An Arabian puzzle:
In a manner of speaking I live on an alien planet.  In many ways it is the same as everybody else’s, but there is a crucial difference.  I believe I understand a law of nature – limit your gene pool size regardless of environment or you will go extinct – that almost nobody else understands.  And occasionally an issue comes up that is like finding an artifact on an alien planet.  I pick it up, turn it over and wonder what it is. 

One such puzzle is the Arab Spring.  You know it.  Over the past few years a number of mostly Arabian countries have had popular uprisings.  So far Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen have seen the head of state replaced.  Most observers cite a number of factors such as disaffected educated young people, the ability of groups to communicate and organize with their cell phones, corruption and torture and exploitation by governments and woeful economies.  Early on many in the West looked forward to widespread changes that would lead that part of the world to become a collection of secular, multi-ethnic, market driven states with the usual collection of the rights we say we hold dear in the West.  It will be a long time before that sanguine view can be fairly judged.

I looked at it and said, “Smells like regime change.”  

Now there is an article (Max Rodenbeck The Cycle of History ECONOMIST vol. 46 no. 8816 January 8, 2013 page 75) that seems to me to offer a perspective.  The article cites work by an Arab thinker six centuries ago named Ibn Khaldoun.  That man said that a dynasty lasts about three generations before becoming decadent so that a new regime arises. 

Well and good.  I like the style.  The numbers however seem a bit awkward.  In China and Japan dynasties could last up to about ten generations.  That big a difference needs to be explained or acknowledged as a different force in history, which I see little other evidence for.  Yes, I am told other places have the same three generation typical span, but we now speak of the Arab world. 

The article says that the span here is from about three generations ago, or let’s say about 1920, that being their approximation of when the countries gained independence. 

I say on the other hand that it should be either five or six generations, when dynasties appear to have a period of vulnerability that I attribute to a decline in the number of bright young people who can do the executive work of empire.  Or else it should be about ten generations.  That would be something like 1713, the height of the Ottoman Empire.  I don’t recall a lot of regime changes back then.  Oh yes, dynasty changes maybe.  But the rules of the game were not changing a lot. 

So if my own assessment is right, there should have been regime changes going back to about the mid eighteen hundreds.  That would be the height of British imperialism.  The Brits called the shots for a lot of the world, even if they didn’t actually own everything they influence.  So a regime that could cope with the British would be a regime that could survive. 

In other words, three generations ago it was not a bunch of new powers that took control but a bunch that had been working less conspicuously for a couple or three generations already. 

So let’s split the difference between two and three generations, between sixty and ninety years or seventy years.  What was the birth rate in 1840 compared with 2011?  I look to and try to guess number of birth per woman from their graphs:  ( is truly my all time favorite site.) 

Tunisia:        1840     6.5        2011     2.

Libya:          1840     6.9        2011     1.9.

Egypt:          1840      6          2011     2.7.

Yemen:        1840      6.5       2011      2.

Honestly I wrote everything above before looking up the numbers.  So where are these armies of disaffected educated youth?  Looks to me like they don’t have much youth of any stripe.  And I would go odds that the numbers for the elite, the ones upon whom the regimes were depending, are a lot worse.

Khaldoun has more to offer.  He says that once a dynasty becomes decadent it gets replaced by people coming in off the desert, people whose Islamic faith is uncorrupted by easy living.  The article says they are more “cohesive.”  I say they have the babies and the young people who can impose their will. 

So I conclude that the Arab Spring supports rather than refutes my understanding.  Of course that is not to say that once the birth rate hits two per woman the society will disintegrate.  That’s fortunate.  But it does suggest that somewhere along the path to no babies at all the society becomes terribly vulnerable.

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