Westerners who move to the Middle East and North Africa often find behavior and conversations with local people confusing. Much of this confusing behavior is rooted in attitudes toward power and the use of power, both on a societal level, and on a personal level. While Western cultures attempt to control abuses of power with checks-and-balances; Arab cultures attempt to control it through alliances, subterfuge, and sabotage.
In the West, the type of person whose motivations are primarily, “What’s in it for me? How can I get the advantage? How can I do as little as possible, while still getting paid, and sloughing as much as possible of my work off on others? And how can I use the resources of my workplace to benefit me personally?” IS CONTROLLED by workplace standards, rules, and performance reviews; by government laws which are actually enforced, and by a fairly low incidence of public corruption; small corruption can be prosecuted in Small Claims Court and larger or more serious corruption in state and federal courts. The key thing here is that NO ONE IS ABOVE THE LAW. Even the president of the United States is not above the law, nor above being sued in court (as a private citizen), nor above being impeached for behavior.
When power is abused in the West, we have recourses which can be pursued: rules in the workplace, performance reviews, channels to be pursued or to which decisions can be appealed, functioning court systems. But the REASON we have well-functioning institutions is that power is not the be-all and end-all in terms of social prestige.
When power is abused in Arab cultures, none of the above-listed Western methods are effective. When rules exist, they are often unenforceable, or at the whim of the boss and/or his friends; performance reviews (which actually protect employees) tend to be non-existant; no one takes responsibility for overturning others’ decisions; and court systems seldom return a judgement against the powerful.
Therefore, people behave with different motivation than in the West. In order to navigate this treacherous environment successfully, it becomes necessary for each person, each group, each company, and even each person in power to seek alliances with the most powerful people possible. (This also accounts for the great emphasis on knowing the people you are doing business with; if they turn out to be untrustworthy, you generally have little recourse.)
In English, we still have the term “carte blanche” which refers to “having a free hand to do whatever you want.” Most Americans are unaware of is that it was an actual document, during medieval times, a “white card” issued by the monarch, or his representative, giving the holder “free reign throughout the realm to usurp all laws…and act without fear of prosecution.”
This was done in England, France, and probably by numerous other medieval monarchs.
In Arab cultures, even today, THE SAME LAW DOES NOT APPLY TO EVERYONE. For example, in some countries, the “white card” still exists as an actual document, and certain families have it for all of their members. A simple benefit of a “white card” might be something as simple as suppose you want to speed through the city, or speed through a stop light. Suppose you are stopped by the police. You just whip out your “white card” and you would be free to go. Other important families are always trying their best to get it. In practice, while not very many people have it, the REAL EFFECT IS ON THE BEHAVIOR THIS IDEA HAS ON ALL THE MEMBERS OF THE SOCIETY.
In Arab cultures (as in many “Old World” cultures and Third-World cultures), THE LAW DOES NOT APPLY TO EVERYONE. Essentially, in order TO SHOW STATUS, OR GAIN STATUS, everyone is always trying to show others that they are “important enough to NOT have to follow rules.” In other words, instead of everyone following rules IN ORDER TO MAKE THE WHOLE SOCIETY FUNCTION EFFECTIVELY, people are instead demonstrating that THEY HAVE “INDIVIDUAL FREEDOM” by NOT having to “follow rules” or do what anyone else TELLS them to do. The result is that NOTHING FUNCTIONS EFFECTIVELY.
In order to get anything to function, individuals must often go in person and actually CAJOLE public servants and even private-sector employees to “do their job,” since they are demonstrating their POWER over others by NOT doing their jobs. Some expect a bribe, but most at least expect DEFERENCE and RESPECT. Instead of being intrinsically motivated to do their jobs properly and cheerfully, they are motivated by OTHERS KNOWING THAT THEY HAVE IMPORTANCE, as DEMONSTRATED BY THEIR SURLINESS, AND THEIR POWER OVER YOU–their power to make it difficult for you to obtain the document you need, for example, without a lot of cajoling, pleading, etc.
There IS one way around all this, which is to KNOW SOMEONE MORE POWERFUL THAN THAT PERSON, who will TELL them what they have to do, or who will get you right to the front of the line, around all of those other pleading and cajoling people who have to beg BECAUSE THEY DON’T KNOW A MORE POWERFUL PERSON TO HELP THEM. Therefore, people spend much of their effort toward cultivating people for “what they can do for you.”
When a person more powerful than you takes advantage of you–a professor, a boss, a husband, a bureaucrat, an organization, or a government official–the ONLY recourse you have (since rules are nonexistent or unenforced, and court verdicts are usually returned in favor of the more powerful) is to pressure that person or organization WITH YOUR OWN MORE POWERFUL ALLIANCES–someone who trumps HIS power.
What can someone do, when doesn’t know a more powerful person, or have any personal alliances who can wield influence over that person? This happens frequently. This brings us to the behaviors of subterfuge, and sabotage.
Westerners find Arab societies full of subterfuge and passive-aggressive behavior. It’s common that people often openly agree to something and then either don’t follow through, or do the exact opposite, and then make excuses–“I didn’t say that; I didn’t think that’s what you meant; I forgot; Someone else prevented me from doing it; I didn’t have time; etc.” The REAL explanation for this type of behavior is that the person never had any intention of following through, but felt you were in a more powerful position and did not feel they could get their way be disagreeing openly.
Since one always has to watch out for powerful people hurting you openly and secretly, the last revenge of losers in the power struggle is to sabotage others by creating false rumors about them. This may be one reason for why Arab societies seem overly concerned with what others think and say. The most common rumors seem to be, “He stole money,” (used against locals and foreigners) and “He’s trying to convert people away from Islam,” (frequently used against foreigners). Other rumors used on a daily basis, especially to impugn the reputations of local women are, “I saw her in a nightclub,” or “She’s had a boyfriend(s)!”
Arab cultures are dominated by a love-hate relationship regarding special privilege. On the one hand, everyone desires it, and it confers high social status. On the other hand, everyone (except the most privileged) hates it, too. This is primarily what the Arab Spring is about–A DESIRE FOR EVERYONE TO BE EQUAL UNDER THE LAW. Unfortunately, among those who want “democratic reforms” are also those who want to maintain the ability to obtain and benefit from special privileges just for themselves!
–Upcoming Part II will deal with how these societal factors influence behavior in the workplace, at school, and in the home and family.