The classic definition of the word “dictatorship” is to rule unrestricted by any laws. Dictatorships usually lack a system of checks and balances, resulting in power being concentrated in the hands of a few, or in some cases even a single individual. But though you may not see them on the face of finance magazines, some of the worst dictators in history have also been some of the wealthiest individuals in the world. Throughout history, dictatorships have concentrated enormous wealth at the very top, with the dictator, his family and his cronies amassing huge riches while the rest of the country struggles to survive. The ill-gotten gains of authoritarian leaders can be accumulated through royal inheritance, lucrative business practices, ties to organized crime, embezzlement or misuse of government funds, ruthless exploitation of a country’s natural resources, or treating the national treasury like a personal bank account and state-run corporations as their own property.
Dictators have delusions of grandeur and are typically insulated from reality, protected by their wealth, power, and a loyal entourage of bribed politicians and armed forces from the consequences of their actions. Without any restrictions, their inflated ego and megalomania drives them to build gigantic monuments, opulent mansions and palaces, statues of themselves, and treat themselves to bathrooms with solid gold fixtures, private jets, a fleet of luxury cars and other extravagances, with no concern for the fact that their people are living in abject poverty and starving to death.
Here are 15 of the richest and most corrupt dictators in the world, with a rough estimate of their total net worth.
15. Manuel Noriega ($300 million)
Noriega first met with CIA director George Bush in 1976. Though he had connections with the agency going back to the 50s, it was cemented when he was put on the CIA payroll for $100,000 a year. General Noriega became commander-in-chief of the National Guard in Panama in 1983, making him more powerful than the President and the de-facto ruler of the Central American country. A ruthless leader, Noriega cultivated a friendly relationship with the U.S. during the Reagan era, collaborating with Oliver North in CIA-supported covert operations against Nicaragua, training Contra rebels and providing a base for U.S. operations that flew weapons to the rebels and smuggled cocaine into the U.S.
In his eight years in power, Noriega laundered drug money and amassed a fortune as large as $300 million, including hundreds of foreign bank accounts and a $27 million castle in the south of France. His regime had a notorious connection with organized crime and drug trafficking organizations. He is also believed to have made as much as $100 million from a scheme in which Panamanian visas were sold at exorbitant prices to people fleeing their home countries. After a U.S. invasion ousted him from power, Noriega was taken as a prisoner and stood trial in Miami, eventually being jailed for drug trafficking, money-laundering, and racketeering.
14. Alberto Fujimori ($600 million)
When Alberto Fujimori became President of Peru in 1990, it was during a time of the worst political violence in the history of the republic. Insurgents associated with the Maoist Shining Path and several other organizations waged a violent guerrilla struggle against the government. As part of his efforts against the rebels, Fujimori gave the military broad powers to arrest and try suspected insurgents in secret military courts with few legal rights. The Peruvian military and death squads associated with Fujimori engaged in widespread abuses and massacres, for which he was eventually tried for crimes against humanity. Controversy also surrounded his “family planning” campaign, which critics say in practice resulted in the sterilization of over 200,000 women, mostly indigenous.
While Fujimori was initially hailed for fixing the economy, controlling hyperinflation and defeating the rebels, but he grew increasingly autocratic and corrupt during his decade in power. Famously, he funneled 122 million soles ($40 million) in state funds to bribe the media to support his 2000 re-election campaign. Witnesses say he personally dictated headlines calling his opponents insane, communists, and homosexuals. Investigators say Fujimori and members of his family stole up to $600 million from the public coffers, with very little of it recovered.
13. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo ($600 million)
Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang has ruled the country for more than 38 years and has profited handsomely from its rich oil reserves. Forbes estimated his personal fortune at $600 million, making him one of the wealthiest heads of state in the world. Most of his citizens live on less than $1 a day. Obiang has won elections widely considered fraudulent, one of which he won with 103% of the vote. The constitution grants him wide-ranging powers, including rule by decree. For all intents and purposes, Obiang holds all the power in the nation. State-operated media has declared him “the country’s god” with “all power over men and things,” also claiming he was “in contact with the Almighty” and could kill “without going to hell.”
Obiang has had full control of the national treasury since 2003 and deposited more than half a billion dollars into accounts controlled by his family. He also used public funds to finance mansions and luxuries for his family. Obiang’s son, in particular, owns a $35 million dollar mansion in Malibu, a $33 million dollar jet, a $10 million car collection which includes a Lamborghini, a Bentley and several $1.7 million Bugatti Veyrons, and $2 million worth of Michael Jackson memorabilia.
