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Examining wasta from a sensemaking perspective: comparing public and private universities in Saudi Arabia

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posted on 2023-11-27, 02:50 authored by Mohammed Almutairi

Wasta is a social practice that dates back to tribal times in Saudi Arabia before the establishment of the country in 1744 and involves reliance on personal relationships and connections to get things done either directly or through a third party. This thesis examines individual experiences of Wasta in the context of Saudi Arabia and Saudi universities more specifically. To investigate the complexities surrounding the phenomenon, the thesis adopts a multiple level perspective drawing on Bourdieu's approach to social and cultural capital, Weick and others' framing of sensemaking, D'Iribarne's approach to national culture and scholarship on organizational culture. This multi-level and multifaceted approach make it possible to analyze how individuals negotiate institutional norms when encountering requests for Wasta.

The thesis applies qualitive methods, including a comparative case study of two public universities and two private universities, and forty interviews with managers, academics, and administrative staff from all four targeted universities. On this basis, the study compares interpretations of Wasta and Wasta practices following the changes brought about by the Saudi Government's Vision 2030 at national and organizational levels. In this regard, attention is focused on the Vision's anti-corruption campaign, which involved a privatization program targeting several sectors, including higher education. At the macro level, the study examines the origins, norms and practices associated with Wasta as well as the impact of the Saudi government's reforms and Islamic teachings on institutions and on interpretations of Wasta. At the meso level, attention is given to the case study organizations and sub-cultures within each, made up by managers, academic and administrative staff. At this level and also at the micro level, consideration is given to the role played by social, cultural, and symbolic capital in the practice and experience of Wasta. This study found that methods applied by universities ostensibly to eradicate Wasta, such as privatization, centralization, and automated systems, were not sufficient. Accordingly, the study found that a more effective approach would be for universities to adopt formal policies to outlaw Wasta practices. This thesis concludes that tensions and to some extent conflict between institutional frames, cultural norms and legal consequences relating to Wasta require continuous negotiation by university staff in different occupational subcultures to identify which institutional norms to follow when encountering Wasta requests.


Table of Contents

Introduction -- Part One -- Chapter Two: Literature Review -- Chapter Three: Conceptual framework -- Chapter Four: Methodology -- Part Two -- Chapter Five: The Context -- Chapter Six: Public Universities -- Chapter Seven: Private Universities -- Chapter Eight – Discussion -- Chapter Nine -- Conclusion -- References List -- Appendices

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


Doctor of Philosophy

Department, Centre or School

Department of Management

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Nikola Balnave

Additional Supervisor 1

Lucy Taksa


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218 pages

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