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Why ‘Wasta’ and the digital age don’t mix

Why Wasta and the Digital Age don't mix

In an ideal world we all would hope that multinationals in the Middle East - many of which rank much higher than their local counterparts for consumer trust and positive customer perception - would hire the best person for the position.


January 31, 2013 3:50 by

It’s that time of year when there’s movement in the job market. New roles open up, people re-assess their careers and there’s a flurry of employment activity. But what do you know about ‘wasta’? If you’re a seasoned Gulf expatriate you will have heard of the Arabic word wasta. If you haven’t, the word denotes personal connections, the type that will help you in terms of a service or a process. Wasta is often interpreted as nepotism, as a way to get that job through friends or family.

Wasta isn’t new; it’s been a part of Arab society for generations. And neither is it unique to this region. But there is a widely-held perception that contacts are essential to get ahead in business.

But today everyone has an online presence. How many of you are reading this article and do not have a LinkedIn profile, a Facebook page or your job details on a website? Even if you haven’t posted information about yourself online, I’ve no doubt that friends or acquaintances will have done so on your behalf.

LinkedIn, which bills itself as the world’s largest social networking site for professionals with 200 million users, is possibly the best site out there for understanding a person’s employment history as well as their connections.

Wasta has always been associated with family-owned businesses. The owner is free to do whatever he or she wants, including hiring or taking business decisions based on wasta. However, multinational companies are the most transparent regionally when it comes to information online unlike locally-based firms, many of whom still do not have an online presence.

In an ideal world we all would hope that multinationals in the Middle East – many of which rank much higher than their local counterparts for consumer trust and positive customer perception – would hire the best person for the position. Globally however employers are turning to internal referrals to fill job posts, as this remarkable piece in the New York Times illustrates.

I’m sure we all know of global firms out there who would appear to continually hire from the same race, nationality or background. If the general manager’s background is X, you wouldn’t be too far off the mark in thinking that a number of his or her colleagues will have the same job history. Is it right or ethical? I’ll leave that to you to answer.

Aside from the moral considerations, how does it help companies to hire people from the same mould, to create a workforce that thinks and acts the same? Will it drive innovation or dialogue? Surely there’s a sound argument to be made that developing a diverse workforce benefits a business in terms of creativity through debate and even dissent.

Let’s face it, even if you’ve been living in the middle of the desert you’ll still have a mobile and data connection. There’s no escaping the ubiquity of the internet. Anyone can pull up a screen and research a prospective employer to understand job hiring trends. Doubtless, many of us would be discouraged from joining a company that seems only to hire from a connections and personal acquaintances.

In today’s digital age where information is freely exchanged online there’s no doubt that it’s more difficult to shape and develop a public perception which is contrary to reality. Will the digital age and the transparency of the internet reduce or enforce the influence that wasta has on all of us in the Middle East’s job market?

About the writer:

A British national with Arabic roots, Alex has spent ten years in the Gulf and has lived in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and the United Arab Emirates. Alex lost his heart to journalism years ago but he has worked with a range of multinational companies in the technology, energy and financial sector to develop their marketing and communications approach to the region. He’s currently based in Dubai but can often be found at Dubai International Airport flying back home to Bahrain or some other (hopefully exotic) destination.


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