12. Francois “Papa Doc” and Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier ($800 million)
Prior to his rise to his election as President of Haiti in 1957, Francois Duvalier was a physician by trade, which earned him the nickname “Papa Doc.” It would have been better for the citizens of Haiti if he had never stopped practicing medicine because Duvalier would spend the next 13 years consolidating his repressive and authoritarian rule. Among his most infamous deeds include claiming the persona of a Voodoo god Baron Samedi in order to terrify his opponents, claiming to be the physical manifestation of Haiti divinely chosen by Jesus, and the use of an infamous militia known as the Tonton Macoute, who controlled the population through torture, rape, kidnapping, extortion and massacres.
After Papa Doc’s death in 1971, he was succeeded by his son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. Becoming the world’s youngest president at age 19, Baby Doc maintained a lavish lifestyle (including a $2 million wedding) and lived as a playboy while poverty among Haitians remained the worst of any country in the Western hemisphere. Rebellion against his rule broke out in 1985 and he fled to France the following year.
11. Hosni Mubarak ($1.2 billion)
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak amassed enormous wealth while his people struggled on a daily basis, with his sons and family taking cuts on all construction project in Egypt over his 30-year reign. It’s only now after the 2011 Egyptian Revolution that reports of the 88-year-old dictator’s fortune are coming out, with some estimates of his personal wealth being as high as $70 billion due to corruption, business activities, foreign property ownership, and bribery, with the funds being stashed in bank accounts at home and abroad in tax havens like Switzerland. Most sources have said this number is exaggerated, but all estimates put the sum in the billions; Egyptian authorities estimate $1.2 billion.
While Mubarak’s reign was marked by poverty, corruption, and general despair, he and his family lived like kings, living in vast palaces while half the population lived on $2 a day or less. As is always the case with ousted dictators, the precise amount of money the Mubarak family stole from Egypt is yet to be known.
10. Saddam Hussein ($2 billion)
Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq with an iron fist from 1979 until the spring of 2003, when a coalition of foreign nations led by the U.S. and U.K. invaded the country to depose him. As the fifth President of Iraq for over two decades, Saddam enriched himself on Iraqi oil revenue, nationalizing the oil industry and taking control of the major banks. He had an estimated net worth of $2 billion as of 2003, building dozens of vast, gaudy palaces (between 80 to 100) in every major city all over the desert nation, including one built on the ancient foundations of Babylon in one of the greatest acts of historical vandalism of the modern age. The bricks put on top of the original brickwork bore inscriptions hailing Nebuchadnezzar.
Saddam and his family always lived well, even as U.N. sanctions caused widespread starvation and disease among his people from lack of food and medicine. Hours before the first bombs started falling, Saddam and his sons withdrew more than $1 billion from the Iraqi Central Bank in stainless steel briefcases carried on three flatbed trucks. He was captured and hanged in 2006. It is believed he may have stashed billions more overseas.
9. Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu ($2 billion)
The communist rulers of Romania for almost a quarter of a century from 1965 to 1989, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were admired, feared, and despised depending on who you asked. While it’s unknown how much they got away with, Nicolae had the highest salary in the country (18,000 lei, as opposed to the net average of 3,000 in 1989). Their palace in Bucharest was titled to be “the most lavish in the world,” and is currently the world’s third-largest building by volume. The palace, ironically called “The People’s House” in its day, came at a cost of $1.7 billion even as Romanian citizens suffered shortages of food, fuel, medicine and other basic necessities. One-fifth of central Bucharest was demolished, including historic districts and 30,000 homes, to make room for the project.
In 1982, Ceausescu ordered most of the country’s agricultural and industrial production exported in order to pay off Romania’s large foreign debt, bringing the standard of living to an all-time low even as he and his wife lived like royalty. Eventually, their extensive cult of personality couldn’t mask the growing unrest due to food rationing and electric and heating blackouts. With most people living in poverty even as Ceausescu and his wife lived in extravagance, the government was overthrown by violent demonstrations. The Ceausescus were arrested and accused of “genocide” against their own people in a hasty one-hour-long show trial by a military court and immediately executed by firing squad on Christmas Day, 1989.
