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July 20, 2005

Corruption in Arabia - wasta meets meritocratic appointment practices

Posted by William G. Ridgeway

William G. Ridgeway shares his experiences of what happens when wasta - loosely translated as connections or "pull" - collides with meritocratic appointment practices.

"The decision is no," I said.
"But maybe the decision will be changed."
"Well, I can't change it. Sorry."

Abdullah looked down to the ground, and shrugged.
"I will use my wasta."
"Use what you like," I said. "I don't want to know about it."
Abdullah eyed me keenly.

"You don't like wasta do you, Mr William?"
I had been asked this many times before. Arabs love Catch 22 questions.
"No, I don't like it."
He smiled assuredly.
"Why not?" Another Catch 22.
"Because it is unmeritocratic."
"Excuse me. My English . . . "
"It means that people rise to power or get what they want through corrupt means. Nepotism - that sort of thing. Societies shouldn't be run that way."
He smiled disparagingly, almost pitying me.

"But that is how it is here."
"I know that."
There was a long silence. Arabs are more comfortable with this than Westerners.

Eventually Abdullah sighed, resignedly.
"I will go and see the Minister tomorrow."
"As I said, Abdullah do what you have to. I really don't want to know about it."
"Will you say yes if the Minister requests it?"
I looked out of the window at the soaring mountains. An eagle circled high above the complex.
"It depends on the merits of the case."
"The Minister won't like it if you don't accept it."
Bugger the Minister, I thought.
"The Minister is a wise man," I said. "I am sure he will act wisely."
Abdullah grinned appreciatively.
"Inshalla. Inshalla. You would make a good politician yourself, Mr William."
"Thank you," I said, and smiled back. Smiling is a language in Arabia.
There was another pause.

"So the decision is no?"
"Yes, Abdullah. The decision is no."

Three months later, I received a Ministerial qaraar written in Arabic. The crested document requested the appointment of Abdullah al-Nahyan to a permanent position in my Department. I sighed, and swore. With the ongoing policy of "Arabisation" replacing Westerners with locals Abdullah would be well placed to replace me within four years. I looked around my office, thinking how much tidier it would be then. The main function of a Middle Eastern office is to receive and impress those with power and influence. Arab executives are increasingly keen on feng shui.

I looked down at the qaraar. On the second page there was a section requiring me to tick the "yes" box, or the "no" box.

I uncapped my pen.
retained by author 2005

To read William G. Ridgeway's previous articles, see his Letters from Arabia.

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