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The rich and powerful: What’s the state of oligarchs in 2022?

Elon Musk
FILE – Tesla and SpaceX Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk speaks at the SATELLITE Conference and Exhibition in Washington, Monday, March 9, 2020. Twitter on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2022 suspended the accounts of journalists who cover the social media platform and its new owner Elon Musk, among them reporters working for The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, Voice of America and other publications. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Across the world, 2022 has been a stable year for the oligarchs. Defined as those who acquire wealth or power, then utilize one to gain the other, oligarchs have steadily increased their role in the global economy and the international system since the late 1980s. 

At the beginning of the year, oligarchs were heads of state or government in 18 countries around the world, ranging in size from Russia to the partially recognized state of Abkhazia, according to our count. As the year ends, that number has remained constant at 18 and is the highest of any year in our database.

But there have been some significant changes in the composition of the oligarchs running countries. Two have left office this year: Sebastian Piñera in Chile, and Uhuru Kenyatta in Kenya. Both of these departures were peaceful and democratic, although clouds hang over these oligarchs and their legacies. Piñera presided over an ineffective government response to Chile’s 2019’s social protests and is judged by most political observers as a relatively mediocre president. While his reputation is less obviously negative than Piñera’s, Kenyatta was characterized by one media outlet as an “unfathomable president with a mixed record.”  

Three oligarchs became heads of state or government in 2022: William Ruto in Kenya, Robert Golob in Slovenia, and Rishi Sunak of the United Kingdom. Of these three additions, Sunak is arguably the most significant. He is the first oligarch to serve as UK prime minister since Neville Chamberlain in the late 1930s, and leads the ninth largest economy in the world measured by purchasing power parity (PPP). Ruto is an even swap for Kenyatta — oligarch for oligarch. Golob is the first oligarch to serve as Slovenia’s head of state or government. 

During 2022, one oligarch has gained substantial power and/or wealth: Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and, since September, its prime minister as well. MBS has emerged as a key actor in the emerging international order, moving Saudi Arabia closer to the coalition headed by China and including Russia, Iran, and others — and away from Saudi Arabia’s traditional postwar ally, the United States. Using Saudi Aramco’s share price as a proxy, MBS’ net worth may have declined somewhat in 2022 but is likely to remain in the tens of billions of U.S. dollars. 

For three other oligarchs, however, 2022 has seen a decline in their power and/or wealth. Following the launch of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, President Vladimir Putin has seen an erosion in his international power over the year, even as his domestic popularity appears to be holding solid. His net worth, always difficult to estimate accurately, has suffered somewhat as a result of this war, but not as much as Western countries had hoped.  

Nayib Bukele, president of El Salvador, started off the year riding pretty high on his Bitcoin-led international marketing campaign to rebrand the country. While he remains quite popular domestically, the collapse of the cryptocurrency market during the year, his mass roundup of gang members, and increasing authoritarianism has taken the shine off his reputation and drawn international criticism.  

South African president Cyril Ramaphosa narrowly avoided impeachment in mid-December and was reelected as the African National Congress (ANC) leader, but the promise of his administration’s early days has now faded decisively, even if his net worth has likely held fairly solid. 

Of course, oligarchs don’t only exercise decision-making power as heads of state or government. They can also operate behind the scenes, setting agendas or even shaping the ways in which we think and act. For these kinds of oligarchs, 2022 saw one big winner — Elon Musk — and one smallish loser — Peter Thiel, both billionaire entrepreneurs. While Musk, once the world’s richest person, has seen his net worth decline significantly during the year, his power grew substantially with his acquisition of Twitter. We now assess Musk as one of the world’s most consequential oligarchs, as Twitter’s agenda-setting power is being aggressively reshaped by Musk. By contrast, Thiel’s backing of right-wing political candidates in 2022 had mixed results. J.D. Vance was elected as one of Ohio’s U.S. senators, but Blake Masters lost his U.S. Senate race in Arizona.   

Looking ahead to 2023, what can we expect from the oligarchs? Based on trends over the past 35 years, we’d guess that the number of oligarchs serving as heads of state or government may increase by one or two over the year. And, as in the past, oligarchs will come and go from office, largely through peaceful and ostensibly democratic means. Oligarchs who set agendas or change the way we think or act seem likely to expand their power, particularly as artificial intelligence (AI) creeps more into the center of more of our lives. Of course, as the year passes and the U.S. presidential campaign heats up, we expect to hear more from Donald Trump, America’s former oligarch president. But we don’t see his power expanding significantly beyond current levels. 

We all live in an oligarch’s world now. As uncertainty continues to rise in economics and politics, these actors are well-placed to exploit the resultant opportunities. We may not like it very much, but we’re going to have to learn how to live with what they have wrought. 

David Lingelbach is a professor of entrepreneurship at The University of Baltimore and author. He lived and worked in Russia from 1994 to 1999, where he served as president of Bank of America — Russia and worked with Vladimir Putin. 

Valentina Rodríguez Guerra is an author and oligarch researcher. 

Together they are writing a book about oligarchs. 

Tags Billionaire Cyril Ramaphosa Donald Trump Elon Musk Elon Musk Nayib Bukele oligarchs Peter Thiel Putin Uhuru Kenyatta Vladimir Putin

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