Friday, March 11, 2011

A case for corruption?

When American politicians or foreign policy pundits analyze the activities of Muslim-majority countries, one point mentioned repeatedly is the pervasive corruption among the ruling elite. One oft cited example: Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s penchant for awarding top government positions to his friends and extended family. For many, this behavior in a Third World country is most likely not a surprise, yet it is not restricted to impoverished and quasi failed states. Here in the UAE, with a per capita GDP among the highest in the world, Shannon and I have encountered "corruption" in a few interesting ways.

During our first weeks in Abu Dhabi back in 2009, we had the great pleasure of navigating the corridors of bureaucracy in order to get our residence visas and work permits, driver’s licenses, and liquor license (yes you’re supposed to have one in order to purchase alcohol). On more than one occasion, our visa officer, assigned by Shannon’s company to act as our liaison in these transactions, walked us to the front of a long line in whatever government office we happened to be in and spoke animatedly in Arabic with the official behind the counter. Suddenly, our paperwork would be stamped as approved, and we would be on our way.

Seeing our bemusement and slight embarrassment for cutting in line, our liaison explained with a smile that he had “wasta.” It’s an Arabic term, and one of Shannon’s colleagues explained it as a sort of social bank account where deposits are made in the form of family status and influence, and withdrawals in the form of favors and deference. Those who don’t have the right family name can earn wasta by showing loyalty or doing favors for those who do. So, for example, a person with AED 50,000 worth of speeding tickets that has suddenly been reduced to AED 500, or whose job application gets moved to the top of the stack, has wasta.

As you might imagine, wasta plays a prominent role in the selection of personnel in the government ministries as well. After having some conversations with some expat friends who had lived here for a while, I learned that many positions in the various state ministries here are often assigned according to an individual’s standing in the tribal hierarchy (in Abu Dhabi’s case, the Bani Yas tribe). Hearing this offended my American sensibilities, which consider the use of public office for personal ends, or preferential treatment based upon one’s name, to be anathema when compared with a system of rules and merit. It seemed like, well, corruption.

At least that was how I felt until I read an article by Lawrence Rosen, in the Spring 2010 issue of The American Interest, that helped to shed a different light on the issue for me. Entitled, “Understanding Corruption” the article explores the differing cultural definitions of corruption held in some parts of the Muslim-majority world, as opposed to those typically held in America (and the West in general). Interestingly, though perhaps not surprisingly, people in this part of the world have a different conception of corruption than the one more commonly held in the West.

Rosen writes:
Corruption is the failure to share any largess you have received with those with whom you have formed ties of dependence. Theirs is a world in which the defining feature of a man is that he has formed a web of indebtedness, a network of obligations that prove his capacity to maneuver in a world of relentless uncertainty. It is a world in which the separation of impersonal institutions from personal attachments is very scarce. Failure to service such attachments is thus regarded as not only stupid but corrupt. 

So, whereas Americans might conceive corruption as a lack of deference to individual qualifications, societies similar to the UAE would conceive of corruption as a lack of deference to communal relationships. This is not to say that Americans don’t appreciate family or that Emiratis don’t laud personal productivity, because they both do. However, their hierarchies of value differ. To illustrate, think about the standard greeting among Americans: "How are you?" Or better, "What's up?" In this exchange, the initiator often doesn't expect, or even care, to receive a real answer. Contrast this with the standard greeting among Arabs: "Salaam Alaykum" (translated "peace be upon you"). By invoking peace upon the other person, the initiator expects peace to be invoked on his behalf (in the form of "Wa Alaykum Asalaam", or "And upon you be peace"). If the person doesn't respond in kind, it is a direct affront.

I now find it easier to understand this mindset, but I still have reservations. Rosen points out that while this reciprocal back-scratching model seems to function in smaller communities, where everyone knows each other and all exist in relations of mutual indebtedness, it is not as easily applied in large, urban, and now globalized environments, where familiar life long relationships are replaced with impersonal ones more transactional in nature. What’s the use of bribing a clerk if he doesn’t know you and thus will likely never need help from you?

The danger, then, is for this to evolve into a system that does not serve to promote social bonds, where favors are expected for those with wasta but are no longer mutually beneficial for giver as well as receiver. The extreme logical conclusion is that the marginalized members of society, those who have become powerless to operate effectively within the structured order, might decide collectively that they want to change the now-corrupt system. And of course, this has been one of the primary motivations for the protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, and Libya.


  1. A very good insight into the human relations of the "Eastern" worlds! And the West used to have this view of relations, but has largely gotten away from it; but we still believe in reciprocity. We just fairly sharply divide where the personal and the public part.

  2. Sam, this is so enlightening. Thank you for taking the time to explain this Middle Eastern mind-set. In view of all that is going on in the Middle East, I am getting so much from reading the novel, "Agents of Innocence," which Shannon, Jean and I were going to read together, but skipped over as part of our "book club." I have found it most relevant in light of recent events in the Arab world.