Oligarchy Countries, with Examples from History and Today

Oligarchs You Should Know

Image shows outlines of the U.S., Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and China. Text reads:

Image by Alex Dos Diaz © The Balance 2019

An oligarchy is a power structure that allows a few businesses, families, or individuals to rule a country. Their power flows through their relationships with each other. An oligarchy can coexist with a democracy, theocracy, or kingdom. Their wealth and connections allow them to influence public policy behind the scenes.

Here's a list of the countries that have the most evidence of being oligarchies, and why.



Many people think Vladimir Putin is in charge of Russia. But he's just part of an oligarchy that has ruled the country since the 1400s. To be rich in Russia, you must have contacts within the government. If you don't maintain these contacts, you can lose your power. As a result, many Russian billionaires buy assets in other countries. There, the rule of law protects their property.

Today's exclusive club includes Igor Sechin, the chief of Rosneft, the state oil company. His main rival is 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. These are just three of a list of Russian oligarchs from A to Z.

In January 2018, the U.S. Treasury released a list of 200 Russian oligarchs. It included Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev and aluminum czar Oleg Deripaska. Treasury insists it isn't a sanctions list, but it makes oligarchs nervous anyway.

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 conflicts. Moscow became the hub of a comprehensive centralized system. It needed to control the people who were spread out across a vast territory rich in natural resources.

The Russian oligarchy hasn't changed much since the 1400's because it works. It operates regardless of whether communists or capitalists run the country.


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. 

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 son in key positions to consolidate power. Prince Mohammed bin Salman became defense minister and given oversight of the state oil monopoly, Saudi Aramco. In 2015, the two 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 the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries' $70 floor. They wanted to put U.S. shale oil producers out of business. They also want to prevent arch-enemy Iran from profiting from the nuclear peace treaty. 
  3. They cracked down on dissidents to prevent further ISIS terrorism.

This team upset the oligarchy. The successor to King Salman was Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. In 2017, Mohammed bin Salman replaced him as Crown Prince and successor to the throne.


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. 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. 

South Africa

It was an oligarchy from 1948-1993. It was run by Caucasian descendants of Dutch settlers who made up 20% of the population. It ended with the election of Nelson Mandela as the first black president in 1994.


The Koc family is one of the country's wealthiest families. Koc Holdings owns businesses in oil refining, banking, car manufacturing, and electronics. In 2005, it purchased the Tupras oil refining business from the government for $4 billion. Tupras holds a dominant position in Europe's fuel market. The government allows Koc to set fuel prices as long as it supplies Turkey before other countries. Foreign investors learn to work with either the Koc or Sabanci family-owned companies.

They are closely allied with the ruling AKP party. The dynasty was founded by Verbi Koc in the 1920s.

United States

A study by political scientists Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern found that policies favored by the richest 10% of Americans passed more often than those of the poorest 50%. If they oppose a policy, it is unlikely to pass. It doesn't matter how many middle-class Americans favor it.

An example of American oligarchs is the Koch brothers. They influence elections by contributing funds to the Republicans and Libertarians. They support less government intervention, which for them includes open borders and free trade. The Koch Family Foundations donate to conservative advocacy groups. They supported the Tea Party and want to repeal Obamacare. They did not support Donald Trump's candidacy because they oppose his protectionism.

The Koch brothers also oppose new taxes. As a result, they are against any new plans to build mass transit. But they support taxes that fund new roads and bridges. Perhaps it's because Charles and David Koch's net worth of $100 billion was attained through oil derivatives.

Some say the Silicon Valley has created a new class of American oligarchs. For example, Mark Zuckerberg is one of the founders of a new advocacy group, FWD.us. Its board is comprised of tech leaders such as Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Dropbox CEO Drew Houston, and several Silicon Valley investors. Its goal is to push for “comprehensive immigration reform” that would allow cheaper immigrant labor.

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