Applying Ibn Khaldun’s Ideas to China and Saudi Arabia

Khaldun developed a “generational decay model” that explains the lifecycle of dynasties as they are founded, grow powerful, and inevitably fall into decay and ruin. Are China and Saudi Arabia running the same course?

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Khaldun developed a “generational decay model” that explains the lifecycle of dynasties as they are founded, grow powerful, and inevitably fall into decay and ruin. Are China and Saudi Arabia running the same course?

The last few years have seen two similar, but independent developments occur in Saudi Arabia and China. Both nations have witnessed the rise of leaders who have upended long standing traditions and norms as they accumulated an unprecedented amount of power for themselves.

Though unrelated, these simultaneous power grabs provide an opportunity to revisit the ideas first discussed by Ibn Khaldun many centuries ago. It may seem odd to rely on a 14th century North African historian to explain why these developments will cause serious long-term issues in both nations, or even to discuss them together, but that is exactly what this essay shall endeavor.

Ibn Khaldun’s Muqadeema has been described as one of the greatest history books ever written. Though well deserved, this lofty praise hardly does justice to the scope and breath of his work. The Muqadeema is more than just a history book. It provides an analytical framework that explains the ebb and flow of history itself.

Khaldun developed a generational decay model that explains the lifecycle of dynasties as they are founded, grow powerful, and inevitably fall into decay and ruin. He did so after examining the Umayyads, Abbasids, and various North African and Iberian Muslim dynasties. Despite focusing on the evolution of Muslim dynasties, his ideas are based on universal themes regarding the differences between absolutists and pluralistic political institutions and how success often carries the seeds of its own doom with it. As a result, they are still useful when examining modern political systems.

According to Khaldun, all dynasties follow a natural pattern. They are founded by powerful groups who take political control of their societies based on their group cohesion and toughness, and the way in which these characteristics lead to martial abilities. He calls this “group feeling,”[1] which is his shorthand way of describing the bonds that allow people to work together to attain what he calls “royal authority”[2] or political control over their societies. In Khaldun’s day, these bonds were mostly familial or tribal, but he also understood that they can be based on additional factors like religion or shared experiences[3].

Saudi Arabia is but the latest in a long line of Arab hereditary dictatorships dating back to the Umayyad era and, as a result, fits exceptionally well within Khaldun’s model. The more interesting exercise is thinking about how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) functions much like the tribes and familial groups of Khaldun’s day. The founders of modern China may not have possessed the Bedouin toughness of the Arab tribes Khaldun studied. But just as his theories proved equally applicable to the Turkish tribes that founded the Ottoman Empire and how their lives on the Steppe shaped them and allowed them to supplant the Arabs, they can be seen at work among those who survived the ordeals of the Long March to found China’s modern state.

Khaldun explains that as a new dynasty is formed, the strong group feeling of its members allows them to create power structures that are more pluralistic and implement policies conducive to growth and prosperity since their frugality and simple lifestyles lead to relatively benign, laissez-faire governance. But over time, as the dynasty ages, two related but independent factors lead to its demise.

The first is that once the group takes power, its members begin to live luxurious lifestyles, which corrupts their character[4] and leads to weakened finances[5]. As this is happening, a ruler emerges who concentrates the lion’s share of power in his hands or those of his close supporters. In Khaldun’s opinion, it is the excessive consumption of luxury and concentration of power in the hands of an all-powerful ruler that ultimately dooms dynasties.

Once the ruler accumulates most of the power for himself and his close supporters, the exercise of political power is no longer restrained by institutional mechanisms or consensus-building arrangements. It, therefore, becomes more dependent on the personalities and capabilities of those individuals wielding it. At the beginning of the dynasty, the ruler still has the “desert toughness”[6] (or something comparable) that allows for good leadership. Having learned directly from their fathers, the second generation will typically be effective rulers too. But as dynasties age, they grow soft and spoiled. Each successive generation of rulers becomes weaker the further removed they are from the strength and vitality present at the dynasty’s founding.

The process does not happen overnight. Khaldun states it typically takes between three to six generations[7], because as each successive generation grows up in more and more luxury, they lose their “manliness”[8] because of the way that “luxury corrupts character.”[9] While Khaldun’s choice of words may be somewhat outdated for our time, the point he is trying to make is that inheriting power and growing up in wealth and luxury makes for weak rulers.

The key trigger is the accumulation of power by the ruler since Khaldun’s model does not begin to take effect until the ruler “claims all the glory for himself.”[10] As dynasties age, they become more absolutist, concentrating power in the hands of people who are unfit to rule. Once this happens, rulers begin to fall for the trappings of power and pursue luxury and comfort above all else. This leads to wasteful spending as rulers must pay for increasingly lavish lifestyles and higher state expenditures. This inevitably leads to higher taxes and insecure property rights as rulers seize the property of their subjects to pay for their expenses.[11].

