Wasta (Middle East and North Africa)

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Wāsṭa
Location: Middle East and North Africa
GreaterMiddleEast map.png
Author: James Redman
Affiliation: University of Utah

Original Text: James Redman, University of Utah

Wāsṭa is an Arabic term that, in its practical day-to-day usage, refers to the deployment of informal, personal intermediation on behalf of an individual or a group to secure some benefit that would be otherwise unobtainable or too burdensome[1]. The term is derived from the triliteral root wāw / sīn / ṭā’, a tri-consonantal pattern that forms the basis of words, both nouns and verbs, relating to "middle." Accordingly, this three letter configuration serves as a template for constructing a number of expressions that range from "to place, put, or set in the middle" to "medial, median, intermediate"[2]. It is within this specific semantic field that wāsṭa is variously defined as "the act of mediation / intercession"[3] as well as "mediator, mediatress, intermediary" or a "personal connection (of s.o. [someone], used to gain s.th. [something])"[4].

Cartoon depicting a graphical example of the informal practice of wāsṭa: outside an administrator’s office, wāsṭa is seen here opening the door for an underqualified applicant while denying entry to the candidate with excellent credentials. Artist: Amro Atef Nasr Al Sharqawi

The scope of wāsṭa spans across the Arabic speaking countries of the Persian Gulf, the Levant and North Africa, notwithstanding occurrences of a somewhat similar colloquial phrase, coup de piston[5] or simply piston, found in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia[6]. Of course, familiarity with wāsṭa is not limited solely to the native Arabic speakers in the indicated areas. Expatriate laborers living and working in these regions are often intimately accustomed to the advantages or hindrances of wāsṭa[7], a fact that underscores its pervasiveness in many Arab states.

In what might be its least contentious guise, wāsṭa is called upon to negotiate or resolve disputes between parties without resorting to formal legal procedures. The underlying logic in such cases is that, "intervention for conflict management is always recommended... [and] the intermediary is always to be preferred to the self as an effective pleader"[8]. One or more mediators[9] ideally act as evenhanded conciliators and are agreeable to the antagonists[10]. Moreover, forming a wāsṭa is intended not only to resolve the discord itself, but also to redress the resulting social disruptions that the friction causes[11]. Therefore, compromise, reconciliation and the restoration of relationships[12] are the desired outcomes of this mode of wāsṭa arbitration – even if residual animosities continue to persist – rather than the assignment of unilateral blame and one-sided punishments[13].

More commonly, though, wāsṭa is associated with the informal trading of favours between persons or groups. These exchanges can be precipitated by any variety of needs, but a range of common examples may include, "helping someone to get a government permit for a new business, to have his child enrolled in a prestigious school, to arrange for a telephone, to find employment, to postpone legal action, etc."[14]. The deployment of wāsṭa in such cases involved chains of interpersonal ties being activated and scrutinised until a liaison who can potentially provide satisfaction is located within the networks of family, friends, colleagues, coworkers, or the ubiquitous "friends of friends"[15].

Unlike prototypical patron-client dealings, however, wāsṭa is not normally viewed as a hierarchical transaction; instead, procuring and using wāsṭa is part and parcel of the obligations that underwrite existing, or coveted, social bonds. In other words, much like similar occurrences in other geographic and cultural settings, wāsṭa support is infused with sentiments that are in line with the notion that it is, "not a relationship for the sake of exchange but an exchange for the sake of a relationship" [16]. For this reason, wāsṭa favours tend to circulate within the economies of "good-faith"[17] that come with social closeness and familial trust; consequently, when wāsṭa is extended, it is usually without explicit requisites[18] or deadlines for compensation. Nonetheless, it should be recognized that there are those who are adept at manipulating this entire wāsṭa framework for their own agendas: politicians swapping bureaucratic largess for votes, businessmen bartering parliamentary backing for contracts, or local elites dispensing aid to augment the retinues and bolster their individual reputations.

Not surprisingly, wāsṭa has attracted its fair share of critics who are quick to note that it carries many of the same connotations that come with nepotism[19], dependency[20] and corruption[21]. On the one hand, it is true that wāsṭa can facilitate the necessary inroads required to press legitimate claims, such as those that are put before what are often overstaffed and opaque state bureaucracies[22]. Yet, at the other end of the spectrum, it is just as accurate to pinpoint wāsṭa as a mechanism by which those with insufficient credentials can outflank more qualified competitors, like with landing a job or winning a promotion. Still, whether wāsṭa is used for so-called benevolent purposes[23], such as navigating impenetrable government red tape, or utilised for more questionable motives, what is unmistakable is the power of wāsṭa brokerage to disproportionately shape the probabilities for betterment in a multitude of arenas.

