Sunday, July 08, 2007


By Kevin Stoda

On 5th of June 2007, one of Kuwait’s English language papers trumpeted the following headline: “Country’s Assets top $200 Billion”.[1] The article noted that this was the highest level of fiscal assets in the history of the nation. Of these moneys, $161 billion was placed in the nation’s Kuwait Fund for Future Generations (KFFG). The KFFG is a fund set up for investment mostly in North America and Europe. The KFFG is wholly funded by national revenue. By Kuwaiti law, in a very forward thinking policy, ten percent of the Kuwait nation’s total annual revenue is allocated to the Kuwait Fund for Future Generations.

The surprising thing about the KFFG is not necessarily that its total value in money has risen by 300% over the past five years. After all, the tiny nation holds approximately 10% of the world’s known oil reserves. This lack of surprise is also due to the fact that oil prices have tripled and nearly quadrupled in almost the same 5 to 7 year period. Therefore, since Kuwait earns most of its national income from oil revenues, a three-fold rise in the value of the KFFG is not so amazing. The surprising thing is that the KFFG has not done even better than a three-fold rise over the past decade.

One reason for the lack of greater earnings by the KFFG (beyond the increased annual deposits of oil revenues) is the fact that it owns a great deal of property, especially in North America. The U.S. property sector busted its bubble a few years back and has not yet recovered. Also, stock growth and long term investments in North America and elsewhere took a huge severe dip in 2000, and despite the hoopla on the Dow Jones and elsewhere, earnings for the KFFG have not matched the growth of many smaller funds, which are not so conservative and pro-western in their investment strategies, around the world.

From a global perspective, it is certainly not clear why the Kuwaiti government doesn’t significantly diversify its KFFG related holdings, especially when the shareholders or beneficiaries are the future Kuwait people. Kuwait is after all in Asia, and investment in Asia should be much higher than it has been to date. All in all, this shortsighted focus on older markets is just another manifestation of a Kuwait’s habit of being behind the learning curve in the world economic and political economic development sectors.

Still more amazingly, the Kuwait government has placed the entire $161 billion in funds, which is currently set aside for future generations of its citizens, in only two separate or distinctly managed funds. This lack of fund options explored and invested in by the Kuwait government and peoples through the KFFG is certainly astounding as typically even medium-sized fund managers in the USA--like Topeka’s Kansas Security Benefit--offer, manage, and divide client investments & assets in nearly 25 different funds.

Also, simmering below the surface of this KFFG underachievement is history or tradition of elitism, cronyism and a concept called “wasta” which dictates transactions all over Kuwait today and will sadly continue do so into the decades to come.

For the majority of Kuwait’s citizens there is little day-to-day concern about what is happening with their great-grand children’s future moneys. Occasionally, there will be an editorial diatribe concerning the shortsighted focus of the KFFG in one of the local newspapers. On the one hand, Kuwaitis know that as a society they are, in fact, wisely setting aside billions of dollars a year for the time when oil is no longer pumped from the desert floor below their feet. On the other hand, they are also certainly aware that as a nation then they are supposed to be investing wisely in their offspring’s own offspring.

Finally, Kuwaitis can smugly note that they are saving and investing much more of their current savings per capita than most other peoples and nation’s are. Kuwaitis enjoy a paternalistic relationship with their government traditionally and expect the state to take care of the future while they enjoy the present. Therefore, they have historically been prepared to allow the father figure of a state provide a substantial cradle to grave existence for each citizen over the past 50 years.

Meanwhile, Kuwaitis are constantly trying to seek a balance between tradition and modernity. In only this way, they believe, can Kuwait make the world they and their ancestors have created sustainable in the face of a global economy and other spin-offs of globalized political developments. Kuwaitis thus focus more on traditional supports for the perpetuation of their society on a daily basis, like:

(a) The phenomena of “wasta” and how one can get a job for one’s children in the government or in the oil sector, or simply

(b) which name-brand garment of clothing to buy today or which new car to buy and trade-in for this year.

Note: “Wasta” is the Gulf Arabic term for the use of an intermediary in society to obtain some desired end, such as a special favor, a good grade for a university class, special treatment from authorities and police, or even a good job for one’s relative.

Naturally, this concept of “wasta” is not unknown in other cultures on the planet. In most countries, it is not considered a form of bribery or fraud. However, in other societies, such intervention is, in fact, considered more than out-of-place—except by the most elite members in any society who have always had such connections and have historically used them. In short, in Kuwait, with its extreme form of “wasta” oriented elitism and focus on a family’s name, no Arab character in the tradition of Paris Hilton’s develops and has their photo and jail sentences run across tabloids in the region week after week.

