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«Working Paper Series The Stigma of Wasta The Effect of Wasta on Perceived Competence and Morality by Ahmed Amin Mohamed Hadia Hamdy Working Paper No. ...»

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Faculty of Management


Working Paper Series

The Stigma of Wasta

The Effect of Wasta on Perceived

Competence and Morality


Ahmed Amin Mohamed

Hadia Hamdy

Working Paper No. 5 January 2008

The Stigma of Wasta

The Effect of Wasta on Perceived Competence and Morality


Ahmed Amin Mohamed

Hadia Hamdy

January 2008


Wasta is an Arabic word that means the use of social connections to obtain

benefits that otherwise would not be provided. Wasta plays a very important role in securing of employment in Arab countries. This paper attempts to study the attribution effects of wasta on perceptions of competence and morality. The main hypotheses is that those that use wasta to obtain employment will be perceived as incompetent and immoral irrespective of their true competence and morality. Data gathered from an Egyptian sample supports the hypotheses. Thus, we conclude that wasta may tarnish the image or stigmatize its user.

JEL classification M12 Keywords Nepotism; attribution theory Faculty of Management Technology German University in Cairo Al Tagamoa Al Khames 11835 New Cairo City – Egypt ahmed.aminmohamed@guc.edu.eg hadia.hamdy@guc.edu.eg


One of the Arab region’s management issues that require attention from scholars is wasta (literally, connection, mechanism or intercession). Wasta is defined as the intervention of a patron in favor of a client to obtain benefits and/or resources from a third party. The word wasta can be used as a verb (the act of intercession) or as a noun (the patron). Although the degree of wasta use varies between Arab countries, wasta permeate many aspects of life in the Arab world (Cunnigham & Sarayrah, 1993; Kilani & Sakijha, 2002). In most Arab countries conducting simple tasks such as getting a driving license without a wasta can become an exercise in futility and frustration. Wasta makes people powerful, hence the nickname Vitamin WAW (Al Maeena, 2003). Wasta plays a critical role in hiring and promotion decisions in Arab organizations. Before applying to a position, applicants may seek out a wasta to improve their chances of being hired. A person with poor qualifications but a strong wasta will be favored over a person who is more qualified but does not have a wasta. Because many people may apply with wasta, the applicant with the most important wasta often gets the position. Forms of displaying wasta may be explicit as in attaching a business card of the patron to the client’s resume.

Arab wasta has been compared to the Chinese concept of guanxi. Both wasta and guanxi use social networks to influence the distribution of advantages and resources.

However, while guanxi is based on Confucian ethics which focus on strengthening collective ties (Hutchings & Weir, 2006a; Hutchings & Weir, 2006b); wasta violates Muslim ethics which prescribe hiring the most qualified. Additionally, while some researchers have argued that guanxi may benefit organizational competitiveness and performance, no such claims are made for wasta. Indeed, wasta is blamed for Arab world’s poor economic performance and brain drain (Al Maeena, 2003; Cunnigham & Sarayrah, 1994). Kilani and Sakijha (2002) stress that wasta is becoming a burden on its seeker, its granter and the government. Makhoul and Harrison (2004) have characterized wasta as inefficient and warned that it may lead to poor job performance and economic decline.

They also hinted that practicing wasta hiring may feed feelings of injustice and frustration among those who are qualified for the job but do not have a wasta. Wasta is also different from the more popular nepotism and cronyism. While nepotism involves hiring of relatives and friends, wasta is not restricted to such groups and may involve strangers. As such, nepotism is only one part of wasta.

Although understanding the role of wasta in staffing decision is important, no empirical studies have been conducted on it in the context of HRM (Hutchings and Weir, 2006a; Whiteoak, Crawford, & Mapstone, 2006). The purpose of this study is to investigate some of the consequences of wasta. Specifically, the study examines the effect of using wasta in hiring decision on the perceived competence of the client.

