x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Youth employment hampered by wasta

In every society influence, or wasta, can help a person. But wasta can hurt a society. Young Arabs say wasta is a problem for them. We should all listen.

It's not what you know that matters, the adage tells us, but who you know. In every society, being well-connected has improved an individual's chances in life.

But whatever you call it - pull, friends in high places, the right relatives, connections or, in this part of the world, wasta - this phenomenon can do real damage to a whole society's chances.

Wasta turns up in many aspects of life, from mundane bureaucracy to the allocation of contracts. It is certainly well-established in hiring. Opinion polling in 2009 by the Gallup organisation, reported on the page opposite today, suggests that a majority of young people in the Arab world think that lack of wasta is the main obstacle to finding a job.

Considering the magnitude and the social implications of the increase in youth unemployment, that belief bears real significance.

The same polling found that fully 30 per cent of young Arabs would like to emigrate, especially if they can't find jobs at home, and many name the United States as their preferred destination. You can see the logic: the US has plenty of attractions, but a fundamental one is the "American dream" of an open and meritocratic economy where, no matter who you are, intelligence and hard work will get you to the top financially and socially. No wasta needed.

This is partly myth, as many struggling US small-business owners will tell you. By some measures social mobility is even declining in the US.

But it is also partly true. The US, like certain other countries, has built itself a line of defences against nepotism, favouritism and wasta. Tendering for contracts, equality before the law, university scholarships and bursaries, conflict-of-interest laws and formal, enforced corporate policies all aim to keep alive the fair-minded ideal of meritocracy: "May the best man - or woman - win."

In the Arab world, as in some other regions, wasta is an intractable reality, rooted in history and different cultures. And it does harm in two ways, by preventing the most promising from rising to positions of importance, and by giving those key assignments to others who may be less qualified.

This problem is easier to identify than to solve. Changing ingrained practices is a daunting challenge. The first step will be widespread understanding of how much harm the wasta system does. To learn about that, apparently, all you have to do is ask some young people.