Are Arab rulers mentally ill? – Middle East Monitor

Does the fighting in Sudan give us some understanding of the psychological transformations that Arabs go through when they take power and are willing to sacrifice other people’s lives in order to stay in power? Even the few elected Arab leaders go from being advocates of change and reform to the absolute opposite as soon as they are in charge, making it impossible to recognise their former selves. They appear to live in another world, far from reality and the people they claim to represent.

Can such changes in Arab rulers’ nature be due solely to the hostile pressures at home and abroad?

Many scientific studies, especially over the past two decades, suggest that there is an essential factor for change that we often fail to address in political analysis, which is actual change, mentally, in the exercise of power, which can distort thinking and create personal changes in leaders that affect decision-making.

Is power as addictive as drugs are? Does the refusal of the two Sudanese leaders to listen to the calls to stop the fighting and preserve the lives of citizens mean that they’re refusing to give up the drug called power?

READ: Russia FM: US divided Sudan, should not interfere in its affairs

The situation is not only limited to Sudan. There are many examples in our Arab countries — and several in the West — of rulers who show symptoms of baffling behavioural deterioration as soon as they are in power. Those who are keen to espouse the well-being of their people and call for the implementation of the law and the purging of those who oppress the people and steal their money; those who do all of that soon turn into dictators who don’t listen to anyone but themselves and obsequious underlings who tell them only what they want to hear. Change is often viewed through the lens of social research, political competition and the defence of national and religious identity without reference to scientific research. So, what do the scientific studies tell us about the reasons for the changes that occur before and after taking power?

There are basically two explanations. In terms of changes in the nervous system, Professor Nayef Al-Roudhan from Oxford University attributes the reason to the neurochemical change the brain caused by power which increases the secretion of dopamine, which affects certain areas in the brain, controlling feelings of pleasure, motivation and reward. High dopamine levels are linked to feelings of personal power, risk taking, preoccupation with the universe or religion, and emotional detachment that can lead to callousness, obsession with achieving goals and conquests. Power, then, activates the neural reward systems in the brain, thus causing addiction. People in positions of unchecked power are likely to lack the self-awareness required to act with restraint or seek a consensual form of decision-making. The dictator is thus more likely to emerge in situations where checks and balances are not in place. Cruelty and disrespect for the citizens in countries ruled by leaders with absolute power then becomes the norm.

Al-Roudhan presents two Western models that also apply to our rulers and politicians in the Arab world. Absolute power can also lead them to believe that spiritual power guides them even within well-established democracies. Former US President George W Bush, for example, told people that God Almighty wanted him to wage a war on Iraq to fight evil; this was the same discourse adopted by his ally in the Iraq war, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Al-Roudhan concludes that the certainty possessed by such leaders is symptomatic of very high dopamine levels, to the point of Megalomania as a result of self-deception in the face of conflicting advice from those close to them.

The second explanation was addressed by Nigerian-American Professor Farooq Kperogi, in his research “How Political Power Damages the Brain—and How to Reverse it”. He focuses on the transformation of Nigerian President Buhari, as an example, from a person speaking on behalf of the poor and marginalised, calling for the eradication of corruption, to a dictator who does what he was urging the people to rise up against. He also talks about, by way of comparison, the change in the behaviour of arrogant officials as soon as they are removed from the centres of power for whatever reason. They return suddenly to their original state. They share the people’s pain and condemn the abuse of power. This is what we see with astonishing clarity in today’s Iraq, among the politicians of the parties competing for power and government officials, who, as soon as they are dismissed from office, become pure people who condemn corruption and preach piety.

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Kperogi adopts the study of Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, which he conducted on the brains of people in power and found that people under the influence of power are neurologically similar to people who suffer from brain injuries or trauma. Patients who suffer from concussion are “more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.”

Lord David Owen, a veteran British neurologist and politician, dedicated his book In Sickness and In Power to examining the illnesses of heads of government, and military and business leaders between 1901 and 2007. He took into consideration how the illness and the treatment — both physical and mental — affected decision-making in heads of government, leading to foolishness, stupidity or haste. Owen “took particular interest in leaders who were not ill in the conventional sense, whose cognitive faculties functioned well, but who developed a ‘hubristic syndrome’ that powerfully affected their performance and their actions. Whether it be examples from politics, business or the military, they suffer a loss of capacity and become excessively self-confident and contemptuous of advice that runs counter to what they believe, or sometimes of any advice at all.”

Naif Al-Roudhan arrives at a pathological pattern that most Arab rulers who are stuck to their positions suffer from. This is confirmed by the current fighting in Sudan, of which the citizens are bearing the brunt. “The sudden withdrawal of power, such as the abrupt withdrawal of drugs, causes an uncontrollable craving,” he says. “Those who possess power, especially absolute power, are unlikely to give it up willingly, smoothly and without human and material loss.”

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 24 April 2023

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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