'Wasta' is a universal bane in promoting qualified candidates

Citizen of the UAE must rise above wasta to truly serve the country by putting the good of the nation before that of family, friend or tribe.

What's the best way to make sure important jobs go to the people who are best qualified to handle the work? There are many answers to that question, but hiring family members is surely not on the list.

And yet nobody can deny that wasta - the Arabic word for personal connections or influence - is still a potent factor in hiring, and other decision-making, in the UAE and in the region. And family affiliation remains a common trigger for the exercise of wasta.

Throughout 2012, a year of tight belts and revised strategies, there were many changes to both policy and personnel in organisations across the UAE. In Abu Dhabi, a number of young but qualified leaders took up the mantles of their predecessors.

Many of these newcomers brought fresh visions and the hope of change. Companies and even entire conglomerates were required to justify their existence and explain their visions. By the end of 2012, an updated approach to progress was taking hold at many companies across the capital.

But 12 months isn't enough time to overhaul the way things are done. Much still needs to be done, internally, in matters of values, ethics and communication.

In particular, wasta endures. Once a strongly positive factor in our society, it has become, as the society changes, a source of problems.

Wasta is the use of one's personal connections or influence to make things happen. It can result in the speeding up of a routine transaction with some arm of the government, in the miraculous disappearance of traffic fines or in the recruitment of a family member or friend into an organisation.

These practices, rooted in human nature, are found all over the world and are not, contrary to what some people claim, particular to this region. Wasta does however go by different names in other countries - in the West, it can range from benign networking to abusive nepotism.

A US senator's nephew's company wins a government contract he may not deserve; a Chinese bureaucrat has a legal case against him dismissed for no good reason; an Indian politician gets his brother-in-law promoted in the civil service: it's all wasta by different names.

In the UAE, it is seen in many organisations across the country and by many nationalities; cousins, brothers-in-law, uncles and even family friends are being shortlisted for jobs for no apparent reason besides their relations to the recruiter or management of that organisation.

For Emiratis in particular, wasta often takes the form of tribal preference.

The bond among members of a tribe is fundamental in Emirati life. Gulf Arabs have always made the sacrifices necessary to stand by their tribesmen. This system helped us to survive in years past; indeed order, stability and justice were well-served by the indisputable tribal rules that evolved over many generations.

Without the loyalty between tribal members, we simply would not be where we are today. To ask Emiratis to easily give up on this promise of loyalty would be ignorant and outright insulting.

But in the modern world that has come upon the UAE so swiftly, tribal preference can sometimes destroy careers, even lives.

Over the years, changes in recruiting policies and practices have somewhat reduced the effect of wasta in recruitment. And yet, in both government and the private sector, we still sometimes see incapable individuals being given important positions by relatives or friends. For Emiratis, the preference for many is to hire from their tribe.

Such choices may be seen as loyalty to one's tribe, but it can take years to repair the damage that can follow such unacceptable recruitment. Completely lacking the experience, knowledge or skills to handle their responsibilities, these individuals can bring financial disaster or "reputation suicide" to their organisations. They can also destroy the livelihood of employees; an exodus of good staff members often follows the appointment of an undeserving, unqualified boss.

At a time where the nation has accomplished so much in terms of improving the strategy of governmental organisations, there is no room for the wrong people to be assigned to positions of power through wasta or nepotism. After all, when the flag of the UAE was raised for the first time in 1971, it was a declaration that the good of the country would always outweigh the good of a tribe.

For every citizen of the UAE, the only way to truly serve the country is to put the good of the nation before that of family, friend or tribe, at all times.

Taryam Al Subaihi is political and social commentator who specialises in corporate communications

On Twitter: @TaryamAlSubaihi