For our latest instalment of the Lost in Translation series, we’re diving into a topic that elicits mixed emotions from people: Wasta.

The original meaning of the Arabic word wasta is mediating or being in between – the source word “wasat” translates to in the middle. Historically, wasta was used as a means of conflict resolution to secure stability or to obtain something. In other words: middleman duties. While it can allude to concepts like friendly favours, networking, and negotiation, it’s also associated with negative terms like corruption, nepotism, and bribery.

At its core, wasta is a form of social capital, a set of relationships and connections that can be leveraged for personal or professional gain. It’s a phenomenon that can be helpful and frustrating, depending on who you are and how you use it.

But wasta can also be terribly unfair and biased, especially when it’s used to bypass merit-based criteria or favour certain individuals over others. This is where it starts to look a lot like nepotism, which is the practice of favouring relatives in hiring, promotions, or other decision-making processes. In some ways, nepotism and waste are two sides of the same coin.

Wasta is often seen as a more nuanced and socially acceptable practice than nepotism. This is because it’s rooted in a culture of hospitality and generosity, where helping others is seen as a moral duty. Nepotism, however, is often seen as a more blatant form of favouritism. We’re not saying they’re not similar, but context plays a huge role.

At its worse, wasta can also be used to evade fines or even more serious legal consequences. When certain individuals are able to use their connections to escape punishment for their actions – while others face full legal consequences – it can lead to significant implications for society. Eventually, eroding trust in institutions and perpetuating social inequality. It also makes individuals feel entitled, deeming that they’re above the rules and can act with impunity. This is when wasta takes a too similar form of cronyism – a term often used to discuss the unethical climb on the political ladder.

There’s actually a Lebanese board game called Wasta. Born out of the anti-government protests in October 2019, the board game combines biting wit and sobering reality. The cartoonist Bernard Hage’s illustrations highlight Lebanese society’s all-too-common afflictions: rampant corruption, ingrained clientelism, and insidious nepotism. With each roll of the dice, players are transported into a world where political manipulation and underhanded deals are the norm, revealing the dark humour that is often necessary to cope with the frustrating realities of everyday life in Lebanon.

Wasta also differs from networking. While there may be some overlap between wasta and networking, the key difference lies in the intention and outcome. Networking involves building relationships based on shared interests and mutual benefits, aiming to advance professionally or achieve certain objectives.

Within the workplace, wasta can be beneficial for qualified individuals who could use the recommendation to be part of the competitive hiring process. However, in many cases, wasta also means that individuals do not compete at all – the job is secured. This can result in less-qualified individuals landing jobs or promotions over more deserving candidates, leading to a sense of discouragement among those who have worked hard to get to where they are. Likewise, relying too much on personal connections can limit one’s own agency and self-reliance, creating a dependency on others for success.

Despite its controversial nature, wasta remains deeply ingrained in this region. At the end of the day, we can either wish for the wasta, or work hard enough to become the (ethical, of course) wasta.

Rand Al-Hadethi is an art, culture, and fashion writer who approaches all her creative endeavours with a penchant for storytelling. She explores the intersection of fashion, culture, and society and sheds light on talent and cultural movements across the Middle East and the world. Rand also publishes a bi-monthly themed substack newsletter called WebWeaver™. To reach Rand, email her at rand@khamsa5.com or follow her on social media @rundoozz.
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