In some ways, corruption in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is the same as everywhere else. Bribes are offered and taken. Family members, regardless of capabilities, get plum jobs or are feather their own nest in easy ones. Corruption in this region is unique in many ways, and exists on a grand scale. It presents difficult challenges for reformers.

In autocratic societies such as those in the region, cronyism is so rampant that that the word "businessman" refers to those who are well-connected, corrupt cronies. It seeps into every phase of life, from getting permits, passports, or applications approved, to ensuring good high school test scores, getting a hospital bed for a sick relative, or a good surgeon. One is expected to bribe; it's almost like tipping at a restaurant. Of course, this is all totally at odds with Islamic teaching and the Koran, which is repeatedly explicit in condemning corruption and bribery.

The person who is in the office is often more important than the office itself. In Egypt, "the regime is businessmen," says political activist Aida Saif al-Dawla. "They come in, they take over the state, and they use the system for making money." Al-Dawla continues:

  • "This is a time where you look at the political bureau of the ruling party and you look in the Parliament, and if I ask you to divide them into politicians and businessmen, you wouldn't be able to do it. Some of them became rich businessmen because of their association, some of them became associated because they are rich businessmen."

All Government is Personal

In their interactions with private or public organizations, citizens of Arab states are more likely than those in advanced democracies to rely on personal relationships with government employees. This pattern is reflected in corruption statistics of Transparency International, which show that in Arab countries relationships with government agencies are much more likely to be viewed as personal business deals.

The reasons extend back through history and have sociological roots as well. As Timur Kuran, professor of Professor of Economics and Political Science, and Gorter Family Professor of Islamic Studies at Duke University, told us:

  • "Citizens in this region don't ask, 'What form must I fill out?', 'What line should I get into?' or 'What is the procedure that I need to follow?' They ask, 'Who do I know here?' The person whom they know will already have received a phone call saying I'm going to send you so and so, please make sure whatever matter he's interested in gets taken care of."

Rule of law doesn't apply in this situation as much as rule by whom-you-know. Of course, this dominance of personal interactions limits the significance and credibility of organizations and hence, their effectiveness. It also impedes the growth of rule of law.

In some countries in the region, tribal membership still trumps rule of law. At certain periods in U.S. history, political machines dominated city governments in New York and Chicago, dishing out patronage jobs and soliciting bribes for deals. So it is on a huge scale in the MENA region. Arab families and tribes provide a wider support network and a sense of belonging, especially in times of trouble or when the government fails in its responsibilities.

Jordanian psychiatrist, Jamal Khatib, describes the importance of the tribe in Arab culture:

  • "The value of each person stems not from himself--it stems from the tribe he belongs to. It does not stem from your work, it does not stem from your education, it does not stem from your goodwill. It stems from the tribe you belong too. The tribe you belong to provides you with your name, which is one of the strongest things in this area--your name, your family name. It provides you with the connections needed to get educated, to get employed, to get work, to get contracts. It protects you against others."

More so than in Western machine politics, tribes in some MENA countries often view the state as a prize to win, not an organizational system: the winner takes all. If it's your tribe, you're fortunate. But if not, the state, often dominated by autocratic regimes, is not responsive. The UN Arab Human Development Report from 2004 provides further societal insight:

  • "Without institutional supports, individuals are driven to seek refuge in narrowly-based loyalties that provide security and protection, plus further aggravating the phenomenon [of clannism and favors]. Tribal allegiances also developed when the judiciary is ineffective or the executive authority is reluctant to implement its rulings, circumstances that make citizens unsure of their ability to realize their rights without the allegiances of the clan."

Vitamin W

Nepotism has strong roots in MENA society and tribal culture. One has an obligation towards family members and wider kinship circles. This means that giving jobs to relatives is often regarded as a duty and a virtue, rather than a vice.

The word for doing favors in this way is wasta. It comes from an Arab root word conveying the idea of the middle, and a wasta is someone who act as a go-between. As a noun it refers to intermediaries. It loosely translates into connections, clout, or influence. By using his influence to perform a service, the wasta acquires prestige and honor, but perhaps more importantly, the person receiving the favor incurs a debt of gratitude which may have to be repaid in the future--like with Don Corleone.

Often jokingly referred to by Arabs as "Vitamin W", wasta is, "the magical lubricant that smoothes the way to jobs, promotions, university places, and much else besides. In fact, with the right connections, it can solve almost any kind of problem."

The blogger known as Secretdubai says that wasta "may be arguably the most valuable form of currency in much of the Middle East, far more effective than bribes and certainly more effective than following due process."

  • "The origins of wasta are by no means disreputable. It has a long and generally respectable history as a way of managing relations between families, clans, or tribes through intermediaries. In the event of a blood feud, for example, wastas--either an individual or group of elders respected by both sides--could be called upon to resolve the matter through negotiation and compromise while salvaging the honor of the parties involved."

In many ways this aspect of wasta is similar to modern approaches to conflict resolution. Still, the wide prevalence of it in the MENA region today is a sign of the failure of the state and its institutions, and of citizens' great distrust of government. Continued use of wasta makes it harder to establish alternatives that gain the confidence of citizens.

While it has benefits, it also hampers economic development and equality of opportunity. It places Arab nations at a competitive disadvantage vis-a-vis other parts of the world, where people are hired for their skills, not their birthright or connections.

It also results in an overbuilt government sector. With so many people in patronage jobs, government bureaucracies in the region are especially large and inefficient. Bouazizi and others like him, who lack wasta or money for bribes, can't penetrate the system. No matter what talents, skills, and energy they have, they are excluded.

As long as a maze of bureaucracy and restrictions exist, wasta will as well, as people try to escape from the vicious cycle. As long as the vast majority of its people (in most MENA nations over 85% of the population) are excluded and must live informally, corruption on all levels will exist. Large-scale corruption will only be curtailed by establishing transparent, efficient governmental agencies that people can trust. Petty corruption will only be reduced by including the vast majority within the legal system.

  • "Arabs cannot emerge into a new era of freedom, citizenship, and good governance while their society continues to be dominated by obligations of kinship…and kinship systems continue to provide the security and support that other societies manage to provide for all citizens, regardless of birthright or genes. This—and how to change it--is the central challenge Arabs face today."

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