If you have any opinions / knowledge / experience with this, please help me out at this point in my thesis with your comments:
What do you think when you hear the word 'wasta'? What is the essence of this middle eastern concept?
Also, if you're working on this or similar stuff (patron-client relationships, conflict resolution with third-party involvement...), please feel free to contact me. I'm not an anthropologist by background and am looking for inspiration :)
Hi I’m currently doing research on Bedouin in southern Jordan and I’m looking into wasta and how it relates to the position of Bedouin within the state. I’m only in the preliminary stages of research and haven’t done my fieldwork yet, but the whole deal with wasta doesn’t surprise me looking at it from the angle of Bedu. The position of the Wasta, the intermediary, the negotiator or influential person that enables things to happen, mediates dispute and so on, was, and I believe still is, an important aspect of the way Bedouin, and probably non-Bedouin Jordanians carry out business (anything really not just business in the strict western sense). It appears to be part and parcel of a system of politics, business, civil society, that doesn’t make a rationalised distinction between these different areas of life which still contain a very personal and moral element. There’s a paper I have read recently that you might be interested in, it’s about civil/tribal society in Jordan by a guy called Richard T. Antoun ‘Civil Society, Tribal Process, and Change in Jordan: An Anthropological View’ in. International Journal of Middle East Studies. 2000. 32:441-463. He sees there being a seamless web from personal, familial, tribal to national business and political arenas that are bound up with wasta. I have a few others that I haven’t gotten to yet. If you are interested I can let you know about them as I get through them.
I've read other things by Antoun (Arab Village: a Social Structural Study of a Transjordanian Peasant Community, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1972.; Low-key politics: Local-level Leadership and Change in the Middle East. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1979.), but this essay sounds great! Do you happen to have it digitally?
I think you might find that your at the heart of the development of clientelism with the Bedu because when Jordan was established, the King gave the tribal leaders leading positions in his young state and virtually set them up as wasta-people. Have you read Cunningham and Sarayrah, Wasta, the hidden force in middle eastern society, 1993? Very recommendable.
Where are you based? If you come to Amman, please be in touch and lets hook up.
I lived in the ME (Lebanon, UAE, Saudi) and traveled throughout the region for 25 years. Wasta, from my experience, is the preferential treatment you give someone. And you do that because for several reasons: religious, expecting the same from others, making the group stronger or maintaining power, money interests, friendship, previous favors. It happens daily in the ME, less so in North America. I think that the asymmetry of civic society (different religions, tribes, immigrants..etc) causes such behaviors and processes to be maintained. Nowadays it is even worse due to the conflicts in the region. The lack of transparency and political fear (of leaders in power) also encourages wasta
The Israeli-Arab conflict indirectly feeds to maintain the political structure, as leaders over there use it to their favor. But wasta happens at all levels in society, the street level seller selling tomatoes on his cart all the way up to the politician, member of parliament that wants to maintain his position and power. I still travel to the region and I see wasta nowadays more linked to interests and protecting your cult. The behavior might differ from area to area. I think the lack of symmetry (religious, power,..etc) and the lack of accountability (at all levels from family to government and public), auditing and 'punishment' allows it to remain. The difference, I hv noticed, in North America is that people here also practice a wasta but they hv to play it very intelligently and make sure they do not get caught. In the ME it could be triggered by a gesture in body language or even an eye tweak and even if you get caught , so what!?. Nothing happens, it feeds others to practice it.
No. A wasta example: You are looking for a job, I happen to know the GM of the company. The GM knows me (samir) and knows my status (power or rich or influential..etc). You mention to the GM my name, you ask me to drop a call or email. The GM sends a note or calls me. (the GM makes me understand in some way or another either joking or by inviting me to lunch of some favor he might want). You get the job, there might hv been hundreds of Cvs and more competent people than you. I expect to return the favor. In other cases, I might be from a cult (religious or other), the seller or clerk will help me out because he might belong to the same cult (religion..etc). In some other cases (because of loyalty or love for a leader (it might hv other indirect relations to other factors like religion or tribe)) the person will serve you and help you ignoring others (that hv rights or hv been to that Que before you).
Sure, you have described the wasta concept and the process that concept takes, ideas of what, if one were to un-reflexively apply the ideals of western liberal democracy to it, could be called nepotism. But the word itself, in literal terms, refers to a person, an intermediary or middleman (perhaps middle woman), who carries out the function of a wasta, the idea you describe is its abstract meaning, as a process. But you are entirely right in describing how it works. The wasta (person) intercedes between people (it comes from the same root in Arabic as wasit or middle, centre; like when you ask a taxi driver in Amman to take you to wasit albalad) this can take the form of mediation between two parties; but usually the wasta is a person who has connections that you can make use of to get a job or out of trouble and so on. But sure in the context of a more general understanding when a certain person gets a job, or whatever, because they are hooked up in the right social networks one can say “that’s wasta” as indeed people do say.
And to give you an anecdotal example that is precisely like Ekkardt’s question above, involving a car accident. A friend of mine in Amman was friends with a young man who was part of a fairly important family in Jordan. Apparently he was driving like an idiot one day and smashed into some guy, who was quite badly hurt. When the cops showed up he was able to walk away scot-free after showing the cops who he was. My friend asked him how he could get away with it to which he explained “I’ve got wasta”. His family, and him, were connected and able to connect others to get jobs, resources and to get themselves, and others, out of trouble; or alternatively deny those things to others.
You have covered it from all angles!!
I am finalizing my thesis, any input and help will be appreciated. I am looking for a support writer/ethnographer that can help me with the storyboard.
This is an exert: "a qualitative ethnographic study investigating ITCO, an organization in the Abu Dhabi, UAE. The thesis will address the conditions and factors affecting (failures in) organizational change in ITCO. It will display the discourses and practices of a hypercapitalist context. It will touch on deception, cynicism, ‘wasta’ and guile, and their ethical underpinnings, which are socially accepted and constructed in ITCO. The study of organizational change is based on data accumulated over a three-year period. Analysis and reflection of the stories and experiences will be undertaken from a perspective of normative professionalism. I believed that as a consultant that I should bring rationality, transparency, sustainability and fairness to ITCO. But the social construction of ITCO only accepted modernist ideology, but none of its practices. Ultimately, I question the difference of ITCO --- between ITCO and ‘ENRON’ / ‘Lehman Bros’ capitalism; between my beliefs and ITCO’s, between hyper-capitalism and sensemaking. Karen Ho’s ethnography (2009) stands as an important model for my research".