Imagine a distant island part of a crescent-shaped archipelago. Atop a hill there sits an enormous pink palace with dozens of rooms, gardens and a heliport. Everyday the household staff wake up to maintain the property, cleaning rooms and dusting off the Louis XIV furniture. The hedges are trimmed. Seasons pass and every year the same routines continue while they wait for the owner to arrive. Maybe for this particular palace, a butler and a maid get married, have children who grow into adults, while they get old and die without the sheikh ever arriving. They spent their life waiting for their princely host to visit his gorgeous palace, but he never does. So vast are his holdings and homes that this one slips from view, forgotten among the horde of treasure.
That's what I think of when I imagine the unbelievable wealth of Gulf royal families. And yet, when we think of the richest people in the world, the only place to look is the Forbes Billionaire List, which they say contains the world's "richest" people. Read the fine print and you'll see why the use of a superlative in the description is inappropriate. First published in 1987, their list is comprised only of people with publicly known wealth. The 2021 list identifies Jeff Bezos ($177 billion, Amazon) and Elon Musk ($151 billion, Tesla) as the top two richest people. Of course, you can't blame them for limiting their criteria. There's no way to objectively create a true list of the world's actually richest people (but as you'll see below, we're going to try!).
The Gulf royal families are a perfect example of the shortcomings of the public wealth criteria. They haven’t and will never disclose their net worth. Why should they? Where is the boundary between what's their wealth and their country's? Do citizens of Saudi Arabia or Kuwait actually have literal a stake in that wealth? I'd argue they don't. They are rewarded at the discretion of the royals.
Introduction aside, let us announce to you our own initiative to discover the identifies of the world's richest people. At Whale Hunting, we're going to spend the next few months identifying candidates and explaining our thinking for why they might be a contender for the terrifying and powerful position as the actual wealthiest person on earth.
And we want help from everyone out there: OSINT researchers, investigative journalists, concierge staff to the super-rich, yacht captains, bankers and anyone who loves a challenging dig. We're going "WHALE HUNTING," which in this case means identifying those hidden gazillionaires who actually make the world go round. No country or topic is off limits. We're ready to go anywhere.
Why? The reason goes to a core belief here at Project Brazen. Money matters. It's the closest thing to liquid power. Following its flows is the best tool journalists have to understand what's really going on out there. No surprise that there's a global industry trying to route money through complex arrays of shell companies and trusts. Secrecy Inc. is dedicated to preserving that power and shielding the rest of us from understanding who has it and how they're wielding it.
In a way, we don't need to worry too much about Jeff Bezos. He's out in the spotlight and every move he makes -- every dollar he spends -- has the potential to be scrutinized. The people we should be worried about might fly completely under the radar or simply exist in a world where nothing they do is accountable.
My friend Jason Sharman, author of the brilliant Despot's Guide to Wealth Management, says hidden billions are also important for understanding just how bad inequality is in the world. If it's already shockingly high when you only count publicly-visible wealth, it's many times worse when you count the secret wealth, too.
"Rich people are much richer than they look," he said. What's more, it's a measure of who's potentially pulling the strings in politics and policy.
"Wealth is correlated with power," he told me.
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