Lifestyles of the Rich and Tyrannical (Updated)

A tour of dictators' cribs.


Updated on Jan. 14, 2011, following the overthrow of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.


Country: Tunisia

Updated on Jan. 14, 2011, following the overthrow of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.


Country: Tunisia

Lifestyle: There are a number of factors that led to the week of street protests and riots that overwhelmed President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime in January 2011, including widespread unemployment, rising food prices, and restrictions on civil liberties. But one major source of Tunisians’ widespread rage was the conspicuous consumption of Ben Ali’s extended family, particularly the relatives of his second wife, Leila Trabelsi. “No, no to the Trabelsis who looted the budget” was a popular chant among the hundreds of mostly young men who took to the streets of the coastal resort of Hammamet — where the Trabelsis have built a number of opulent beachfront estates — as they ransacked mansions, burned all-terrain vehicles, and even liberated a horse from its stable.

The opulent lifestyles of Ben Ali’s relatives were laid bare in a series of U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, particularly one describing a dinner at the home of his son-in-law, Mohamed Sakhr el-Materi. Materi’s Hammamet mansion featured, among other luxuries, “an infinity pool and a terrace of perhaps 50 meters.” Roman artifacts, which the host insisted were real, abounded, including a “lion’s head from which water pours into the pool.” The ambassador and his wife were fed a massive dinner, including more than a dozen dishes and frozen yogurt flown in by plane from Saint-Tropez.

Materi also owned a pet tiger, which he kept in a cage on his compound and consumed four chickens a day. All in all, the situation reminded U.S. Amb. Robert Codec, who had served as an advisor to the transitional government in Iraq and signed the cable, of Uday Hussein’s opulent lifestyle.

Not content with buying their own luxuries, Ben Ali’s relatives had also taken to appropriating them from others. Another leaked State Department cable describes a 2006 incident in which Imed and Moaz Trabelsi, Ben Ali’s nephews through his wife, reportedly stole a $3 million yacht belonging to a prominent French businessman from a dock in Corsica. The yacht reappeared a short time later in a Tunisian port having been repainted to cover its distinguishing characteristics. The French weren’t fooled, however, and the yacht was returned to defuse a potential diplomatic uproar. Despite an Interpol warrant being issued for their arrest, the two were never punished.


Country: North Korea

Lifestyle: Reliable information about North Korea is hard to come by, but the Dear Leader is thought to have two residences in Pyongyang as well as 10 country chalets throughout North Korea — and there are probably more if you include the country estates that belonged to his late father, Kim Il Sung. Many of these are reportedly connected to each other by private underground rail lines.

One of Kim’s largest homes is a seven-story tower on the beach in South Hamgyong province, said to feature separate floors for Kim’s family members and a unique underwater viewing room, three stories beneath the ocean’s surface.

At another one of his estates, Kim is thought to enjoy body-boarding in an indoor wave pool, accompanied at all times by a young female doctor and nurse. (Whether these two actually have any medical training was a subject of some speculation from the rest of Kim’s entourage, according to a former bodyguard.

At Kim’s Pyongyang residences, he’s known for throwing lavish, all-night drinking parties for his top officials, usually including a bevy of scantily clad young women. Just how trashed do North Korea’s best and brightest get at these events? According to the Hennessy company, the hard-partying leader ordered more than half a million dollars worth of cognac during the 1990s.


Country: Zimbabwe

Lifestyle: Rampant inflation and an unemployment rate that has reached into the 90s haven’t stopped 86-year-old President Robert Mugabe from living out his golden years in style. In 2008, Mugabe completed work on a new $26 million, 25-bath estate in a wealthy suburb of Harare, the country’s capital. Millions more were spent decorating the place, including hiring a team of Middle Eastern artists who worked for a year to design the building’s ceilings. It also comes with the latest in home-security technology — a battery of anti-aircraft missiles donated by China. The project was all the more preposterous because Mugabe’s “official” salary as president is only about $57,000 per year. When asked by a British reporter about the house, Mugabe simply replied, “It is lavish because it’s attractive.”