On the other hand, in the USA everyone is aware that the current President of the United State’s father, George Herbert Walker Bush through direct and indirect “wasta” got his son—now President George W. Bush, the younger—out of a lot of trouble with the National Guard in the early 1970s during the Vietnam War. This is one of the many reasons that the royal families in the Gulf Arab states and many Gulf citizens, such as those in Kuwait, hit it off so well with the Bush family and their entourage of businessmen, spin doctors, and politicians.

Moreover, having such personal connections proves beneficial for about everyone as it is certainly true that as imperfect and prone to sin and mistakes as humans are, everyone on the planet has likely had either (1) the need for or (2) desire for using such connections to gain an advantage or to get oneself out of a jam. For example, even the best parent and policeman, might need to bail his normally law-abiding son out of jail or out of a legal jam on some occasion.

However, in Kuwait and in neighboring Gulf Arab states “wasta” has taken on more than a societal art form and occasional problem solver for the average Mohammad. “Wasta” in Kuwait and much of the Gulf is far-too-often the raison d’tet for almost all societal interactions. For example, simply in the sphere of education in Kuwait “wasta” might be used for the purpose of “inflating grades, using influential outsiders and insiders to hire staff members in various ways so that some students receive special consideration and bending of the rules in favor of certain outcomes”.[2] Sure, this happens in almost all lands on the globe, but in Kuwait the volume of “wasta” pressures involved in one’s daily life are not only mind-boggling but ubiquitous.

Recently, I spoke to a professor of engineering at the University of Kuwait about the widespread usage of “wasta” in the area of education. This Kuwaiti professor of a highly rated department at that university shared that he had received no less than 20 calls on behalf of a single student to raise that student’s grade—despite the fact that this student had not completed his projects or even come to class all that often. The engineering professor added that several of those calls had been made by Kuwaiti parliamentarians.

In short, every effort to raise responsible youth, students, and leaders in Kuwait is adversely affected by “wasta”—and anyone with few or no connection is left out. For example, in 2005 the daughter of one Syrian friend of mine scored in the top 99% on the national exams given to the nation’s graduating seniors each spring. (That is, she was number 18th in the whole country—among over 2500 other graduating seniors taking the same exam.)

This young Syrian female was assured by many Arab and Kuwaiti friends, who had lived here all of their lives, that with such a score she would certainly be accepted in any department at the University of Kuwait that she decided to study in.

Alas, with the “wasta” mania currently en vogue throughout Kuwait society, not only did this poor Syrian girl not receive the opportunity to study in the department of her choice at the University of Kuwait (the only major public university in the country), she didn’t even get accepted in Kuwait university at all that fall. This was in the only university in the whole country whose entrance is ostensibly wholly or primarily based upon merit—not on “wasta”.

That is, thousands of Kuwaitis with the right connections, known as “wasta”, basically chased this young Syrian out of the department of her choice –and eventually she left the country--even though the young Syrian had lived in the country of Kuwait most of her life. This daughter of my Syrian friend now studies in Damascus. After serving as doctors in Kuwait for over the past few decades, both of the Syrian girls parents(and my friends) have decided to leave Kuwait, too, as of this summer. They have had enough of the Kuwait cultural experience.

By the way, a huge brain drain, even of among Kuwaitis, is one of the major consequences of the over-used “wasta” system in Kuwait. Some Kuwaiti medical specialists who have gone to get their post-doctorate degrees abroad return home after studying abroad and find themselves assigned by the Ministry of Health to work as general practitioners. Some just pick up and move abroad again. Similarly, some of the most enlightened businessmen in Kuwait move to Dubai or some other land to run their businesses and to raise their families.

Accumulation of “wasta” by both the individual and by the family in Kuwait are nearly full-time jobs and lifelong endeavors in Kuwait, i.e. from cradle to grave. This process of accumulating “wasta” affects the education of Kuwaiti youth in numerous other ways.

For example, one University of Kuwait professor, who graduated from twice from American universities, shared that he was capitulating to “wasta” protocol to protect his children. He related that he had now determined that based upon his own negative experience reintegrating himself into Kuwait’s “wasta”-swamped society after his years abroad studying that he had told his very own children that they are going to have to stay in Kuwait and study here--even if the university education here is inferior to what he, himself, had received.

Why would a Kuwaiti father be forced to make such a decision in the face of his own son’s desire to study abroad?