Literature Review and Hypotheses Very little work has been published in Arabic or English on wasta in the Arab world. The earliest study on the phenomena was conducted by Cunnigham and Sarayrah, (1993), who identified two types of wasta; intermediary and intercessory. Intermediary wasta is utilized to facilitate the resolution of intergroup or interpersonal conflicts. In this system, wasta improves human relations and reinforces social norms. Intercessory wasta on the other hand, involves someone intervening on behalf of a client to obtain an advantage or overcome a barrier from an authority figure. It is this type of wasta that affects hiring decisions.

A review of some Arab cultural proverbs clearly demonstrates the mindset behind intercessory wasta. Table 1 provides examples and explanations of some of these proverbs.

These proverbs either encourage the use of wasta or hail its advantages to the user.

–  –  –

Translation: He who has a back will not be hit on his stomach.

Meaning: Those who are supported by strong others will not be put down or rejected. Only the unconnected or unsupported are punished.

Translation: Lucky is the person who the governor is his uncle.

Meaning: people who are related to important others (especially in government) are fortunate as they will have their demands or needs fulfilled. People serve those that are related to important people.

Translation: Seek who you know, so that your needs will be fulfilled.

Meaning: People tend to serve those that they know. Without knowing anybody, you will have difficulty getting the service you want.

Translation: If you have a turban, you will have a safe trip.

Meaning: The turban symbolizes a senior respected person. If you know a senior person, your demands will be meet. Similar to the second proverb.

Translation: No one can escalate except those who have a ladder.

Meaning: Rising to high levels requires important connections. Receiving important privileges or benefits is contingent upon using the right connections.

It is important to note here that although the use of wasta is firmly planted in the Arab culture, it is inconsistent with Muslim teachings regarding hiring practices. Islam stress the importance of hiring based on qualification and merit in several places (Abbas, 2005). In the Quran, Muslims are instructed that “the best that you can hire employee is one who is competent and trustworthy” (Quran, 28, 26). Prophet Mohamed is also reported to have said “He who is in a leadership position and appoints knowingly a person who is not qualified to manage, than he violates the command of God and His messenger”. He also stated “when a person assumes an authority over people and promotes one of them because of personal preferences, God will curse him for ever”.

In spite of its violation of Islamic teachings, using wasta when applying for positions is rampant in the Arab world. Although we do not have exact figures on the actual use of wasta, a study conducted by Kilani and Sakija in Jordan showed that 90% of the respondents believed that they would use wasta in the future. A study conducted by Whiteoak, Crawford and Mapstone (2006) showed the young UAE citizens believed that wasta is more useful than do their older citizens. This finding may imply that wasta is strengthening rather than diminishing in Arab societies. Commenting on the spread of wasta in Egypt, a senior bank official told one of the authors that up to 25% of his staff were hired only because of their wasta.

A number of factors may have lead to the spread of wasta. First, to maintain their grip on authority, Arab political regimes tend to place close confidants in key positions even if they are not the most qualified for such positions. In Arab Gulf countries, many top governmental positions are reserved for members of the ruling families or members of their supporting tribes. In Syria, the key argument made in favor of selecting Basher Al Asad as the country’s president was that he was the son of the late president Hafez Al Asad. Over time, these practices weekend the perceived relationship between competency and appointment and established nepotism as an institution. Slowly, nepotism became an official criterion in university admission programs and professions. For example, sons of police and military officers are given preference in admission to the Egyptian police academy or military college, respectively. In this environment, being connected to the right people becomes critical when seeking a position. The fear of being disadvantaged by the lack of a proper connection motivates people to seek and use wasta.

Second, most Arab economies suffer from very high levels of unemployment. Good jobs are scarce. This motivates applicants to use every mean possible to improve their chances of being hired. Finally, human resource departments in the Arab world depend heavily on subjective assessment tools such as unstructured interviews.

