"Understanding wasta is key to understanding decisions in the Middle East, for wasta pervades the culture of all Arab countries and is a force in every significant decision. . . . Wasta is a way of life." What is this mysterious force? Nothing very surprising: wasta is Arabic for connections, pull.
To study wasta, the authors focus on Jordan in the no doubt correct expectation that the phenomenon there broadly represents what's to be found elsewhere in the Muslim Middle East. They find that wasta has changed over time. Patrons who used to help their followers mostly for reasons of prestige now seek money rewards. Also, its main goal has changed from defusing tribal conflict to acquiring economic benefits: "Wasta evolved from conflict resolution as a means of survival to intercession to maintain one's place of honor in contemporary Jordan." Wasta has a positive side (humanizing the bureaucracy) but also serves as an "affirmative action for the advantaged" which has the effect of entrenching the haves and excluding the have-nots; it makes life miserable for concientious officials trying to live by the law but called on by family obligations to help their own.
Though social scientists, Cunningham and Sarayrah avoid jargon and considerately consign the theoretical passages to separate chapters. As a result, Wasta not only provides insights into an overlooked facet of Middle Eastern life, but is a pleasure to read.