This professor explained that his experience of living abroad was certainly wonderful, and he and other Kuwaitis of his generation who had studied abroad agree that their period of studying was often superior to what is offered currently to many youth in Kuwait today. However, sadly, any particular Kuwaiti youth who determines to leave his homeland for four to ten years of study will simply find himself upon his return feeling un-welcomed at home and treated by his society as an outsider in his own land.

This is because growing up and living in Kuwait appears for nationals to represent some sort of national initiation rite, similar to some lengthy entrance in a national fraternity ritual. Those Kuwaitis who haven’t spent the previous four or more years cultivating connections and “wasta” in their homeland during their formative years are left out of that rite of interaction and key period of “wasta” cultivation.. Therefore, whenever those students return from abroad asking for help or “wasta” in getting a new start in Kuwaiti life, they are often looked upon (outside their family) as though they are foreigners.

In summary, the permeation of “wasta” throughout almost all relationships in Kuwait society is one of the main reasons that more and more parents have begun in recent years to refuse to allow their children to study outside the Middle East. This, in turn, has led to an amazing current boom in the business of higher education in Kuwait and in the Gulf region over the past eight years.

Starting in the 1990s first in the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and then later after 2000 in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait, the Gulf Arab region has seen a veritable explosion in terms of new private universities. By the start of the 2007-2008 school year, it is expected that eight new universities will have opened in Kuwait alone in less than a decade. Of these, many of the newer universities purport to be based on American university models, especially in the classical form of liberal arts universities.

Sociologists, Dr. Mark J. Olson and Dr. Hassan Diab, in “When Wasta and Liberal Arts Conflict: A Case Study of a Private University” note four reasons for this substantial growth in the U.S. university model in the private sector in the Gulf in recent years. I paraphrase and portray these four rationales as follows:

(1) The credit point system of the U.S. system had already been adopted in the public universities in the Gulf during previous decades as the Egyptian model of universities fell out of favor once the Nasser-inspired era of Pan-Arabism began to crumble.

(2) Throughout the Middle East and in many parts of the globe, it is commonly believed that U.S. universities provide greater quality assurance in education and training than other nation’s universities.

(3) Even before 9-11-01, Arabs were already studying less and less in the U.S. itself. That is, they preferred to be closer to home to their families, friends, and societies; hence, there was a growing pent-up demand for the U.S. model in each Gulf state. [This stay-near-to-home trend reflects the pull or need of cultivating “wasta”, which is endemic throughout the Gulf and particular strong in Kuwait.]

(4) The rising growth in local Gulf Arab populations made it hard for the public university sectors to keep up with the baby boom of these past three decades in the Gulf. --[3]

In order to fill the gap in demand for higher education diplomas in the Gulf region, the private sector has essentially been turned to by each of the Gulf state governments. In response to this demand, thousands of westerners have been recruited to come to the region to instruct, carry out research, or to administrate in these new institutions over the past few decades.

In turn, in the tradition of import substitution, the Gulf Arab private sector has been asked to follow the model of the popular U.S. education system. It is often rationalized that even if citizens of the Gulf states are deciding to stay at home more to study, so as to perpetuate the age-old system of “wasta”, they should still strive to build on the American liberal arts model, that appealed to others studying abroad in future generations.

Theoretically, one reason the liberal arts model is appealing to Kuwaitis has likely to do with the image that it prepares one for the future come-what-may. That is, it fits with the age we are living in whereby the technologies and internet are now permitting research space in all corners of the world for building lifelong learning habits. These habits include practices to promote not only intellectual growth, good scientific enquiry & understanding of methods, but also provide a supportive frameworks to follow one’s moral compass and good decision practices in an ever-changing world.

Not surprisingly, as the 21st century dawns, the western concept of liberal arts is being distorted here in the Gulf as it liberal arts model is appropriated and adapted in many ways within the chrysalis of Gulf Arab “wasta” culture. For example, for most young people in Kuwait receiving the diploma is the only important thing. Meanwhile, as a whole, the same youth are not encouraged by family, society, nor by the local political economic practices of “wasta” to place much serious time into “learning to learn”, i.e. gaining and practicing good study habits for lifelong enquiry, learning to be ever-curious and discuss alternatives.

In short, the “wasta” society doesn’t demand preparation global elements or forces of change in any timely fashion. Finally, learning for the sake of learning is not promoted by culture here—even if that is a driving force behind some aspects of the liberal arts schools in the West historically.

