The region of the Middle East and North Africa continues to be politically and socially dominated by tribal classes and divisions to this day. Amazingly, perhaps, despite the enormously greater connectedness and openness of today’s world, some tribal traditions and mores have outlasted the comings and goings of several empires and remain as important today as they were thousands of years ago. Wasta is one of them. As a tribal concept, it predates Islam by millennia. The term stems from attempts by tribes in ancient times to develop a system of law that would protect their members and help them make peace and truces with other tribes—which could also mean paying or demanding blood money or other compensation—as well as manage scarce resources and solve local disputes at a time when states as such didn’t exist.
Wasta‘s survival is in itself partly political, a product of the nature of the way the various empires—Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, European—that have ruled the region have governed. Rain-fed, cultivated areas were always more interesting to their overlords, because they were easier to tax. In fact, in order to prevent (or at least reduce) tribal raids on settled areas, the tribes’ leaders (shaykhs) were paid a tribute (surrah) to stay away. Paradoxically, this had the effect of keeping the nomad tribes independent of the central authority.
The art of arbitration and mediation
Traditionally, wasta is a collection of informal, social-based networks and relationships, whether based on the family, kinship, clan or important friends. The arbiter plays a key role in the system, and in its modern meaning the closest translation of wasta in English is
One such social function of wasta has always been in intermarriages between tribes, conducted for the purposes of maintaining or increasing political, economic or military power. Wasta continues to play a similar role in conservative Middle Eastern societies, functioning like an informal dating agency to bring men and women together, host their meetings in an arbiter’s house, even negotiate the terms of marriages that may result.
But wasta‘s purposes nowadays are far more complicated. It’s a way around bureaucracy: wasta can smooth the way to permission to build a factory, get a driver’s license or a passport, even find a job for your son or daughter. If a new cabinet is forming, wasta can get a member of a particular tribe a big government appointment—which in turn will channel state resources and projects to the appointee’s region.
Wasta is thus simultaneously both a process and an individual—the process of mediation necessary to achieve certain objectives and the person who has been chosen to achieve that objective. Not every individual can perform wasta. Those who do usually wield influence: tribal shaykhs, important state officials or respected religious figures. Not surprisingly, many countries in the region—Yemen and Saudi Arabia, for instance—have resorted to these people in efforts to deradicalize former radicals.
The bank of goodwill—or an old boys’ network?
Last, but definitely not least, wasta, in its traditional, noble sense, is about reciprocity; not a mere tit-for-tat exchange between the beneficiary and the provider of wasta (“You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”), but rather the expectation that the beneficiary or a member of his family would one day return the favor. To quote Robert Cunningham and Yasin Sarayrah’s book Wasta: The Hidden Force in Middle Eastern Societies:
Today I or one of my relatives is the victim; tomorrow, or one year from now, we may become the defendant. If we do not show forgiveness, mercy and tolerance to others in their difficult times, we will not be shown tolerance by others when we are in distress. Hence the popular Arabic saying “You reap what you plant.”
As Queen Rania of Jordan once described it, wasta is “the bank of goodwill.” But unlike any other bank account, the more you draw on your wasta and perform wasta yourself, for the right reasons, the more assets you will accrue. When you perform wasta to help others without expecting a return, the more your social status and thus your influence in society will grow. In fact, it continues to be considered ayb (shameful) in traditional Arabic culture to demand or accept material rewards for performing a wasta.
Unfortunately, wasta is also increasingly associated today with cronyism, nepotism, favoritism and bias, if not outright bribery and corruption. In Egypt, some wasta networks have come to be known as “the sons’ gang”—meaning the group that formed around the sons of now-deposed President Hosni Mubarak and which appropriated to itself most of the benefits of economic reforms. Tragically, many people today hold that the mafia-like potential of wasta is responsible for many of the problems that plague the Arab world.