This simultaneously depresses economic activity, undermines the fiscal position of the government, and reduces social cohesion by eroding trust between ruler and subjects. This process weakens all societies, but those governed by dictatorships decay the fastest because of the way in which they concentrate power at the top. Once this happens, dynasties reach their “senility,”[12] the final stage in their lifecycle. Democratic political systems are better at delaying the effects of Khaldun’s model because of the way in which they diffuse power.

By now, the relevance to both China and Saudi Arabia should be obvious. China’s premier Xi Jinping used the Chinese Communist Party’s recent 20th party Congress to give himself an unprecedented third term in office. But the events of the 20th Congress were years in the making. Over the past ten years, Xi has gradually eroded the norms that have maintained balance between the various factions of China’s communist party elite to make sure no one could oppose his desire for an extended stay in office.

In a recent article for Foreign Affairs, Jude Blanchette described the process in detail as he explained how Xi “moved rapidly to consolidate his political authority” by marginalizing “his enemies,” and taming “China’s once highflying technology and financial conglomerates” to “crush internal dissent.” He also led a “campaign to eliminate political pluralism and liberal ideologies from public discourse, announced new guidelines restricting the growth of the party’s membership, and added new ideological requirements for would-be party members.” As a result of these efforts, he installed allies and loyalists in key positions thus guaranteeing his ability to retain power beyond two terms. In the process he has turned himself into China’s most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping.

Saudi Arabia has gone through a similar process as the young Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) has undertaken a similar power grab by upending long standing family traditions and re-balancing its power structures in his favor. In his work on the Crown Prince, Ben Hubbard detailed how he used an anti-corruption drive featuring the use of the Ritz Carlton as a make-shift prison to end “the days when the kingdom had relatively independent power centers with lucrative and rich tycoons linked to them. Now they all answered to MBS”[13] who “now ruled the Saudi economy.”[14] According to Hubbard, “the royal family no longer functioned as it once had. Gone were the days when seniority reigned, elder princes divided portfolios among themselves, and made decisions through consensus. MBS has destroyed that system, extending control over the military, the oil industry, the intelligence services, the police, and the National Guard replacing senior princes with younger ones who answered to him.”[15]

The developments described by Blanchette and Hubbard are consistent with the same process Khaldun described in which pluralistic power structures give way to more absolutist arrangements.

As an established hereditary dictatorship, the steps taken by MBS in Saudi Arabia will undoubtedly lead to instability and chaos sooner rather than later. But as the Ottomans showed, Khaldun’s model predicts general patterns, not specific timelines. Customs and institutions created at the founding of a dynasty can either delay or accelerate the process. The Ottomans delayed the effects of Khaldun’s model for so long because their tradition of awarding leadership to the most militarily capable claimant to the throne led to a succession of strong rulers who were able to build strong institutions. These institutions were able to maintain the decadent lifestyles of their descendants for much longer than even Ibn Khaldun would have guessed. Kennedy states that “after 1566 there reigned thirteen incompetent sultans in succession”[16] which caused the Ottoman Empire to “increasingly suffer from some of the defects of being centralized, despotic, and severely orthodox in its attitude toward initiative, dissent, and commerce. An idiot sultan could paralyze the Ottoman Empire.”[17] Kennedy is describing how the Ottomans succumbed to the same process Khaldun described. Successive generations of Sultans became weaker and weaker and were no longer able to hold their empire together or govern effectively.

China has been ruled by a single party dictatorship since the end of WWII with different premiers passing power in 5-10 year increments based on a consensus reached by various factions within the party. The institutional mechanisms in place these past many decades have prevented it from developing into the sort of hereditary dictatorships that reign in the Muslim world.

Nevertheless, it is now following the same pattern predicted by Khaldun. Those who endured the Long March to found the communist state and implement the reforms that led to its current economic growth have been replaced by a younger generation of leaders that covets luxury and the sort of ostentatious displays of wealth that their predecessors would likely have found obnoxious. The success of its economy has undermined the character of its ruling class and their increased greed, inefficient resource allocation, nepotism, and corruption will continue to undermine its economic growth in a manner that creates significant instability. These issues will only grow as its political system becomes more absolutist.

The impact of Xi’s power grab can already be seen at work. Blanchette highlights the “flagging productivity” of its economy and how “for many companies, success depends on favors granted by the party.” Similarly, the less “nuanced diplomacy” practiced by Xi when compared to Mao and Deng is also consistent with Khaldun’s generational decay process. If his model is accurate, one can expect Xi’s concentration of power to lead to “senility”[18] though it may take several decades to manifest.

