The world’s wealthiest monarchs have been making a lot of news lately. Queen Elizabeth II made headlines Tuesday when she visited New York City for the first time since 1976. Properly dressed in pearls and a hat, despite the record heat, the Queen stayed long enough — apparently just five hours — to address the U.N. General Assembly and to visit Ground Zero.
Just a few months earlier the Sultan of Brunei made his own splash in the big apple when he reportedly picked up 48 handbags and 24 "duck" umbrellas from the Lederer e Paris store in Manhattan.
Perhaps the biggest news, or shocker, came the third week in June when Prince Albert of Monaco announced his engagement to former South African Olympic swimmer Charlene Wittstock. The longtime bachelor, who took the throne after his father's death in 2005, may have caught wedding fever after attending Sweden's royal wedding earlier in the month, when Crown Princess Victoria married in a lavish ceremony in Stockholm.
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The princely nuptials deflect unwanted attention from a lawsuit brought by U.S. citizen Robert Eringer against Prince Albert for breach of contract. Eringer alleges the Prince hired him in 2002 to be his intelligence advisor to root out "corruption, money laundering and organized crime in Monaco." Asked for comment, the palace said it could not respond at this time. Meanwhile, Albert just hired a new lawyer, Gregory Craig, Obama's White House counsel for his first year in office, who previously represented would-be Reagan assassin John Hinckley Jr. and directed the team defending U.S. president Bill Clinton against impeachment.
The wedding may also help to refill Monaco's coffers. The tiny principality saw a 4 per cent decline in tourism in 2009. In a recent survey released by London-based Barclays Wealth, more than half of Monaco's citizens with over $1 million US to invest expect the economy to deteriorate. So far the prince has managed to hold his own fortune steady at $1 billion (No. 9 on our list) based on Monaco's desirable real estate; he reportedly owns one-fourth of the principality.
Though monarchs largely inherit their riches along with their titles, these royals have been buffeted by an uneven global economic recovery. The threat of sovereign defaults, a weak euro and continuing depression in real estate markets have stymied growth prospects.
Even Queen Elizabeth is feeling the pinch. Her annual stipend of $12 million was frozen in the budget doled out by the newly elected British Parliament. In its annual publication of Royal Finances, Buckingham Palace announced Monday that it reduced spending by more than 3 million pounds, or 12 per cent, in 2009-2010.
"The Royal Household is acutely aware of the difficult economic climate and took early action to reduce its Civil List expenditure by 2.5 per cent in real terms in 2009," said Sir Alan Reid, keeper of the privy purse. "We are implementing a headcount freeze and reviewing every vacancy to see if we can avoid replacement."
Still, don’t worry too much for the queen herself. Though we don’t count the value of Buckingham Palace or the British crown jewels in her fortune (they belong to the nation), the queen does own valuable property in England and Scotland, fine art, gems and a stamp collection, all of which is estimated to be worth a combined $450 million.
It was those valuable assets that allowed her to hold steady this past year despite the economic turmoil facing her country. She and nine others of the world’s 15 richest royals have the same fortune as they did a year ago.
Group's fortune dips
Collectively the group's fortune is down 9 per cent, or $10 billion, to $99 billion. (That is $32 billion below their 2008 sum). This year's drop was primarily due to problems in the United Arab Emirates, the federation of seven emirates including Abu Dhabi and Dubai, which are still suffering from the collapse of real estate markets. Bank America-Merrill Lynch estimates total UAE debt of up to $184 billion with a heavy schedule of repayments through 2013. The UAE announced plans for a federal debt management office in May.
No surprise then that Dubai's Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum fared the worst. His fortune dropped $7.5 billion this year as his Dubai Holding crumbled under a $12 billion debt burden. This comes on the heels of last year's loss of $6 billion, making him the biggest loser on Forbes' annual list of the world's 15 richest royals two years in a row.
To boot, Dubai had to ask for another handout from fellow emirate Abu Dhabi in December, to the tune of $10 billion. Abu Dhabi's ruler, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahayan, though not as heavily indebted, also saw his fortune shrink for the second year in a row, down $3 billion as result of last year's 40 per cent decline in oil export earnings as well as double-digit declines in real estate and stock markets. He falls down a notch to No.4 on the list.
The only other ruler to see his fortune shrink this year is Kuwait's Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al Sabah, who is trying to rein in bickering politicians in order to jump-start the country's stagnant economy. His fortune fell to $350 million, down 12 per cent from last year.
Thailand's King Bhumibol remains the world's richest royal for the third year in a row, despite his country's riots and turmoil. Royal assets are held under Thailand's Crown Property Bureau, which benefited from stock market and real estate gains in 2009. As a result, his fortune remains stable at $30 billion, at least for now. The rioting that broke out in March, led by protesters demanding new elections, may irreparably damage the country's tourism and investment markets.
Only two rulers saw an increase in their fortunes this year. Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah invigorated the economy with his spending plan; the country is projected to record four per cent growth this year. His fortune is up $1 billion to $18 billion, moving him up a notch to No. 3 on the list.
Qatar is expected to do even better: Its economy expanded 9.5 per cent last year and is expected to jump 15 per cent by the end of 2010. As a result, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani's (No. 8) fortune is up $400 million to $2.4 billion. The Emir is leading Qatar's bid for the 2022 World Cup; if accepted, it's the first time the games would be staged in the Middle East.
Royal wealth derives from inheritances or positions of power. All of the richest royals on this list are monarchs and serve as heads of often extended family fortunes. Many times wealth is controlled by royal families in trust for their nations or territories. For these reasons, none of the 15 royals on this list would qualify for our annual ranking of the world's billionaires.
For instance, Swaziland's King Mswati III is the beneficiary of two funds created by his father in trust for the Swazi nation. During his reign he has absolute discretion over use of the income, which has allowed him to build palaces for each of his 13 wives and send them on worldwide shopping sprees.
The only ruler who doesn't preside over a geographic territory is the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the world's dispersed 15 million Ismaili Muslims. His fortune remains at $800 million; he comes in at No.10 on the list.
This is the fourth time we have published a definitive list of the world's richest royals. Monarchs of countries such as Spain and Japan failed to make the cut for the top 15.