8. Sani Abacha ($3 billion)
General Sani Abacha was the former military ruler of Nigeria and one of the richest dictators in the world. As the corrupt and repressive de-facto President of the oil-rich country of Nigeria, Abacha tried to cover his absolute power under the mantle of democracy, holding fraudulent elections, jailing his opponents, and executing activists and dissidents. Infamously, he allowed Shell Oil to extract the country’s oil from the Ogoniland region, causing severe environmental destruction and plundering the local economy. More than 700 Ogoni environmental activists were executed, which nearly led to a boycott of Nigerian oil.
After his sudden death in 1998 (rumored to be from poisoning), the government of Nigeria uncovered embezzled funds amounting to over $3 billion that Abacha siphoned off the Nigerian treasury and held in personal and proxy bank accounts in countries like Switzerland, Luxembourg, and Liechtenstein. Considering his brief five-year reign, this makes Abacha one of the most corrupt leader in history, and certainly the richest in Africa.
7. Saparmurat Niyazov ($3 billion)
Turkmenistan’s Niyazov was one of the most repressive and autocratic dictators the world has ever seen, and probably the most eccentric. Compiling a list of all his oppressive and ridiculous decrees is outside the scope of a single article, but some that stand out include renaming the months and the days of the week after members of his family, banning the use of lip syncing during concerts, banishing all dogs from the capital, banning smoking in all public buildings and chewing tobacco in the entire country, and outlawing opera, ballet, circuses, long hair and beards, wearing makeup on television, and gold teeth.
He also staged elections in which he was the sole candidate and hand-picked all members of parliament, renamed towns, schools, airports, and even a meteorite after himself, cultivating an unprecedented cult of personality which culminated in having a 39-foot gold-plated statue of himself that rotated to always face the sun built. It cost $12 million.
In between banning the internet, shutting down all hospitals outside the capital, and writing a book (and having a statue built of it), Niyazov enjoyed life as a despotic leader who grew rich on oil wealth while the Turkmen population suffered. Human rights organizations estimated his personal fortune was in excess of $3 billion, including $1-2 billion in Deutsche Bank in Germany.
6. Mobutu Sese Seko ($5 billion)
From 1967 to 1997, Mobutu Sese Seko was the president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which was named Zaire for most of that period. Over his 30-year reign, Mobutu built an authoritarian regime and amassed an enormous personal fortune, estimated to be about $5 billion at the nation’s expense, or equivalent to half the Zaire’s GDP. Most of his wealth came from bribery and his absolute control over Zaire’s precious cobalt, copper, oil, and diamonds.
In the name of anti-communism, Mobutu imprisoned without trial and had his opponents maimed and tortured, frequently in broad daylight, and there was virtually no difference between his pocket and the national treasury. When foreign aid was sent, Mobutu would pocket the entire sum.
This corruption was reflected in his luxurious lifestyle, which included a string of Mercedes cars, plush palatial residences, yachts, and private jets, chartering the Concorde for shopping trips to Paris and Switzerland, and a particular taste for pink Champagne and fresh cakes flown in from France whenever the mood suited him. While rich in resources, the Congo is still one of the poorest countries in the world, and still feels the ruinous legacy of Mobutu’s rule and the subsequent civil war to this day.
5. Ferdinand Marcos ($15 billion)
Compared to former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, most of the corrupt dictators on this list are amateurs. Marcos institutionalized corruption on a massive scale, but multinational corporations prospered, even after he declared martial law in 1972. By 1977, the armed forces had quadrupled in size and over 60,000 Filipinos had been arrested for political reasons. Over his 20 years in power torture was common and foreign debt increased from $1 to over $25 billion. It’s estimated as much as a third of that sum, $8 billion, made its way into Marcos’ pockets or those of his cronies.
Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle suited to a king and queen; Marcos adorned his $61 million presidential palace with original Michelangelo and Botticelli works and Imelda famously owned at least 1,000 pairs of shoes, all the while stashing away billions of dollars that “went missing.”
Eventually they were forced to flee to Hawaii in 1986 in two transport planes filled with enough clothes to fill 67 racks, 413 pieces of jewelry, 70 pairs of jeweled cufflinks, 24 gold bricks, and an ivory statue of the infant Jesus, among other riches, which still represented only a tiny portion of their wealth. Roughly half the Filipino population was living on less than $2 a day at the time. The sum total of Marcos’ theft from his country has yet to be found, but higher-end estimates put it as between $10 to $15 billion.
