x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Jordanians press for greater effort to wipe out wasta and defeat corruption

King Abdullah promises to fight corruption but critics say more serious efforts are needed to end wasta, nepotism and favouristism.

Pro-reform activists have taken to the streets across Jordan, stepping up their calls for the prime minister to resign because they say he has failed to fight corruption. Nader Daoud / AP Photo
Pro-reform activists have taken to the streets across Jordan, stepping up their calls for the prime minister to resign because they say he has failed to fight corruption. Nader Daoud / AP Photo

AMMAN // Luma, a 29-year-old college graduate, believes if she had wasta, or connections, she would not have been waiting for six years to get a government job.

"I am applying again because they have started accepting college diplomas on humanitarian grounds and because there have been 9,000 job openings in the government," she said last week as she stood outside a government hiring office, clutching an envelope containing documents and accompanied by her mother.

"If I had wasta, I would have even secured my retirement," she said.

"We do not have wasta. Others who have even failed the Tawjihi have found jobs in the government," interrupted her mother, Um Mohammad, 56, speaking of the public high school examinations.

Wasta, the Arabic word that describes using one's connections or influence to get things done, is deeply rooted in the Arab world. In Jordan, there is a belief that people need wasta to run their affairs smoothly. For example, many resort to wasta if they want to speed up their paperwork through government institutions, bypassing bureaucratic red tape.

"It is more of a social practice," said Mamdouh Abbadi, an independent MP and head of Jordan's chapter of Transparency International, a Berlin-based civil society organisation that fights corruption. "Many people resort to it because they want to speed up their transactions in government organisations. In fact, it decreases bureaucracy".

But wasta, too, is linked to corruption. "The problem lies when it deprives others from jobs they are entitled to ... appointments in senior state positions that are not based on meritocracy. Or when certain people are awarded contracts based on their wasta," Mr Abbadi said.

Jordanian laws considers wasta and nepotism as corruption when they deprives others of their rights. But critics say there has not been serious efforts to stamp it out.

"Wasta is used to make life easier. It is like a vicious circle," Mohammad Masri, an analyst at the Strategic Centre for Studies at the University of Jordan.

"In order to get rid of it, you need to have an efficient system in the country that is not based on wasta, so that people can compare and see the benefits. But it is not easy. It will take effort. It will be like cancelling the role of the church in France, which meddled in politics for centuries, or like asking people not to use the word 'inshallah'.

While wasta, nepotism and favouristism have been ingrained in Jordan for decades, a protest movement that started in January calling for an end to corruption has renewed attention on the practices.

The story of a jailed business tycoon, who was allowed to leave the country in February for medical treatment but was seen in London dining and shopping, dealt a blow to the government's efforts in fighting corruption. King Abdullah II was reportedly angry about the tycoon's release and has demanded an explanation.

There has also been unsubstantiated news about lands expropriated by the government for public interest and then sold for private gains, or public lands registered in the names of influential figures.

Yesterday, Marouf Bakhit, the prime minister, referred a case to the Lower House involving allegations of corruption in a 5 billion Jordanian dinar (Dh26bn) housing project for the poor. It has the authority to impeach ministers.

"The system of awarding contracts for building the housing units was not transparent and was not based on a fair competition," Mr Abbadi said. "There are efforts to fight corruption, but we need to see more."

Transparency International shows Jordan's corruption index slipped last year from 49 in 2009 to 50 out of 178 countries. Its corruption perceptions index regressed to 4.7 in 2010 from 5, out of a possible 10. The latter ranks countries in terms of the degree to which corruption is perceived to exist among public officials and politicians. Egypt, for comparison, ranked 98 last year while its perceived corruption index stood at 3.1.

King Abdullah promised on Sunday to continue fighting corruption. "We are firm in our fight against corruption in all its forms," he said, encouraging the public's support for an anti-corruption commission within government.

Muhammad Abu Rumman, a political analyst and a columnist with Alghad daily, said corruption exceeded people's impressions. He said the lack of transparency kept many cases hidden. "Most alarming is the alliance between power and the money," he said.

smaayeh@thenational.ae