For example, while in the classroom, some Kuwaiti students will regularly ask the instructor from the West to “simply get to the point” in the middle of a lecture, class exercise or discussion. At the end of class, they start pointing to their watches and shouting, “Time!”—as though only what goes on outside class is important to their real lives. Likewise, far too many Kuwaiti students on a weekly basis never allot themselves more than the 14 class hours they are enrolled in for their own time to study time.

How can most students who neither study nor go to class more than 14 hours-total in a week ever become good liberal arts students or technicians-- or learn to cultivate the educational practices needed to do critical thinking and research in our modern world?

Further, many more Kuwaitis cheat and plagiarize--or even work in gangs--to browbeat an instructor, in order to raise a grade or allow them to be given a second or third retake of an exam. Still, at times, other Kuwaitis call on well-placed political figures or even policemen to intimidate professors into unfairly lifting-significantly their GPA marks—or excusing them of their umteen absences from class.

Explanations for the development of the centralized position of “wasta” in Kuwaiti and Gulf Arab society include theories of individual and collective identity. Other theories, specifically pertaining to education, are also related to theories on traditions of technological appropriation and adaptations across cultures.

How should cultures accept and implement new ideas and new technologies?
That is, how can or should one society take on a new concept or tradition in education, such as liberal arts education—especially if that form of education is not very much in tune with existing societal norms and apparent societal commitment to the age-old tradition of “wasta”?

To answer the question, one needs to use frameworks of comparison. Olson and Diab suggest first looking at the areas of knowledge precepts. They claim, for example, that western liberal arts has a distinct bias for “learning for learning’s sake”. [4] Whereas, Gulf Arab culture is influenced by either Islamic or tribal traditions with the focus upon learning is clearly considered only from a utilitarian standpoint.

That is, in the Arab world, the parameter for determining what sort knowledge is considered acceptable is likely narrower than in the West.
Olson and Diab cite the notes concerning an Islamic Hadith as source for the popular conception in the Islamic world that “knowledge without any real use in human life is useless.” That such a view is contrary to humanitarian traditions in a western Liberal Arts campus is symbolic of one core learning value difference between the Islamic world and the West developing over a long period of history. However, Olson and Diab are also quick to add that a body growing research indicates, in fact, the Koran does not necessarily pose this restricted utilitarian view of learning.

On the one hand, this is likely because the idea of what is specifically utilitarian can be quite broad in encompassing different individual and societal needs. Olson and Diab cite a 2006 study which advocates the interpretation that it is the Arab culture, not the religion, that is defining what is considered of utility in modern Gulf countries.

In any case, Olson and Diab note that modernization of any land, such as Kuwait or Qatar, is a process that is likely raising generations of youth who hold important dual western and Arab traditional frames of reference for determining what they consider to be the most important things for them to acquire educationally.[5]
A second framework for viewing the Western Liberal Arts vs. Gulf Arab tradition in terms of educational acquisition is to look at the dichotomy between individual and collective identity.

According to Olson and Diab, “It is supposed that individual identity is encouraged with critical thinking in western intellectual life. In contrast, the literature suggests that traditional Islamic education is largely teacher and text-oriented and by extension emphasizes collective identity and rote learning skills over individual identity and critical analysis skills.” Most importantly, Olson and Diab continue this line of interpretation by indicating that the typical rote learning and repetition approach “emphasizes acquired content while critical analysis incorporating the learner’s life of experience is minimized.”[6]

This emphasis on acquired content may, when applied to Kuwaiti society, provide explanation for the peculiarity of placing new graduates of political science or economics into positions well outsider the fields of their training in the Ministry of Health or Ministry of Islamic Affairs, i.e. outside their respective disciplines.

In short, the Kuwaiti socio-cultural system doesn’t really appreciate that individuals might desire to develop special areas of interest and expertise over their lives. The focus in making job placement is often simply to find a jobs for new graduates as a part of continuing the societal maintenance function of "wasta". The purpose of the placement is not necessarily to help young graduates get the appropriate opportunity to better cultivate their individual careers or expertise.

Only through, intervention of someone with great personal intermediary or intercessory “wasta” can a many new graduates even eventually get a job in line with what they actually studied and prepared for in university. This, in turn, certainly is a disincentive for young people learning appropriate study skills in their university years from the Kuwait public ministries and from publicly owned companies, like the government's energy and water processing corporations.