4. Hassanal Bolkiah ($20 billion)
Hassanal Bolkiah is the current Sultan of Brunei and of the richest monarchs in the world. Under the country’s 1959 constitution, he is the head of state with full executive authority, in essence making Brunei a monarchical dictatorship under emergency rule since 1962. In 2006, the constitution was further amended to make the Sultan infallible by law. Bolkiah also acts as the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defense and Finance. As is the case with many dictatorships, his personal wealth and the state are indistinguishable, but the Sultan is believed to have a net worth of $20 billion as the result of oil and gas development in Brunei.
The Sultan is known for his lavish spending, owning more than 600 Rolls-Royces that lay rotting and unused in parking garages. His brother Prince Jefri is theorized to have spent more money than any human being in history, allegedly stealing and blowing through $14.8 billion during his time as finance minister. Bolkiah lives in the Istana Nurul Imam, the world’s largest palace at more than 2 million square feet, consisting of 1,788 rooms, 257 bathrooms, a banquet hall for 5,000 guests, a mosque for 1,500 people, a 110-car garage, an air-conditioned stable for the Sultan’s 200 horses, and 5 swimming pools, costing upwards of $1.4 billion. Meanwhile, most people in Brunei live in abject poverty and those who protest the inequality in the country typically don’t fare well with the authorities.
3. Suharto ($35 billion)
Indonesia’s military leader Suharto, a U.S. ally in the Cold War and one of the most brutal dictators in history who exterminated over a million lives in the aftermath of his CIA-backed 1965 seizure of power, had a passion for stolen government money as well as mass murder. After being appointed President, Suharto used a combination of domestic purges, ethnic cleansing, and a genocidal war with East Timor to keep himself in power while building a corrupt authoritarian regime. At the same time, he and his family reaped the benefits of the new state, making between $480 million to $1.13 billion a year for a whopping total of $15 to $35 billion stolen from the state.
Unlike most dictators, Suharto kept his enormous embezzled fortune under wraps, living a modest life in public and forgoing the enormous palaces, swimming pools and private zoos we’ve seen so far on this list. The full amount of his family’s theft wasn’t known until after his death. Interestingly, while Suharto is credited with economic growth, this financial wizardry apparently did not extend to the rest of his family. Corruption investigators found that roughly 90% of the money had been squandered in terrible investments.
2. Muammar Gaddafi ($75 billion)
When the assets of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and his family were frozen in March of 2011, many were astonished at the reported numbers. The U.S. seized $30 billion in his family’s investments, Canada had frozen $2.4 billion, Austria had seized $1.7 billion and the U.K. had frozen $1 billion. Despite these staggering sums, it was reported that these numbers were nowhere close to the actual total; during his 42-year reign, Gaddafi was said to have amassed an oil and gas fortune of between $75 billion to as high as a whopping $200 billion, if we include bank accounts, real estate and corporate investments around the world.
As the leader of Libya for decades, Gaddafi and his family had complete control over the largest oil reserves in Africa, spending much on social programs and infrastructure but also being able to withdraw money at will.
Gaddafi built many opulent palaces, which included underground bunkers, lots of solid gold guns, marble floors, and pleasures like a private zoo, a “Neverland”-style amusement park, indoor pools and countless gardens. Gaddafi was summarily executed by Libyan rebels during the civil war, in which NATO intervened militarily, in 2011.
1. The House of Saud ($14 trillion)
King Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz was the absolute monarch of Saudi Arabia, estimated to be worth about $17 billion before his death in 2015. As the head of the House of Saud, Abdullah and his thousands of related royals ruled the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with an iron fist of medieval feudalism and theocracy. Through the state-owned oil monopoly Saudi Arabian Oil Co., better known as Saudi Aramco, the Saudi royal family has enjoyed massive profits from the country’s crude oil wealth; exports in 2014 alone were worth $268 billion.
All this money hasn’t made life in Saudi Arabia a more pleasant place to live: Riyadh has long faced criticism from the international community and human rights organizations for its poor human rights record. Punishments such as flogging, amputations, and beheading are common, women have few rights, and there are numerous restrictions on freedom of speech. The Kingdom may be one of the most undemocratic regimes in the world, but if one were to take the entire Saudi royal family as a single entity and combine all their staggering wealth and financial holdings together, it’s estimated that the House of Saud would be worth as much as $14 trillion. Who says crime doesn’t pay?
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