WASTA AND STATE-SOCIETY RELATIONS: THE CASE OF JORDAN

Caroline Ronsin

Résumé

La pratique de la wasta (« piston ») est largement répandue en Jordanie aujourd’hui et ce malgré les critiques fréquentes dont elle fait l’objet. Au delà du constat des effets néfastes qu’elle peut avoir sur l’économie, il faut comprendre cette pratique comme une conséquence et un symptôme des relations entre l’État et la société en Jordanie. Directement issue du processus historique de construction étatique dans la région, la wasta agit comme un tampon contre les effets corrosifs de la modernisation sur les solidarités traditionnelles.

Abstract

The practice of wasta (« piston ») is widespread in Jordan today, despite the frequent criticism to which it is subject. Beyond the finding of adverse effects it can have on the economy, we must understand this practice as a consequence and a symptom of the relationship between state and society in Jordan. Emanating from the historical process of state building in the region, wasta acts as a buffer against the corrosive effects of modernization on traditional solidarities.

__________

Clientelism in the Middle East is a well-documented phenomena, but few researches were conducted on one of its main elements: the wasta system.

Wasta refers to the use of informal channels (mostly based on kinship ties) to obtain any kind of service, such as avoiding a fine, speeding-up an administrative process, getting a job or a better grade at university. In Middle Eastern countries, the use of wasta is widespread and little is done on the political level to reduce it, even though many observers or actors of the system point out its economic drawbacks at an aggregate level: wasta has a very negative impact on the general level of competence in the economy. However, the reminiscence of wasta in Jordan can’t be explained solely by the existence of a corrupt elite, because wasta is usually not exchanged with material or political gain and it can be exerted at any professional level for different types of services. Other factors have to be taken into account when assessing the role of wasta in state-society relations.

During the past 25 years in Jordan, debates have taken place in the public sphere discussing the adequacy of tribalism[1]wasta being one of its most criticized symptoms) in a modern State. While some intellectuals call for the disappearance of tribal laws and practices, others defend them as a historical heritage in which lies at the core of Jordanian identity, an interpretation validated by the king Hussein himself in 1985[2].  Tribes are not the only network that enables the use of wasta, which could be considered a consequence of `asabiyya (group solidarity). Ibn Khaldun used the concept of `asabiyya to describe the strong cohesion of a tribal group, a necessary cohesion to seize political power. Wasta therefore derives from the tribal system, which is still composed of large and efficient solidarity networks in contemporary Jordan. Wasta and its use are thus both criticized as an ancient practice, economically inefficient in a modern society, and praised as a consequence of positive tribal values such as solidarity and cohesion to protect people within the group.

The role and evolutions of `asabiyya in the modern State have already been described by prominent scholars[3], such an ambitious project shall therefore not be the aim of this article, but I hope that a better understanding of the wasta system will help grasping the functionalities of `asabiyya in the modern Middle East.

I will argue here that the modern use of wasta is a combination of both tribal practice and modernization. Rather than a reminiscence of an archaic past, wasta is in fact deeply intertwined with state development in Jordan, and plays a decisive role in shaping the political elite in Jordan.

Wasta and state-development

Wasta means « middle » in classical Arabic, and its root verb tawassata is the action « to steer conflicting parties toward a middle point »[4]. In dialectal Arabic today, wasta defines both the act and the person who mediates or intercedes in specific situations[5]:

« Wasta involves social networks of interpersonal connections rooted in family and kinship ties and implicating the exercise of power, influence, and information sharing through social and politico-business networks. It is intrinsic to the operation of many valuable social processes, central to the transmission of knowledge and the creation of opportunity. »[6]

Originally the Wasta (either a sheikh or a delegation of elders called Jaha) was in charge of resolving conflicting situations within the tribe or between different tribes. But the meaning of wasta has evolved from a concept based on the resolution of conflicts (mediation) to one mainly based on the distribution of resources (intercessory). Today, intercessory wasta is considered necessary to obtain several services, from the speeding up of an administrative process to a job or an admission in university. This evolution of the use of wasta is intimately linked to state development in the Middle East: the socio-economic changes that came with the imposition of a central authority on the tribal system triggered the apparition of individuals capable of acting as intermediaries between tribesmen and the growing administration.

The territories that are now Jordan and Iraq were under Ottoman authority since the XVIth century, but the Empire started strengthening its power in the region during the Tanzimât (reforms) period between 1839 and 1876. At that time, the Ottoman Empire created new administrative divisions and a system of cadastre to register lands (tapu) in order to secure the road to Mecca and extend taxation to all its territories. This « state-ization » process continued during the British mandate and the first years of the Hashemite monarchy.

