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‘Vitamin waw’

I have often wondered how candidates are selected for employment in companies and how well-qualified students gain places in our universities. And I also wondered how it had happened that the phrase “vitamin waw” — meaning wasta, an Arabic word referring to a person who can pull strings or use influence to help someone — has now become a part of our Arabic language and indeed a not so welcome part of our daily lives.

The case of Fahd Khusheim, however, gave me all the information I wanted. My questions were answered and I cannot say that I was pleased by what I learned. In fact, I felt very discouraged — and this was only one story. How many others are there which I have not heard about?

Fahd was an excellent student who, along with many others, applied for a job with a major oil company after completing high school. From his first days at school until his last, he was always an “A” student. His homework and examination papers were regularly reviewed by the Ministry of Education and he was given high praise. At times he even helped his teachers analyze complex mathematical problems and they too praised his dedication and abilities. In short, Fahd is just the sort of Saudi we can point to with pride and wish that there were hundreds of thousands more like him.

In addition to his God-given talents, he was also fortunate to have parents who were eager — and able — to help him develop his abilities. Every summer from 1995 to 2000, they sent him to do both English language and Internet courses in the UK or the US. In the summer of 1999 he took the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test which is required of all American students prior to entering a college or university) and the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language which is required of all students whose native language is not English prior to admission to American colleges or universities). He got high marks on both. Among other things to his credit, he was the No. 1 student for the last four years in the private schools of Jeddah. He was also one of the highest scorers in chemistry. His percentage rating when he graduated from high school was 99.03! The principal of his high school said that if Fahd went to the US, he might not come back. He might become a part of what is known as the “brain drain.” With his record and talents, many universities would happily give him a full scholarship and once he had completed his university course, companies would compete with each other to employ him. And yet… and yet… with all this potential, the oil company here in the Kingdom refused to employ him.

What is going on? Surely this is just the kind of young Saudi to gladden the hearts of all employers. Fahd told his mother that the rejection shattered his confidence, especially as he could see no reason for it. There were other applicants for jobs in the same company and some of them were in fact accepted before their final high school results were announced. At long last, I finally understand the power of “vitamin waw” and how destructive that power can be.

Unfortunately, the phenomenon is all too common in our society. We must face the fact: no problem can be solved until its existence is admitted. How many of us have succumbed at one time or another to “vitamin waw”? Those who regularly search for employees are always courteous to all applicants but who gets the job in the end? Is it always the most qualified individual or is it more likely the one with “vitamin waw”? And these things are going on in our society which we proudly claim is an Islamic one, based on the purest Islamic precepts and teachings. In the best Islamic society, justice and fair play should have the most prominent roles. There is no place for “vitamin waw” in a society that is genuinely Islamic.

Our country has a vast store of hidden talent among its young men and women. The difference between us and the West — which we never tire of criticizing — is that they scout for talent. They search for it. They look for it. We ignore it. Their companies and organizations look for the best. They employ people whose job it is to find the most talented and the most competent. They think of potential growth and the future. They encourage applications from highly-motivated and talented young people like Fahd. They are not concerned about who a person is or where he or she is from. What interests them is your ability, your talent and what you can offer them. Because of these, there is such a thing as the brain drain and it explains why many Arab and Middle Easterners have gone to the West to live and work. They have all kinds of vitamins there — but the one they lack is “vitamin waw.” —


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