Cunnigham and Sarayrah (1994) suggest that the modern oil boom in the Arab world may have perpetuated wasta by reducing the need for hard work. This theory however does not explain the spread of wasta in oil poor Arab countries such as Jordan and Egypt.

In the public media, wasta and nepotism are publicly condemned. In the Kilani and Sakija (2002) Jordanian survey, 87% of the respondents wanted to eradicate wasta. In general, Arabs speak of wasta in negative terms (Hutchings and Weir, 2006a). Suggestions for eliminating wasta have focused on structural measures such as administrative reform and the strengthening of the control function (Cunnigham & Sarayrah, 1993). A second possible mean of reducing the spread of wasta is to reduce its attractiveness by exposing its harmful impact on its seekers. If wasta seekers understand that their use of wasta can harm their supervisors and colleagues perceptions of their competency, than they may think twice before using it.


No studies have been conducted on the psychological consequences of wasta, particularly its attributional effect. Cunnigham and Sarayrah (1994) and Makhoul and Harrison (2004) have suggested that the use of wasta in selection angers unsuccessful applicants who have been passed over in favor of the applicant who has the wasta.

Hutchings and Weir (2006a) also state that Arabs speak of wasta in negative terms. To investigate the attributional effects of wasta we employ Kelley’s (1972a) attribution theory.

This theory describes how people use information to explain the outcomes of others. Kelley suggested that when people are given multiple causes for a specific outcome, they use the discounting principle to make attributions. Discounting occurs when the person dismisses one cause for the outcome because another cause is more plausible (Morris & Larrick, 1995). Kelley (1972b) argued that people will discount internal causes for other people’s success if more plausible external causes for the success are present. As a result of discounting, the person is perceived to be incapable of repeating the success on his or her own. The implication of Kelley’s work to the image of wasta users is clear. The qualifications of wasta users will be discounted, as people will think that they were hired only because of their wasta (external cause) not because of their abilities (internal cause).

This will lead people to perceive the employee hired through wasta as incompetent. As such, wasta stigmatizes its user. Hence, H1: employees hired with wasta will be rated lower in competency than employees without, irrespective of qualification.

This stigmatization caused by the wasta may be so strong that it may taint even the qualified job incumbent. Hence, H2: qualified job incumbents hired with wasta will be rated lower in competency than non-qualified incumbents hired without wasta.

In addition to discounting their competency, we suggest that people may also question the morality of wasta beneficiaries. Wasta is perceived as a form of corruption that needs to be eradicated (Kilani & Sakija, 2002). Additionally, as we stated above, wasta violates the principles of Islam, which is the main source of ethics in Arab countries.

Hence, H3: Job incumbents hired with wasta will be judged as less moral than applicants hired without.

H4: Less qualified job incumbents hired with wasta will be judged as less moral than more qualified applicants hired with wasta.


The purpose of this study is to investigate the impact of wasta on perceptions of job incumbent’s competence and morality.

Participants and Design Participants for this study are third year undergraduate students attending an Egyptian private university in Cairo. Participation in the study was voluntary and without any academic credit. The study is designed as a 2 X 2 factorial, with two independent variables; wasta and qualification. The dependent variables are perceived competency and morality.

Materials and Procedures Participants in this study received a summary job description for a bank teller position along with the specifications of the required job holder. They also received a onepage employment record of a hypothetical employee that is working as a teller in the bank.

The record contained the employee’s name, demographic data, job title and education. The employee was always male and 24 years old. Participants were told that they were participating in a study on selection. They were instructed to read the given data carefully and than answer four questions about their perceptions of the employee’s competency and morality.

The presence of wasta was manipulated by hand writing the words “presented wasta” in Arabic at the bottom section of the employee record, titled for “Other Remarks”.

The absence of wasta was manipulated by leaving this area blank. Qualification for the job was manipulated by indicating that this bank employee either had a Bachelor of Commerce (qualified) or a Bachelor of Arts (unqualified)

Dependent Measures

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