This emphasis on being part of a group, i.e. becoming fully recognized as part of the greater Kuwait family, is certainly reflective of the collective-oriented cultures of traditional societies. “Wasta” is also often involved in the promotion of a student during his university career. Therefore, this cross-training across disciplines in government ministries and in public corporations in the Kuwait society is meant as means of further embedding a Kuwaiti individual identity within the parameters of the collective experience of society, i.e. with one of the semi-intentional effects being that the young graduate will learn to put his own focus on achievement aside in order to promote national or collective harmony in his country's future.

The alternative of fighting one’s way upstream without “wasta’ in Kuwaiti society is difficult, even for Kuwait University graduates these days. There is bullying that goes on at levels of public schools and universities for students who desire not to place the "wasta" game and focus on their own interests during exam time. A good Kuwaiti is considered to be one who reaches out to drag his peer's with him during their university time together. Similar a good professor is one who bows to the pressures of Kuwaiti needs and desires. This pressure is often manifested by the registration department at the university demanding that departments and individual instructors give many make-up exams until a student has finally passed. If this doesn't work, then some other more powerful figures, i.e. with more "wasta", will be able to override the grades assigned by many university professors.

Another example of the aforementioned "wasta" matter in job placement in Kuwait is represented by a young female petroleum engineer who had been placed, after graduating from Kuwait University four or five years ago, in a Kuwaiti government ministry and asked to do secretarial work for over the course of the next three years.

This female engineer said that she had spent three straight years trying to get a job in the oil sector instead. Since she had no “wasta” at any of the 11 Kuwaiti national oil firms, she retook many exams and interviews. Only after the third year did this engineer finally get a job in the Kuwait National Oil Company. However, initially that same national oil company placed her in a department of data analysis, instead of her field of expertise: petroleum engineering. (Luckily, she has since been able to work this out with the human resources office and is now finally placed in the engineering department of the company.)

According to Olson and Diab, “’Intercessorary wasta exemplifies the collective action problem,’ where action ‘furthering individual interest harms the collective interest.’”[7] This may be true from a western Liberal Arts perspective. However, from the average Kuwaiti's perspective this is irrelevant because “wasta” is considered as necessary as the air one breaths, and fighting our environment because we’d rather breath different air appears to be a lost cause from the start.

Moreover, “wasta” is so pervasive in the society that it is certainly likely that going against it with too much anger or frustration is likely lead to attacks one’s self, one's own family, or cultural identity. As a matter of fact, even though almost everyone in Kuwait does voice concern and complain about and against “wasta”, any member of any particular student- or work group found attacking the collective that enforces the culture of "wasta" is often certainly considered likely to receive ostracism from more than one source in Kuwaiti society.

As an example, there was one American educator who taught in a Gulf Arab university for nearly three years who was known for writing e-mails to different officials at the university trying to promote stronger standards in achievement, teaching, and a series of course offerings that more closely reflected the variety of courses offered at similar sized western universities of liberal arts.

This same professor was well-liked by the students taking his classes because he respected them and yet enabled and promoted levels of learning practices and achievement from them that far-too many other staff members, in the growingly "wasta" infested institution, did not enforce nor carry out. The register of that particular new liberal arts university eventually created enough "wasta" for herself that she was appointed to the board of directors of that university. Immediately, she sought and received the non-renewal of that professor's contract for the following semester.

No reason was ever given for this particular American professor's non-renewal at that new Liberal Arts University as would be required in any American university, on which that university was supposed to be modeled on. In short, the mechanisms for supporting good learning skills and scholarship are undermined by the collecting of "wasta" by local Arabs who know how to milk the traditional "wasta" system. For this very reason, "wasta" is seen to significantly be eroding the possible positive changes needed in a modern workforce.

This is tragic because the liberal arts model was imported to solve many of the areas of shortfall in home-grown leaders and educated citizenry. Olson and Diab note that Liberal Arts importation was intended to significantly help with the education and re-tooling of a national workforce to participate in the global economy. " However, the key tradition of "wasta" is the fastest means of bypassing most every procedure in society. However, this "wasta" is putting liberal arts in a disadvantaged position "because wasta drives out competence based education and its emphasis on critical thinking skills deriving from western liberal education." [8]

To be continued------

[1] Al-Salman, Mohammed & Al-Qatari, Osama, “Country’s Assets top $200 Billion”,
THE DAILY STAR, 5 June 2007, p. 1

[2] Olson, Mark J. & Diab, Hassan, “When Wasta and Liberal Arts Conflict:
A Case Study of a Private University”, Paper presented at American Universityof Kuwait’s Research & the Liberal Arts, 7 May 2007, p. 6.

[3] Ibid., p.2.

[4] Ibid., p. 4.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., p.5.

[7] Ibid., p.6



Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home