Tatiana Serafin 08.20.08, 11:00 PM ET
Earlier this year, Nepal voted to eliminate its 240-year-old Hindu monarchy, and former king Gyanendra was forced to turn over his royal palace in Kathmandu, which has become a museum.
So far the 15 rulers on our list have held on to their riches, despite controversy ranging from tax evasion to the dissolution of parliaments in Swaziland and Kuwait. As a group, the world’s 15 richest royals have increased their total wealth to $131 billion, up from $95 billion last year.
At the top of our list is Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, whose $35 billion estimated net worth is up sevenfold as a result of increased transparency of his Crown Property Holdings. He takes the top spot from the only other Asian monarch on the list, the Sultan of Brunei, worth $20 billion, one of only two rulers worth less than they were last year. The sultan, who inherited the riches of an unbroken 600-year-old Muslim dynasty, has had to cut back on his country’s oil production because of depleting reserves.
The other loser was Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, now worth $1.5 billion, down from last year’s $2 billion. A serious drought has slowed the country’s economic growth to 2%.
No such problems for the six rulers from Middle Eastern countries, who have been raking in cash, largely from oil. The region’s richest, Abu Dhabi‘s Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, comes in again at No. 2 on our list, with an estimated net worth of $23 billion. Abu Dhabi is home to 95% of the United Arab Emirate’s oil deposits, the source of the Sheikh’s wealth. The tiny emirate is also making news because of high-profile investments by its state-owned investment vehicle including a $7.5 billion investment in Citibank.
Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, with a net worth of $18 billion, is the majority shareholder of Dubai Holding, which has investments in companies such as Sony (nyse: SNE – news – people ) and defense contractor EADS. His country’s investment fund recently paid $5 billion for a stake in MGM Mirage (nyse: MGM – news – people ) and $825 million to purchase retailer Barneys New York.
Things are thornier for Prince Hans-Adam II of Liechtenstein, sixth on our list with an estimated net worth of $5 billion. A major source of his net worth, LGT bank, which his family has run for 70 years, is the focus of a tax evasion scandal for allegedly helping wealthy clients hide their money. A U.S. Senate investigation claims that his brother, Prince Phillip, met with suspected tax dodgers in his role as LGT chairman.
The last remaining bachelor among these wealthy royals, Prince Albert II of Monaco, is rumored to be putting his girlfriend through French immersion classes. His net worth is estimated to be $1.4 billion and includes high-priced real estate and a stake in a casino in the tiny principality. He is planning to extend the nation, the size of New York’s Central Park, by building a new district out into the sea that will be erected on giant pillars. Environmentalists are concerned.
Meanwhile, succession planning is the talk of the town with the two queens on our list. Belgium’s Queen Beatrix, ranked 14th, is rumored to be considering abdicating in favor of her son, while the U.K.’s Queen Elizabeth, ranked 12th, plans to keep on ruling, thwarting the hopes of her son Prince Charles to get a shot at the throne any time soon.
The only ruler who doesn’t preside over a geographic territory is the Aga Kahn; he is the spiritual leader of the world’s dispersed 15 million Ismaili Muslims. The equestrian, whose net worth is estimated at $1 billion, recently purchased a stake in Britain’s largest horse auction house.
Keep in mind that the wealth of the royals comes from inheritances or positions of power; it is often shared with extended families and often represents money controlled by them in trust for their nation or territory. For these reasons, none of the 15 royals on this list would qualify for our annual ranking of the world’s billionaires, regardless of their net worth.
Because of technical and idiosyncratic oddities in the exact relationship between individual and state wealth, these estimates are perforce a blend of art and science.
For instance, Swaziland’s King Mswati III is the beneficiary of two funds created by his father in trust for the Swazi nation. While he holds power he has absolute discretion over use of the income, which has allowed him to build palaces for each of his 13 wives and throw himself lavish birthday parties, including his recent one celebrating his 40th birthday at a reported $2.5 million cost.
In the U.K., however, royal items such as Buckingham Palace and the British crown jewels are considered to belong to the British nation, not Queen Elizabeth, and as such are not counted in her net worth. Instead, her wealth is derived from property in England and Scotland, fine art, gems and a stamp collection built by her grandfather.
While we have tracked the fortunes of a few high-profile royals, like the Queen of England and Sultan of Brunei, for years, this is only the second time we have published a definitive list of the richest royals. Monarchs of such countries as Spain and Japan failed to make the cut.
