Vitamin W: Oman's hidden force

May 10, 2011

Are you tired of standing in line at the ROP office to get your housemaid's visa renewed? Do you want to receive a humongous salary without doing any work? How about getting your lazy son a job at one of the country's most prestigious organisations without so much as a job interview? You can have all of the above. It's easy, trust me. All you need is one tool wasta.

I don't think there is one person in Oman regardless of their nationality who isn't familiar with the word. Also nicknamed Vitamin W, wasta can have several meanings, but I think the easiest way to define the term is 'using someone’s influence to achieve certain objectives.' This can include anything from expediting official paperwork to passing your exams.

It is arguably the most valuable form of currency in much of the Arab world, far more effective than bribes, and sometimes more effective than laws and rules. For many it is more important than anything you can put down in your CV. It has become so effective that most people now feel that getting anything done smoothly and quickly requires wasta. In Salalah, everyone seems to have wasta. The reason for this, I'm sure, is that tribal connections are stronger here in the South. 

I've been trying to write about wasta since I first started this column in 2009. Due to the sensitivity of the issue, I decided to spare my mother the worry and avoid the subject. However, now that there are protests all over Oman demanding an end to wasta and financial corruption, I'm guessing it's safe to briefly highlight the issue.

It's embarrassing to think that one of the first words non-Arabs pick up when they get to Oman is 'wasta.' It all starts with getting your apartment, car, driver’s license, labour card, phone number, etc.

You may even start convincing yourself that it's harmless. Don't be fooled. It may be useful sometimes, but have you thought about the damage it can do to those who don't have it? An example of such damage would be a straight A student from a poor family in the interior whose well deserved government funded scholarship to the UK was taken by some rich kid with the right connections. 

I went through a brief stint in recruitment a few years ago , and I absolutely hated the job. For example, we would interview five qualified young men for a job, and one of them would outshine the others completely. Naturally, the recruitment team would immediately recommend that person for the position. However, things would change overnight, and a sixth name would mysteriously appear on the list.

After doing a little research, we'd discover that he's the son of the boss' cousin's friend. No, he's not qualified, and yes, he gets the job. That's how wasta works. I don't think I can ever go back to the field of recruitment in Oman, simply because I cannot stand to see another bright candidate get turned away yet again because he doesn't have the right connections.

Not only is it unfair to all the job-seeking qualified candidates out there, but it also creates an incompetent workforce. In a competitive world, wasta should no longer be relevant, but sadly it still is.

Each one of us has, at one time or the other, needed help to get something done quickly. Some forms of wasta are mostly harmless, like arranging for a private hospital room for your mother or getting a cool license plate number for your car. That happens all over the world. However, the minute it begins to control big things like whether you get a job or skip your jail sentence, it becomes unfair. 

Wasta is an ingrained phenomenon in our society that will take generations of hard work to eradicate. However, I choose to remain optimistic. With the recent movement for change in Oman, I'm sure many wasta-related cases will be brought to light.

In the meantime, I encourage you to get rid of wasta in your own personal dealings. Stand up to people who believe that their family name entitles them to concessions, and have a little faith in rules and procedures. I'm willing to sign a pledge to give up wasta for good. Who will join me?