It is possible, but unlikely, that the CCP returns to more pluralistic power structures the same way it did after Mao’s disastrous reign. However, consistent with Khaldun’s ideas, the group feeling and pragmatism of those who took over after Mao has dissipated over the years. Those who succeed Xi are therefore more likely to continue his absolutists trajectory[19]. The degree to which Xi’s policies impact China’s long-term development will correlate to the length of time he stays in power and whether he passes power to a family member, though there are no indications of this yet.

Many in America view China’s growing power as an existential threat. The trends discussed above would indicate otherwise. An unstable China presents problems, but mostly to its immediate neighbors and its own people (like the unfortunate Uyghurs). It is unlikely to pose a serious long-term challenge to America so long as it remains a healthy democracy. America’s surest path to maintaining its dominant position vis-à-vis China is to ensure its political system remains inclusive, pluralistic, and democratic. America’s obsession with countering China, much like its obsession with countering the spread of communism, will ultimately prove unnecessary.

By inference, the ideas discussed above also show why communism, as an ideology and political force, has been such a spectacular failure. China may still use the vocabulary and rhetoric of its communist roots but ceased functioning like a classical communist state decades ago. In fact, aside from Cuba, no government based on communist ideology has been able to survive. Even North Korea is better classified as totalitarian dictatorship than a communist state. However, this discussion still provides a good opportunity to briefly explain why communist polities are inherently unstable, if it is not already apparent.

Communist systems suffer from two fatal flaws. The first is that they concentrate power within centralized governments in a way that naturally lends itself to the development of authoritarian dictatorships. We have seen the inevitable result of concentrating power in political systems.

By allowing politicians to centralize control of economic resources, communist systems concentrate power in the hands of the few or as Lenin called them the “vanguard.” Concentrated power always leads to abuse as the people wielding it are tempted to use it for their personal benefit. As such, the inherently unstable and violent nature of communist systems also stems from the fact that communist ideas lend themselves to the development of absolutist and authoritarian institutions. That is why these ideas have never led to the creation of a prosperous or stable political entity underpinned by the strength of its ideas as opposed to the strength of its armed enforcers.

The second flaw is that, as an ideology, communism is not based on a realistic assessment of how humans are motivated by incentives. It is an inherently illogical system that seeks to achieve the impossible. Hierarchy and social strata are intrinsic to human societies. Trying to change this fact through public policy, even if well-intentioned, is a fool’s errand. As a result, communist ideas can never form the basis for a stable political system. The better path is to ensure social mobility between classes by providing resources such as public education to all citizens so that those with the talent and desire to do so can change their station in life. But attempting to create economic equality for all only leads to dictatorship and poverty.

This is also consistent with Khaldun’s ideas regarding the purpose of government. For Khaldun, political authority is meant to act as a restraining influence[20] on people to prevent lawlessness and strife. The laws and customs that govern must be “rational”[21] and the ruler fulfills his purpose best when he allows “people to act in their own best interests[22].” He also explains that “attacks on people’s property remove the incentive to acquire and gain property”[23] which leads to ruin because “civilization and its well-being as well as business prosperity depend on productivity and people’s efforts in all directions in their own interest and profit. When people no longer do business in order to make a living, and when they cease all gainful activity, the business of civilization slumps, and everything decays.”[24] Communist systems, to the extent that they destroy the incentive to acquire property/capital, will always lead to instability and collapse because they are irrational and unjust and “injustice ruins civilization.”[25]

The ideas discussed above are self-evident and based on common sense and logic; however, the degree to which rulers like those in China and Saudi Arabia habitually ignore them motivated this essay.


[1] Khaldun, Ibn, The Muaqddimah An Introduction to History, trans. Rosenthal, Franz (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 111)

[2] Id. at 111-113.

[3] Id. at 124-26; 292.

[4] Id. at 135.

[5] Id. at 231-34.

[6] Id. at 137.

[7] Id. at 136-42.

[8] Id. at 150.

[9] Id. at 135.

[10] Id. at 134.

[11] Id. at 231-32.

[12] Id. at 142.

[13] Hubbard, Ben, MBS (New York: Crown), 202.

[14] Id. at 202.

[15] Id. at 267.

[16] Kennedy, Paul, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, (New York: Vintage Books), 11.

[17] Id. at 11-12.

[18] Khaldun at 142.

[19] Which would also be consistent with the Iron Law of Oligarchy described in Why Nations Fail.

[20] Id. at 152.

[21] Id. at 153.

[22] Id. at 189.

[23] Id. at 238.

[24] Id. at 238.

[25] Id. at 239.



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