The Names and History of Oligarchy Countries

Which Countries Are Oligarchies and Why?

oligarchy countries
Saudi Arabia is an oligarchy because the king shares power with other members of his extended family. Photo: Romilly Lockyer/Getty Images

An oligarchy is when a few businesses, families or individuals rule a country. Their power flows through their relationships with each other. An oligarchy can coexist with a democracy, theocracy, or kingdom. Here's a list of the countries that have the most evidence of being oligarchies, and why.


Russia: Many people think Vladimir Putin is in charge of Russia. He's just part of an oligarchy that has ruled the country since the 1400s.

It includes Igor Sechin, the chief of Rosneft (the state oil company). His main rival is another member,Gennady Timchenko, the former head of the country's largest oil trading company. A third is Roman Abramovich, the owner of the Chelsea Football Club and the Millhouse investment company. (See more Russian Oligarchs, A-Z)

Like Putin, the czar owed his power to an aristocratic group of boyars and bureaucrats.  After a devastating civil war, they decided they needed a leader. The czar's role was to mediate disputes and prevent further unprofitable wars. Moscow became the hub of a sweeping centralized system. It needed to control the people who were spread out across a vast territory rich in natural resources. The system hasn't changed much since then because it works. It operates regardless of whether the country is run by Communists or capitalists. (Source: Andrew Weiss, "Russia's Oligarchy, Alive and Well," The New York Times, December 10, 2013)

China: An oligarchy took control of China after the death of Mao Tse-Tung. It is the 103 members of the families descended from the "Eight Immortals." They manage most of the state-owned corporations, collaborate on business deals, and even intermarry. For more, see Tyler Dyden, ZeroHedge, The Octagon of Oligarchy, 12/26/2012.

Saudi Arabia: The Royal Family is an oligarchy since it's not run by any one person. The reigning monarch must share his power with the descendants of the country's founder. That was King Abd al-Aziz al-Sa'ud, who left behind 44 sons and 17 wives. The current king, Salman bin Abdulaziz, appointed his own son in key positions to consolidate power. Prince Mohammed bin Salman is both defense minister and deputy crown prince. In the past year, the two have changed many long-standing policies.

  1. They engaged in a proxy war against Iran in Yemen. They hinted they might send forces into Syria to combat Russia's presence. 
  2. They allowed oil prices to fall below OPEC's $70 floor. They wanted to put U.S. shale producers out of business. They also want to prevent arch-enemy Iran from profiting from the nuclear peace treaty. For more, see Sunni-Shiite Split
  3. They cracked down on dissidents to prevent further ISIS terrorism.

This team could upset the oligarchy. The successor to King Salman is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who is also Interior Minister.  (Source: "Saudi Arabia's King Salman Marks Year of Change," BBC, January 22, 2016.  "Saudi Arabia: A Brief Guide to Its Politics and Problems," Middle East Review of International Affairs, September 2003.

"Running the Saudi Family Business," Bloomberg View, January 23, 2015.)

Iran: An oligarchy of Islamic clerics, relatives, and business associates runs the country. They took power after the demise of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He led the 1979 revolution that ousted Shah Pahlavi oligarchy. Khomeini did not allow his family to rule. But his replacement did. The Ayatollah Ali Khamenei put his friends and family in government positions. The elected President owes his position to these oligarchs. The five Larijani brothers are friends and relatives of Khamenei and his allies. They have become heads of many critical government posts. (Source: "Nepotism and the Larijani Dynasty," PBS, August 2009. Akbar E. Torbat, "Financial Corruption in Iran," California State University.)

South Africa: It was an oligarchy from 1948-1993.

It was run by Caucasian descendants of Dutch settlers who made up 20 percent of the population. It ended with the election of Nelson Mandela as the first black President in 1994.

Turkey: The Koc family is the country's wealthiest family. It owns businesses in oil refining, banking, car manufacturing, and electronics. They are closely allied with the ruling AKP party elite. The dynasty was founded by Verbi Koc in the 1920s.