It was the third mansion built by Mugabe and the fifth he has owned since becoming president. In the late 1990s, his wife Grace caused an uproar when she used government funds meant to build low-cost housing for the poor to build herself a 30-room estate. “Graceland,” as it became known, was later bought by Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi.

Apparently not satisfied with their spreads in Zimbabwe — or perhaps preparing in case they need to make a quick getaway — the Mugabes also spent nearly $6 million on a home in Hong Kong (above right), it was reported in 2009.


Country: Equatorial Guinea

Lifestyle: This West African country has been described as a “parody of an oil kleptocracy,” and that’s certainly true of the jet-setting life of its ruling family.. In addition to the presidential palace in the capital city of Malabo, President Teodoro Obiang has a summer place in Cape Town, South Africa as well as two mansions in Potomac, Maryland. He purchased the first for a cool $2.6 million  in cash in 1999, and it reportedly includes 10 bathrooms, seven fireplaces, and an indoor pool. U.S.-based Riggs Bank financed his purchase of the second Maryland home for $1.15 million the next year, which became the subject of a investigation by the U.S. Congress. Obiang can travel in style between his properties on any his six private planes, one of which reportedly features a king-size bed and a bathroom with gold-plated taps.

Obiang’s oldest son, nicknamed Teodorin, appears to be a chip off the old block, buying himself a fleet of Bentleys and Lamborghinis, properties in Spain and the Canary Islands, a California-based hip-hop label, and a $35 million Malibu mansion on the same street as Mel Gibson and Britney Spears. Not too shabby for a “minister of forestry” making an official salary of about $40,000.


Country: Gabon

Lifestyle: Ali Ben Bongo’s father and predecessor, Omar Bongo, set a high standard for deluxe living, acquiring at least 45 homes in France, including a $27 million villa, a $1.5 million Bugatti sports car, and a dozen other cars over the course of his four decades in power. Members of the Bongo family have become famous for chartering 747s for their Paris shopping sprees.

After taking power in disputed election in 2009, Ali continued the family’s interest in French real estate, shelling out a reported $120 million for an 18th-century mansion in the center of Paris. Located around the corner from the Musée d’Orsay in one of the city’s toniest neighborhoods, the property boasts 4,500 square meters of living space stacked on top of 3,700 square meters of land.

Ali’s Californian wife, Inge, also got in on the act for a while, appearing on the VH1 reality show Really Rich Real Estate, on which she was filmed putting down a $25 million bid for a mansion in Malibu. She also rented a $25,000-a-month home from rap mogul Sean “P. Diddy” Combs but later sued him for landlord neglect. The couple became estranged around five years ago, and Inge now claims to be living on food stamps in the United States.


Country: Burma

Lifestyle: In 2005, Burma’s notoriously secretive and superstitious military leaders moved their base of operations from the traditional capital Yangon (formerly Rangoon) to the unfinished outpost of Naypyidaw. The move was the result of security concerns, superstition (the site was reportedly picked on the advice of astrologers), and likely the junta’s top brass’s desire to live in luxury away from the former capital city’s impoverished masses. Around $2 million was spent on each of the 50 top generals’ houses and presumably millions more on the remote 100-room mansion occupied by Than Shwe, the junta’s leader.

Than Shwe is obsessive about secrecy, but some details have begun to emerge of the dictator’s lavish lifestyle. There are the frequent shopping trips to Singapore made by the first family (which senior general accompany Shwe on these trips are taken by many Burma watchers as a sign of who’s on the way up in the regime). Than Shwe’s 16-year-old grandson is reportedly a member of the Singapore Lamborghini Club. And the junta was embarrassed in 2006 when a 10-minute video was released showing the lavish wedding of Than Shwe’s daughter (above left), Thandar Shwe, including a now-notorious shot of what appear to be diamonds woven into the bride’s hair. The gifts at the party reportedly included cars and houses worth around $50 million.

Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.

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