Traditional leaders (sheikhs) being reluctant to give up their autonomy to what appeared to be an alien authority, state-ization did not go smoothly at first in tribal territories. But the « carrot and stick » policy proved extremely efficient to ensure the sheikhs’ obedience in the region. Collaboration indeed proved to be beneficial to both parties: in exchange for raising Ottoman taxes among their tribes, sheikhs benefited from state protection to confirm their power and wealth. The tapu system allowed them to register lands that were previously considered tribal territories (dîra) in their name, and they were given a regular salary as well as official titles that made their function hereditary. Tribal sheikhs who refused to cooperate or considered state advantages insufficient rapidly understood the benefits of choosing the carrot: as an example, the Adwani tribal revolt in 1923 resulted in massive British bombings of the Ghor region (Jordan Valley) until their sheikh, Majid al-‘Adwan, finally fled to the Jabal Druze.

As Faleh A. Jabar writes, these changes « (…) denoted a political shift in power relations, whereby tribes recognized central power, and collected tax on its behalf. This created mutual interdependence and transformed the nature of the tribal chieftains from independent warriors into tax collectors and state vassals, better still agents. »[7]

The state-paid sheikhs thus became the intermediaries between their tribe and the state. With the development of administration and state rules, the sheikhs and other tribal intermediaries played a growing role explaining and facilitating state laws and procedures or helping tribesmen access the administration, especially through job opportunities.

While more and more tribesmen were integrated into the state administration and therefore able to become wasta for their kinsmen, the dichotomy between tribes and the state progressively disappeared in favor of a diffuse wasta system.

Wasta in contemporary Jordan

Mediation and wasta were therefore significant for state development in Jordan, and those practices evolved rather than disappeared with economic and social modernization. Recent surveys (Loewe et al. 2008; CSS 2006, JTF 2009) underline the spread of wasta in Jordanian society. Whether by admitting using it or simply acknowledging its utility, a majority of respondents to these surveys confirm its importance in the Jordanian economic system. In 2006, a majority of the public sample interviewed by the Jordanian Center for Strategic Studies believed that corruption (including wasta related activities) exists in the public sector (nearly 65%) and in the private sector (52%). These percentages rise to respectively 75% and 64% when a sample of opinion leaders is interviewed. A more recent survey (Jordan Transparency Forum 2009, revealed by the Jordan Times) says that around 81.3 per cent of the sample agreed that wasta is highly prevalent in Jordan.

As for the difference between Jordanians of Transjordanian origins (living on Jordanian territory before the Palestinian exodus in 1948) and of Palestinian origins (who immigrated to Jordan after 1948), both seem to use wasta. However, it is more widespread in the first group, whose kinship networks are larger and deeper rooted in the country. This difference reinforces the duality of Jordanian society and economy: a large majority of Transjordanians is working in the public administration and army, where wasta is more intensely used. Furthermore, since Black September[8], the Jordanization of public employment was reinforced as a way to ensure Transjordanian loyalty to the State, encouraging the use of wastawasta on efficiency are more intensely felt: employing an ill-qualified individual hired through wasta is therefore too costly for most companies.    within this group. In the private sector, where most Palestinians work, negative effects of wasta on efficiency are more intensely felt: employing an ill-qualified individual hired through wasta is therefore too costly for most companies.

The wasta has an acknowledged perverse effect: most people know its negative impact on the economy at an aggregate level but very few are ready to give it up. The harm that wasta can cause to the economy is hardly deniable: if having a wasta (which often depends on the hierarchical level of one’s family or tribe) makes life easier, those who do not have one (or have a weaker one) will have more difficulties in their daily life. Therefore, individuals will find economically more rational to work on their social network rather than on their skills and competence. When public employment spread and intercessory wasta became of interest for the majority of the population, a new major criterion appeared in the competition for labour and resources: the level of one’s wasta. Because of this competition, the discrimination felt by Jordanians of Palestinian descent is reinforced: excluded from the public sector, they are also alienated from the main social networks leading to employment.

Apart from its effect in strengthening the duality between Transjordanians and Palestinians in Jordan, wasta also plays a major role in shaping the administrative and political elite of the country. Indeed, as any kind of service, wasta doesn’t benefit only the solicitor, but also the state and the individual exerting his influence. Redistribution of state resources through wasta legitimizes both the state apparatus that co-opted employees able to distribute its benefits to their group, and the mediator, who increases his own honor and reputation by being helpful to the group.  Little effort is made by the Jordanian state to suppress wasta, which can be explained by its role in creating multiple channels of redistribution. The ability to be a good wasta for one’s group also emerges as a strong and necessary quality for the political elite.

