Wasta has a bad press. Sometimes hiring through personal connections can be exactly the right approach.
If properly used, wasta is a useful tool in recruiting
There are two aspects of the wasta discussion that we tend to forget about.
One is that the use of personal connections in hiring is by no means unique to the Arabian Peninsula. The other is that wasta has valid uses, and actual benefits, particularly in the recruitment of promising Emiratis or foreigners who have skill-sets that the country does not have readily available.
As The National reported on Friday, auditors across the UAE are often asked to seek out evidence of wasta in hiring. But properly used, wasta can be highly beneficial.
The UAE's labour market is still quite short of skills needed in many areas of the economy, and in many of the professions needed to create the productive and knowledge-based economy leaders envisage.
Human capital is needed to develop the private and the public sectors. But often the skills needed are not readily available.
This is particularly important in light of how much the private sector currently relies on low-tech, low-skill labour, a key sickness of the UAE's labour market.
The needed skills can be provided by a new generation of Emirati graduates, or by skilled foreigners. In either case, wasta can be a very useful tool to fill the jobs of the future.
Consider first the business of hiring Emiratis, which virtually every employer is now eager to do. I know of many organisations that rely on professors at the UAE's three main higher-education institutions to recommend students for internships or graduates for full-time employment. This happens for several reasons: because CVs tend to have few distinguishing factors, because grades cannot always be relied upon, and because there is no culture of summer jobs or voluntary internships that would allow any one candidate to stand out.
In this case, wasta gives employers access to students and graduates who stand out, through the recommendations of professors who have spent a lot of time getting to know and teach the candidates. This is evidently a useful approach to recruitment.
As for more senior professionals, there is also an obvious shortage among the Emirati population. I have worked with many organisations trying to recruit Emiratis into senior positions, and I know that the competition for them is strong. Wasta can help here, too
With regards to the recruitment of highly skilled foreigners, wasta helps provide a pool of professionals who may not otherwise consider the UAE.
Research indicates clearly that those hired from abroad who have been recruited through personal networks or recommendations tend to have a better idea than others of what they are getting into. So they are less likely to quit within the first few months, which in the case of foreigners can come at a high cost to the organisation.
Before I came to the UAE in 2006, I had visited a friend working at UAEU, fell in love with Al Ain and liked what I was told about the university. So I applied for, and got, a position. I already knew what I was getting into.
The same is true for many expatriates I know - they were brought in by professional or personal acquaintances, either as visitors or through short-term consulting contracts. After seeing first-hand the aspects of living and working here, they chose to stay.
We need to accept the reality of global competition for talent, the signs of which are obvious everywhere in the global economy. The UAE's labour market is in direct competition with other GCC labour markets, and ultimately with the international job market.
Wasta can provide this country with the edge in getting people who would otherwise go to Qatar or Singapore, say, or simply stay where they are.
Beyond global competition, we also need to accept that this country has too few people with the education and experience that the UAE's growing economy must have.
In truth, what the few really good recruiting agencies sell us, at a high price, is their wasta, their access to specialised professionals. So talk about eradicating wasta is moot, since at the same time we are paying large amounts to organisations that essentially provide wasta for us.
Of course, from an auditing perspective it might look better to pay huge fees to agencies than to simply hire people we know. But does it really make sense to outsource wasta, just to comply with still more rules in an already over-regulated environment?
The discussion about wasta often treats it as a region-specific issue. It simply isn't. But Europe, for example, has become much better at hiding the use of personal connections behind processes and checks and balances - that then are circumvented in elaborate ways. The result is still a wasta hire with a different name. Try replacing the word "wasta" in this article with "networking" and suddenly things sound much more positive.
Where family connections are weaker and families smaller, this type of connection is based instead on other forms of network, such as political parties, alumni associations or ethnic groups.
There is, of course, a need to eradicate wasta when it means hiring unqualified people, and I believe the UAE has come a long way on that.
But we should not forget how wasta can serve us well in finding the right people in the first place, and then enabling organisations to ease the transition of new employees into their new jobs. A wasta hire will understand what he or she is getting into, and will already have social connections within the new work environment.
Ingo Forstenlechner works at the College of Business at United Arab Emirates University