Notes

  1. Makhoul, J. and Harrison, L.2004. 'Intercessory Wasta and Village Development in Lebanon', Arab Studies Quarterly, 26(3): 25-41.
  2. Wehr, Hans. 1994. Arabic-English Dictionary: The Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic. Ithaca, NY: Spoken Language Services, Inc.
  3. Cunningham, R. B. and Sarayrah, Y. K. 1994. 'Taming Wasta to Achieve Development', Arab Studies Quarterly, 16(3): 29-41.
  4. Wehr, Hans. 1994. Arabic-English Dictionary: The Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic. Ithaca, NY: Spoken Language Services, Inc.
  5. Gray, Dorris H. 2008. Muslim Women on the Move: Moroccan Women and French Women of Moroccan Origin Speak Out. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
  6. Gray, Dorris H. 2008. Muslim Women on the Move: Moroccan Women and French Women of Moroccan Origin Speak Out. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
  7. Shah, N. M., M. A. Shah, and Behbehani, J. 1996. 'Ethnicity, Nationality and Health Care Accessibility in Kuwait: A Study of Hospital Emergency Room Users', Health Policy and Planning,11(3): 319-328.
  8. Antoun, Richard T.2000. 'Civil Society, Tribal Process, and Change in Jordan: An Anthropological View', International Journal of Middle East Studies, 32(4): 441-463.
  9. Ayoub, Victor. 1966. 'Resolution of Conflict in a Lebanese Village', in L. Binder (ed.), Politics in Lebanon. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.: 107-126.
  10. Weir, Shelagh. 2007. A Tribal Order: Politics and Law in the Mountains of Yemen. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
  11. Ayoub, Victor. 1966. 'Resolution of Conflict in a Lebanese Village', in L. Binder (ed.), Politics in Lebanon. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.: 107-126.
  12. Antoun, Richard T. 1979. Low-Key Politics: Local-Level Leadership and Change in the Middle East. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
  13. Antoun, Richard T. 2000. 'Civil Society, Tribal Process, and Change in Jordan: An Anthropological View', International Journal of Middle East Studies, 32(4): 441-463.
  14. Huxley, Frederick Charles. 1978. 'Wasita in a Lebanese Context: Social Exchange Among Villagers and Outsiders', Anthropological Papers, 64. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology.
  15. Boissevain, Jeremy. 1974. Friends of Friends: Networks, Manipulators and Coalitions. New York: St. Martin's Press.
  16. Ledeneva, Alena V. 2000. 'Continuity and Change of Blat Practices in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia', in S. Lovell, A. Ledeneva, and A. Rogachevskii (eds.), Bribery and Blat in Russia: Negotiating Reciprocity from the Middle Ages to the 1990s. New York: St. Martin's Press: 181-204.
  17. Bourdieu, Pierre.1990. The Logic of Practice. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  18. Wolf, Eric. 1966. ‘Kinship, Friendship, and Patron-Client Relations in Complex Societies.’, in M. Banton (ed.),The Social Anthropology of Complex Societies. New York: Frederick A. Praeger: 1-22.
  19. Haladjian-Henriksen, Sylvia. 2006. 'Social Stratification Obstacles to Reducing Inequality and Alleviating Poverty: The Case of Lebanon', in M. Petmesidou and C. Papatheodorou (eds), Poverty and Social Deprivation in the Mediterranean: Trends, Policies, and Welfare Prospects in the New Millennium. London: Zed Books: 308-319.
  20. Perthes, Volker. 1997. The Political Economy of Syria Under Asad. New York: St. Martin's Press.
  21. Kilani, S. and Sakijha, B. 2002. Wasta: The Declared Secret. Amman: Jordan Press Foundation Printing Press.
  22. Hertog, Steffen. 2010. 'The Sociology of the Gulf Rentier Systems: Societies of
  23. Kilani, S. and Sakijha, B. 2002. Wasta: The Declared Secret. Amman: Jordan Press Foundation Printing Press.