The World’s Worst Sons

The troublesome progeny giving headaches to some of the most powerful leaders on the planet.

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
(FILES) -- An undated file picture shows Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al-Nahayan, a brother of United Arab Emirates President and Abu Dhabi ruler Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan. Sheikh Issa, already implicated in a torture scandal caught on tape, has been filmed torturing at least 25 other people, a lawyer representing one of the royal's former business associates said on May 3, 2009. The Gulf emirate has vowed to investigate after ABC television on April 22 aired a video that appeared to show the Abu Dhabi prince mercilessly beating a man. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)



AFP/Getty Images

Dad: The late former ruler of Abu Dhabi and former president of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan

Age: Unknown

Bad behavior: Although he has no formal government position, Sheikh Issa, whose brother Khalifa is the current ruler of Abu Dhabi, is one of the emirate’s most prominent real estate developers. He was previously best known for building the Al Hakema tower, a massive complex in honor of his late father. But thanks to one night in the desert and an ill-advised videotape, Sheikh Issa’s name is now synonymous with sadism and abuse of power.

A video obtained by ABC News shows a group of men, including the sheikh, torturing an Afghan grain merchant who he accuses of cheating him. In the video, which was allegedly shot on his desert ranch at night, Issa fires an automatic weapon around the man, stuffs sand in his mouth, sodomizes him with an electric cattle prod, lights him on fire, and pours salt on his bleeding wounds.

The video was given to ABC by one of Issa’s former business associates, who is suing over various business deals.  The man claims to have evidence of 25 other cases of torture by Issa. The UAE’s interior minister — who happens to also be Issa’s brother — acknowledged that the man on the tape was him. Issa has been put under house arrest pending investigation, which is extremely rare for a member of the royal family. It will take a lot more than a skyscraper to erase this stain from the family’s reputation.


HO/AFP/Getty Images

Dad: North Korean leader Kim Jong Il

Age: 38

Bad behavior: Growing up can’t be easy when your father is an eccentric, nuclear-armed egomaniac, especially knowing that your actress mother was forced to divorce her husband and marry him after the Dear Leader got a crush. You can’t really blame Kim Jong Nam for wanting to get away for a while, but an ill-advised trip to Disneyland proved to be the prodigal son’s downfall.
In 2001, Nam, along with his wife and son, was arrested at Tokyo’s Narita airport for trying to enter Japan with a fake Dominican passport bearing the name Pang Xiong, which means “Fat Bear” in Chinese. He reportedly told police, “I wanted to go to Disneyland.”

The incident was a major humiliation for Nam’s father, who at the time was riding a rare wave of good press after a visit to Europe and a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Nam was reportedly being groomed as a possible successor, but fell out of favor after his failed bid to meet Mickey. Nam’s younger brother Kim Jong Un is reportedly now next in line.

A man believed to be Nam gave an interview to a Japanese TV station while on a gambling vacation in Macau last month and said he is “not interested” in who will become ruler. Nam denied he had been exiled, saying he was just in Macau for fun.



Dad: Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi

Age: 33

Bad behavior: Colonel Qaddafi has changed his tune quite a bit in recent years, leading a diplomatic offensive to remake his country’s image and improve relations with the West. But his biggest obstacle in this quest may be his hard-partying son Hannibal, who has cut a swathe of destruction across Western Europe worthy of his namesake.

Hannibal first popped up on police radar screens in 2004 when he was pulled over by Paris police for driving his Porsche 90 miles per hour on the wrong side of the Champs Élysées while drunk. Hannibal, who was studying business in Copenhagen at the time, was released due to diplomatic immunity. Two months later, police were called to a Paris hotel after Hannibal started beating his girlfriend. The younger Qaddafi pulled out a handgun, which was promptly confiscated by police. After he was released, police were again called when Hannibal started breaking furniture at another hotel. He was later charged with assault.

Not having learned his lesson about luxury hotels and aggravated assault, Hannibal was arrested in Switzerland last year for beating two of his servants at a hotel in Geneva. Muammar responded as any concerned father would — by lodging a formal diplomatic protest and expelling Swiss diplomats.



Dad: Chinese President Hu Jintao (shown right, meeting with Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba in better times)

Age: 38

Bad behavior: Until this year, few outside of China had ever heard of Haifeng. The president of the industrial scanner company Nuctech, he likely used his father’s connections to make his fortune, winning a lucrative contract to supply security scanners to China’s airports. Until this month, he had mostly kept his name out of the papers. Then, in July, Namibia’s government named Nuctech as the target of a major corruption investigation.

Namibian prosecutors have accused Nuctech of bribing officials to win a contract to supply the country’s airports and customs stations with scanners. Although Haifeng has not been named as a suspect, Namibia’s prosecutor general has personally traveled to Bejing to request that he testify in the trial as a witness.

The case capped off a bad month for Hu Jintao, who had been forced to return from home from the G-8 summit in Rome to deal with riots in Xinjiang. Since news of the scandal broke, there’s been a near-complete media blackout on the story in China.  The government has reportedly instructed search engines to “show no search results for all the keywords: Hu Haifeng, Namibia, Namibia bribery investigation, Nuctech bribery investigation, southern Africa bribery investigation.” The fact that Haifeng’s brother-in-law is the founder of China’s largest search engine should help.


AFP/Getty Images

Mom: Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher

Age: 56

Bad behavior: The Iron Lady’s dilettante son first made headlines in 1982 when he got lost in the Sahara Desert for four days while competing in the Paris-Dakar motor rally. But the accident-prone young man, who failed his accountancy exams three times, later acquired a fortune by parlaying his mother and his heiress wife’s contacts into a number of lucrative ventures in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

In 2004, Sir Mark was arrested in his home in Cape Town, South Africa, for violating the country’s anti-mercenary laws by financing an attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea. Thatcher denies any knowledge of the coup plot but later admitted chartering a helicopter used by the mercenaries, supposedly without any knowledge of their intentions. He was fined $500,000 and left South Africa.

Thatcher has had trouble finding a new place to settle. He was denied a visa to travel to the United States after admitting his role in the coup, and even Monaco — famously a “sunny place for shady people” — denied his application for residency in the midst of a campaign to clean up its image.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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