Which Countries are Oligarchies and Their History

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. It 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. But he's just part of an oligarchy that has ruled the country since the 1400s.

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.

The U.S. Treasury released a list of 200 Russian oligarches. It included Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev and aluminum czar Oleg Deripaska. Treasury insists it isn't a sanctions list, but it make oligarches 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 system hasn't changed much since then because it works. It operates regardless of whether communists or capitalists run the country. 

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.


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 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 archenemy Iran from profiting from the nuclear peace treaty. 
  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.

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.

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 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.