Throughout the Middle East and North Africa - or MENA - wasta is a currency more powerful than dirhams or dinars. Wasta is the clout you get from whom you know and it can make every aspect of your life easier - from getting a new phone line installed to getting a foot in the corporate door. In the past, wasta was the chief means of keeping peace within societies. But today, most people agree that wasta is breaking societies down.
In historic times, wasta was the chief means for solving conflicts and managing relationships within the tribe or family group: An elder respected by both sides of a dispute is called on to mediate a problem - say, a land dispute or to intercede on behalf of a groom's family in an arranged marriage. Wasta could also ensure that the poor or marginalized got what was rightfully theirs.
Robert Cunningham is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is also the co-author of Wasta: the Hidden Force. He likes to tell a story about how he first discovered he had earned some wasta of his own. Cunningham flew to Amman, Jordan for a visit. After the plane landed, he discovered the airline had lost his luggage. He made many calls to the airline, which could not resolve his problem.
That is when he remembered a former student in Aleppo, who had a friend in the airline industry. He made one phone call to the former student, and the next day, his luggage was hand delivered to his hotel.
"I couldn't accomplish in several days what he was able to accomplish with a phone call to his friend at Royal Jordanian," said Cunningham. "It has positive benefits. In the system, I was a disadvantaged person. It was only by going around the system that I was able to get what I needed to get, justifiably.
Justifiably. That's a key word when discussing wasta. If you have enough wasta, you can get that dream job over a candidate who might be far more qualified than you. You can get out of serving time for a crime or get elected to political office - and then hire all of your relatives to work for you, whether they are competent or not.
Lubna Alzaroo is a second-year student at Bethlehem University in the Palestinian West Bank. She talks about just how persuasive wasta is. It's everywhere in your daily life. It's one of the most common words used in daily life," said Alzaoo. "Everybody talks about it. When I talk to my friends about my plans in the future, they always tell me, 'Well, you need a wasta.'
If she does not have enough wasta, she may not ever get a good job. It makes me nervous," said Alzaroo. "I'm going to graduate in two years. Basically, what they are telling me is that whatever qualifications I have and whatever university I go to, if I don't know somebody, and they [don't] help me, then I probably won't get a job."
Wasta is not just a Palestinian problem. It is prevalent throughout the entire MENA region. Earlier this year, the Qatar-based youth employment initiative Silatech partnered with Gallup to conduct a comprehensive poll of youth in the League of Arab States. It found that the majority of Arab youth perceive wasta as critical to their future success.
Dr. Azmi Shuabi is a former member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and founder of AMAN - or Transparency International Palestine. He says that while wasta is so ingrained into Middle Eastern culture and behavior, most people in the MENA region perceive themselves as victims of wasta. "There is a feeling of injustice and sometimes frustration and loss of equal opportunities," he said. "There is no trust of those officials who are responsible."
Shuabi's group helped push for a new Palestinian Authority law which criminalizes wasta and other forms of corruption. He now heads a new commission set up to investigate charges of wasta. Those found guilty of favoritism could face from three to15 years in prison.
But changing the law is only the first step, and Shuabi admits that combating wasta will not be easy. "We can initiate the starting, but we need the help and supporting [sic] of all the good people in the society and the government," he said.
Eliminating systematic wasta will also require the combined energy of educational systems, the media, and religious groups and even, says Shuabi, individual families.