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Rich and powerful: Obama and the global super-elite

The US President's bank balance has been buoyant since he took office. But he is still some way short of rivalling the very richest world leaders

David Usborne
Wednesday 19 May 2010 00:00 BST

Now the nation knows. That doggy in the White House window is worth $1,600 (£1,100). Pretty pricey for a pooch – but then he is part of a household that is worth many millions of dollars, according to the latest financial disclosures filed, as US law requires, by the First Couple, Barack and Michelle Obama.

The forms, posted for all to see on the internet, are a window into the not inconsiderable wealth of America's top family, generated partly by royalties from the president's two memoirs, Dreams of My Father and The Audacity of Hope.

Last year, they earned him between $2m and $10m. His assets are between $2.3m and $7.7m – the forms show ranges of value rather than specific figures.

Joe Biden, the Vice President, seems to have a much leaner financial cushion. His form reveals that he received a signed first edition of a James Joyce book, Anna Livia Plurabelle, from a fan last year worth $3,500. He lists his overall assets at between only $155,029 and $675,000.

It might behove a political leader to go to the dog pound for a puppy rather than indulge in so expensive a pedigreed pet. Happily for Mr Obama, this animal – Bo, a Portuguese water dog – is listed as a gift. He was presented to the Obamas by the late Senator Edward Kennedy

Also entered in the documents are the $1.4m Mr Obama received from the Nobel committee for the peace prize he won last year and – more importantly – his decision to donate all of it to charity. The value of the prize medal and diploma, if anyone is wondering, is "not readily ascertainable", the form says.

Under the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, all top federal officials are required annually to disclose their financial interests.

Thus we can see that Mr Obama has an impressive range of assets including in stocks, college education funds for his two daughters, mutual funds, bank accounts and bonds.

In these days of deep distrust of Washington and politicians generally, it might be better for the likes of Mr Obama to be able to demonstrate relative penury.

Leaders the world over try to claim proximity to the "ordinary voter"; large fortunes can be an impediment.

The carefully crafted image of Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska, as a spokesperson for working Americans has taken a hit recently, for instance, with revelations that her recent book, burgeoning TV career and work on the speaking circuit has earned her about $12m.

Even the elections in Britain saw an attempt by some to paint then candidate, now Prime Minister, David Cameron, as a member of the elite and therefore out of touch.

A 2008 News of the World report put Mr Cameron's personal fortune at £3.2m. Both he and his wife, Samantha, whose mother is Viscountess Astor, stand to gain more through future inheritances.

Too much cash in the attic may pose greater difficulties for a parliamentary leader, however, than for a president, who is both politician and head of state. Assuming it is honestly gained (and is not swollen by the plundering of taxpayer pockets), being rich need not be a problem, especially if yours not a socialist state.

In Chile, voters had no difficulty recently electing Sebastian Pinera as their new president, whose first task upon taking office was to dispose of his $1.5bn stake in the national airline, Lan Chile.

That Mr Cameron concluded his first cabinet meeting with an announcement that he and all his ministers would be taking a 5 per cent pay cut was a sign that he is wary of the connection between public appreciation of politicians and what they earn, particularly in a time of austerity. The biggest scandal in British politics in recent years, after all, was about MPs and fiddled expenses.

It helps Mr Obama that most of his fortune is coming not from the public purse – he is paid a salary of $400,000 a year – or from a past career, say on Wall Street, but from the two books. It is the voters, after all, who have been buying them.


1. King of Thailand, £20bn

The longest-serving monarch in the world as well as the richest, 82-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej's wealth includes large amounts of land and property. However the Thai government has disputed his position as the wealthiest head of state, saying that much of this is not part of his personal wealth. Regardless of his personal finances, in a country where the rural poor are currently locked in violent protests against an unpopular government, he remains a universally loved figure.

2. Sultan of Brunei, £13.5bn

Brunei's oil and gas reserves have kept the Sultan among the world's richest, and he spends accordingly: as well as having a love for luxury cars, for his 50th birthday in 1996 he hired Michael Jackson to perform.

3. Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan (President of UAE), £12bn

As the ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa has been a driving force during its recent spending spree in its attempts to establish itself as a cultural hub. A pro-Western moderniser and camel-racing fan.

4. King of Saudi Arabia, £11.5bn

Saudi Arabia's vast oil reserves are behind the wealth of King Abdullah, whose grandeur is such that he has a city named after him – King Abdullah Economic City – currently being constructed on the west coast of the country.

5. Silvio Berlusconi, £6bn

Varied business interests – including television stations, magazines and his beloved AC Milan – have made the Italian prime minister a very rich man indeed. His many critics charge that he has used his political career to maximise that wealth.

6. Hans-Adam II, Prince of Liechtenstein, £2.5bn

The fortune of Liechtenstein's monarch comes from the royal family's ownership of the country's LGT Bank, and the prince owns palaces and land in Austria. He expanded his power in the tiny country in a 2003 referendum.

7. Emir of Qatar £1.4bn

The head of a country with the world's third largest natural gas reserves, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani's expensive tastes include art as well as horse and camel racing. His $137m loan in 1996 was crucial to the founding of the Al Jazeera news network.

8. Asif Ali Zardari, President of Pakistan, £1.2bn

Nicknamed "Mr 10 per cent" thanks to the corruption allegations that have dogged him, Benazir Bhutto's widower is accused by the National Accountability Bureau of holding $1.5bn in assets abroad.

9= Prince Albert II of Monaco, £700m

Assets of the wealthy Grimaldi family includes art, real estate and Société des Bains de Mer, which owns Monaco's casinos. Prince Albert, a lifelong bachelor with two illegitimate children, is the son of Hollywood actress Grace Kelly.

9= Sebastián Piñera, President of Chile, £700m

Responsible for the introduction of the credit card to Chile, Pinera sold many of his investments when he became president last year. He agreed to give up a television station under pressure over conflicts of interest this week.

11. Sultan of Oman, £470m

Sultan Qaboos, who came to power when he overthrew his father in 1970, suffered considerable losses in the credit crunch, but remains vastly wealthy. The Sandhurst graduate has used his fortune to finance the restoration of mosques across the country.

12. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, President of Equatorial Guinea, £400m

Once labelled Africa's worst dictator, he deposited half a billion dollars from the national treasury into private family accounts in 2003 to "fight corruption".

13. The Queen, £300m

Even excluding state-owned properties like Windsor Castle and national treasures like the royal art collection, and despite the downturn, the Queen's homes, business interests, horses, art collection and jewellery have kept her personal fortunes in rude health.

14. Emir of Kuwait, £270m

Unlike most other Gulf leaders, Sheikh Sabah's fortune depends on a stipend from the state – which he took steps to increase considerably by passing a law that adjusted it from $25m to $188m annually after he acceded to the throne in 2006.

15. Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, £135m

Although her mother put the family's major cultural assets into national trusts, Beatrix is still worth about $200m. Her family gets an allowance of €5.6m a year – plus €93m or so in expenses.

16. King Mswati III of Swaziland, £68m

As the sole trustee of a $10bn national fund, Mswati augments his personal wealth with state money. Each of his 13 brides has a palace, a retinue and a BMW; meanwhile, two thirds of the country live in poverty.

17. Kevin Rudd, Prime Minister of Australia, £41m

Although Rudd's own background is in bureaucracy, he enjoys considerable wealth as the husband of Therese Rein, an entrepreneur who sold her recruitment business in 2007 to avoid conflicts of interest.

18. John Key, New Zealand Prime Minister, £25m

The former investment banker amassed a tidy sum before entering politics with the right-wing National Party in 2002. He owns properties in London and Hawaii as well as his home country.

19. Lee Myung-bak, President of South Korea, £16m

Lee came from a poverty-stricken background to rise at Hyundai until he became chief executive. Cleared of fraud shortly before his inauguration in 2008.

20. Milo Djukanovic, President of Montenegro, £10m

Mysteriously wealthy, he denies allegations that he was involved in a lucrative tobacco smuggling ring.

Toby Green

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