Nowadays, any person in a position of power, mostly in the public sector, is likely to be considered as a potential wasta for his extended family or tribe. The main difference between wasta and other types of corruption such as bribing is that the wasta can hardly refuse to exercise his influence. The solicitors can literally stalk their designed wasta until they obtain what is asked, but more importantly, it is very costly for someone to refuse to serve as a wasta. An individual’s reputation in his tribe or solidarity network will indeed rapidly be known outside of it, and a high-ranked person refusing to perform his duties for the group will see this reputation shrink rapidly. The wasta is supposed to participate in the redistribution of state resources to his group and by failing to be a channel of redistribution he could by the same token lose his ability to represent this group at a local or national level. One’s ability to act as a wasta is therefore extremely important for the elections’ outcome: voters tend to cast their ballot – when they do[9] – for someone close to them (a relative or a representative of their tribe) who can provide direct access to the state, and mostly choose the candidates that are considered trustworthy as wasta.

A leader or high-ranked tribal member who loses touch with his constituency progressively also loses his use as a representative for the group, whether he is elected or not. An individual willing his career to thrive without wasta (and without exercising his wasta for his group) would therefore be alienated both by his group, other groups and the state. This phenomenon is very similar to what Olivier Roy describes as a « vicious circle »:

« Individual strategies of promotion can only success through the group’s support, since there is no general and impartial framework of social promotion. It is a vicious circle. Promotion happens first within the group (thus the sometimes bloody conflict for its control) and then through the constitution of the açabiyya as a political springboard » [10]

Wasta can hardly be described as yet another type of corrupt behavior, relying on greed and nepotism at the expense of economic aggregate rationality and principles. It goes beyond that in Jordan since it involves most of the population, and is a consequence of state-development. As an instrument of `asabiyya, wasta helped buffering the effects of economic modernization and labour competitiveness on tribal, sometimes nomadic, populations. By giving tribal chieftains the responsibility to mediate with it and redistribute its resources, modern states in the Middle East encouraged their reinforcement rather than their weakening. If the basis of leadership tremendously changed during the past century, wastaasabiyyât in Jordan and other countries such as Iraq, wasta has adapted to the modern state and economy. One cannot deny the drawbacks of such a practice, the lack of efficiency and exclusion of outsiders not being the least of them, but it rests on long-term state-society relations that should not be underestimated nor uniformly disqualified.


[1] Tribes can be described as groups organized along kinship ties and whose members claim a common ancestor, whether imagined or real. What comes out of the numerous definitions of tribes are two main ideas : The mechanic solidarity among their members and their fluidity :  their ability to change and adapt to economic and political situations through alliances and feud. Tribalism defines the intervention of tribes as such in the public sphere.

[2] Ending a debate that had been raging in the national media for five years, King Hussein released an open letter in which he identified his family (the Hashemite) as a tribe and stated that « whatever harms our tribes is considered harmful to us, and this has been the case all along, and it will continue so forever ».

[3] For such a discussion, see SEURAT, Michel, L’État de Barbarie, Le Seuil, Paris, 1989 et ROY, Olivier, « Groupes de solidarité, territoires, réseaux et État dans le Moyen-Orient et l’Asie centrale », in DAWOD, Hosham (dir.), Tribus et pouvoirs en terre d’Islam, Armand Colin, 2004.

[4] Cunnigham & Sarayrah, 1993.

[5] For a better understanding, I will use in this article the term wasta for the act of mediation and Wasta for the person who mediates.

[6] Hutchings & Weir . 2006. p.143.

[7] ABU JABAR F. « Sheikhs and Ideologies, Deconstruction and Reconstruction of Tribes under Ba’th Patrimonial Totalitarianism » In ABU JABAR F, DAWOD, Tribes and power : nationalism and ethnicity in the Middle East ; London, Saqi, 2003.

[8] In september 1970, an armed conflict erupted between the Jordanian army and the PLO and its supporters. Even though the fracture line between both parties during the event was not separating Transjordanians from Palestinians, this understanding of the conflict resulted in a polarization between those two groups, encouraged by the jordanization (i.e. Transjordanization) of the public sector.

[9] Turnout during the last parliamentary elections in Jordan (november 2010) was 53%. It reached very high levels in rural areas (where the majority of the population is Transjordanian), and was very low in big cities (where Palestinians live).

[10] ROY, Olivier. « Groupes de solidarité, territoires, réseaux et État dans le Moyen-Orient et l’Asie Centrale » inTribus et pouvoirs en terre d’Islam, Armand Colin, 2004, p. 76. DAWOD, Hosham, Tribus et pouvoirs en terre d’Islam, Armand Colin, 2004, p. 76.

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