word ‘wasta’ mentioned before. A wasta is a widely used term for a well connected individual in the Arab world. It refers to using one’s influence or connections to getting things done, cutting through bureaucratic red tape, having exceptions made to the rules, or assisting with employment or education opportunities.
The use of wasta (sometimes referred to as vitamin W) is endemic in the Middle East region and particularly in Saudi Arabia. The word wasta translates roughly to “connections” or “influence” and the Arabic origin means “intermediate”. In short, a wasta is a very influential person with good connections who can get things rolling for you.
Although using wasta is a common practice in the Arab world, the phenomenon of ‘who you know’ can be found everywhere in the world. Networking and social connections are forms of “wasta” in every culture. Some societies view using “wasta” as highly unethical, unfair and showing lack of integrity.
My home country Finland is one of these countries where using ‘wasta’ to achieve something is deeply frowned upon. It’s everyone for their own self, independence is highly valued. It would be considered shameful to land a job based solely on your connection, instead of being qualified for the job. This mentality can partly explain Finland’s rank in the corruption studies, where it’s frequently ranked the #1 least corrupt country in the world.
Coming from this background and upbringing then transitioning to the Saudi ‘world of wasta’ has been difficult. I had to accept the fact that wasta is a way of life in Saudi Arabia and the region in general, and that will not go away any time soon. I learned that I don’t have to accept and approve of the concept, but I can learn to deal with and work with the system the best of my capability.
But why is using these connections more widely culturally accepted and practiced in Saudi Arabia, compared to in the western countries?
The reason is because the roots of the wasta tradition are in tribal family structures. Saudis (and Arabs in general) have stronger social networks, and they will do anything in their power to serve family and friends. Saudis have very strong family ties and it’s not always about the immediate family, but the entire tribe. Moreover, in some cases it might be considered shameful if a Saudi doesn’t become a wasta for the people of their own tribe, even for relatives they’ve never met before.
Wasta can in some instances be more valuable than money and having wasta definitely makes life in Saudi Arabia much easier. It could be said that the wasta “system” is good only for those who are able to utilize it. For those outside of the system it can feel very frustrating and unfair.
That said, wasta in Saudi Arabia can work on all levels of society, just on different scales. Wasta shouldn’t be confused with the actions that come with it. In Saudi Arabia wasta is no doubt used also for the negative things such as favoring unqualified applicants for a job or giving out scholarships to under performing students. On the other hand having an influential wasta can sometimes even save lives.
Wasta is often used by Saudis to land a place in university or a job in management or other sought after placements. The sad truth is, the person who used wasta to obtain that position often went past many much more qualified candidates. That’s why many Saudi companies have incompetent and unmotivated staff. Because of influential wasta backing them up, they won’t have to fear loosing their jobs even if they don’t perform very well.
A wasta is sort of like a genie in a bottle, but better. Instead of three wishes you can get as many as you wish!
Watch the clip of the genie VS wasta to understand the power of WASTA ;)