No. 1: King Bhumibol Adulyadej
Net worth: $35 billion
The world’s longest-reigning monarch is revered as a deity. His Crown Property Bureau, through which he holds wealth, granted unprecedented access this year, revealing vast landholdings, including 3,493 acres in Bangkok. He also owns stakes in the publicly listed Siam Cement and Siam Commercial Bank. He recently increased investment in Deves Insurance in order to take it private. While the crown remains technically separate from state, the king exerts enormous influence and is thought to have given his implicit blessing to the 2006 coup that overthrew former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
No. 2: Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan
United Arab Emirates
Net worth: $23 billion
President of the UAE and hereditary ruler of its capital emirate, Abu Dhabi. UAE is home to one-tenth of world’s oil reserves; petrodollars-dollars are the president’s family’s original source of wealth. His real estate also is becoming more valuable, as property values rose 100% from 2005 to 2007. Sheikh Khalifa spent more than $1 billion–including $200 million on a Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim museum–on branding Abu Dhabi as a cultural center. Abu Dhabi Investment Authority recently made headlines by investing $7.5 billion in Citibank and buying New York’s Chrysler Building for $800 million.
No. 3: King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz
Net worth: $21 billion
Ascended to the throne August 2005; soon after, construction began on a $26 billion city named in his honor, which the government hopes will become the new economic epicenter of the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is now earning approximately $1 billion a day from oil exports, helping boost the royal family’s fortune. The king is an avid horseman and breeds Arabian horses; he founded the Equestrian Club in Riyadh.
No. 4: Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah
Net worth: $20 billion
Crowned 40 years ago after his father’s voluntary abdication, the 29th sultan of Brunei is heir to an unbroken 600-year-old Muslim dynasty and rules concurrently as its prime minister, defense minister, finance minister and head of religion. The sultan’s wealth is based on oil and gas reserves, but with oil fields set to dry up in 10 years, production has been cut. He is currently battling with brother Prince Jefri over allegedly misappropriated assets; an arrest warrant was issued for Prince Jefri this summer when he reportedly failed to appear in a U.K. court to address charges.
No. 5: Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid
Al Maktoum Dubai
Net worth: $18 billion
Ruler of Dubai, an emirate of the UAE. Sheikh Mohammed is a majority shareholder of Dubai Holding, a conglomerate with stakes in HSBC Holdings and Sony, as well as real estate holdings, including New York’s Essex House Hotel. A formidable figure in horse racing, he owns a 3,800-acre farm in Kentucky and bought Australia’s Ingham stud farm for reported $460 million. Dubai’s sovereign wealth fun recently paid $5 billion for a piece of MGM Mirage and $825 million to purchase retailer Barneys New York outright.
No. 6: Prince Hans-Adam II von und zu Liechtenstein
Net worth: $5 billion
Heads the tiny Alpine principality. His family’s bank, LGT, its most valuable asset, is the focus of a tax scandal for allegedly helping wealthy clients hide their money. A U.S. Senate investigation claims that his brother Prince Philipp met with suspected tax dodgers in his role as LGT chairman. Other holdings include an estimated 20,000 hectares of land in Austria; several 17th-century palaces in central Vienna; RiceTec, a producer of genetically engineered rice in the U.S.; and a 400-year-old art collection.
No. 7: Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani
Net worth: $2 billion
Became ruler after deposing his father in a bloodless coup in 1995. Sheikh Hamad spearheaded the development of Qatar’s vast oil and natural gas reserves. He is currently making money from LNG commissions, with contracts with Korea, Belgium and Taiwan. The country now has the highest per-capita income in the world. A graduate of Britain’s Sandhurst Military Academy, Sheikh Hamad also oversaw the modernization of Qatar’s armed forces. Provided key start-up capital for Al Jazeera and its English sister station.
No. 8: King Mohammed VI
Net worth: $1.5 billion
Ascended to the throne in 1999. Wealth derives from phosphate mining, agriculture and stake in Morocco’s largest public company ONA. Morocco’s economic growth has slowed to 2% in the face of a serious drought, putting a serious dent in the royal fortune. Still, palaces reported to have an operating budget of almost $1 million a day. The king is making an effort to alleviate poverty and improve human rights. Last April, he pardoned eight Moroccan activists imprisoned for chanting anti-monarchy slogans.
No. 9: Prince Albert II
Net worth: $1.4 billion
Took over 700-year Grimaldi-family reign of Monaco in 2005. Inherited a fortune that includes real estate, art, antique cars, stamps and a stake in Monte Carlo’s casino, Société des Bains de Mer. An environmentalist, Prince Albert drives a hybrid car and has pushed for CO-2 reduction, but a controversial expansion of Monaco, with plans to build a new district on the sea (apparently to be erected on giant pillars), has opponents claiming the project would create an underwater desert. The eligible bachelor is reportedly sending girlfriend to French immersion classes.
No. 10: Sultan Qaboos bin Said
Net worth: $1.1 billion
Assumed the throne in 1970 after overthrowing his father, who had kept the prince under house arrest for six years. His fortune is up this year, thanks to an oil surplus; he is investing part of the surplus in tourism. The divorced sultan has donated millions to restore Oman’s mosques and is a classical music fan. He reportedly owns a 500-foot yacht.