Many of the world’s richest countries are also the world’s smallest.
Some very tiny and very rich countries—like Luxembourg, Singapore and Hong Kong—benefit from having sophisticated financial sectors and tax administrations that help attract foreign investments and skilled talent. Others like Qatar and Brunei have large reserves of hydrocarbons or other lucrative natural resources.
But what do we mean when we say a country is “rich,” especially in an era of growing income inequality between the rich and everyone else? While gross domestic product (GDP) measures the value of all goods and services produced in a nation, dividing this output by the number of full-time residents is a better way of determining how rich or poor one country’s population is relative to another’s. The reason why “rich” often equals “small” then becomes clear: these countries’ economies are disproportionately large compared to their small populations.
Nonetheless, only when taking into account inflation rates and the cost of local goods and services can we get a more accurate picture of a nation’s average standard of living: the resulting figure is what is called purchasing power parity (PPP), which is often expressed international dollars to allow comparisons between different countries.
Should we automatically infer that in nations where this figure is particularly high the overall population is visibly better off than in most other places in the world? Not quite. We are dealing with averages and in any given country, structural inequality can tip the balance in favor of the already privileged.
The COVID-19 pandemic hoisted the veil on these disparities in ways few could have ever predicted. While there is no doubt that the wealthiest nations—often more vulnerable to the coronavirus due to their older population and other risk factors—had the resources to take better care of those in need, not everyone had equal access to them. Not only that, the economic downturn hit low-paid workers harder than those with high-paying occupations. A new kind of inequality emerged too: some people have been able to work from home, some others lost their livelihood and found themselves without much of a safety net—large holes in the most celebrated welfare systems in the world were exposed.
To be sure, when a crisis of such unprecedented magnitude takes place, you’d rather be where welfare and social services can offer a degree of assistance and hospitals have reliable electricity access. In the 10 world’s poorest countries, according to data from the International Monetary Fund, the average per-capita purchasing power is less than $1,200, in the 10 richest is close to $80,000.
However, there is one more reason to be wary of accepting such economic prosperity at face value. The IMF has warned repeatedly that certain numbers should be taken with a grain of salt. For example, many nations in our ranking are tax havens, which means wealth originally generated in other countries ends up inflating their GDP because of sophisticated accounting and legal practices. More broadly, it is estimated that over 15% of global jurisdictions are tax havens and that about 40% of global foreign direct investment flows are so-called “phantom” transactions, financial investments passing through empty corporate shells with no real influence on a country’s economy and people’s financial wellbeing. Add to that the unequal distribution of resources, and it becomes easy to understand why even in very rich countries live very poor people.
THE 10 RICHEST COUNTRIESI N THE WORLD
Current International Dollars: 58,932
Jantelovenm, meaning “the law of Jante,” refers to a moral concept popular in Denmark and other Nordic countries. It emphasizes the wellbeing of the society over individuality and personal ambition, making equality a central component of interpersonal relations and policy decisions. That also explains why when we say that the per-capita purchasing of the average Danish is close to $60,000 the statement it truer than in the case of those countries where few have a lot and many have a lot less.
The Kingdom of Denmark has a modern and internationally competitive service-based economy, which also means that during the pandemic both household and public finances were less impacted in comparison to nations relying heavily on manufacturing activities, tourism or petroleum products exports. Its 5.8 million citizens enjoy high employment rates and wages, an efficient social security system, and routinely topping the world’s happiest countries ranking.
9. Hong Kong SAR
Current International Dollars: 59,519
A former British colony, this special administrative region of China is a gateway to the mainland and Asia’s top financial center. The economy of Hong Kong is characterized by low taxation and no capital gains or inheritance levies, no tariffs on the import or export of goods and full ownership of their business for foreigners with no citizenship, residency or nationality requirements.
As a result, this tiny island of just 1,104 square kilometers (427 square miles) is extremely rich as a whole. This is not to say that all of its 7.5 million residents are: according to government statistics one in five lives below the poverty line. All the while, Hong Kong contends with New York for the title for the city with the largest number of ultra high-net-worth individuals in the world, about 9,000 people with $30 million or more in net worth.
Remarkably, the widening income inequality has also been a contributing factor to the political unrest that roiled Hong Kong since 2019, disrupting businesses and spooking foreign investors. Thanks to the pandemic, the economy contracted last year by 6.1%, the sharpest decline on record.
8. Brunei Darussalam
Current International Dollars: 62,371
1,788 rooms, including 257 bathrooms, a banquet hall that can accommodate up to 5,000 guests, a mosque for 1,500 people, an air-conditioned stable for 200 polo ponies, 5 pools and 18 elevators: this is where Hassanal Bolkiah, the Sultan of Brunei, lives and gets his habitual $20,000 haircut. His fortune—derived from the immense reserves of oil and natural gas of the country—is estimated at about $28 billion, more than 50 times that of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth.
Yet, it is not all roses in the sultanate, and not just because Bolkiah is no longer the wealthiest monarch in the world, a title he held for many years (Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn is about $15 billion richer). Despite the monarch’s opulence, and an on-paper per-capita purchasing power of over $60,000, malnutrition in Brunei is commonplace. Although data is scarce, it has been estimated that 40% of its 450,000-strong population earn less than $1,000 a year. Luckily, the country was spared the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic with only a few hundred recorded cases. What it was not spared from was the pandemic-related plunge in oil prices: after registering a 13-year high of 3.9% economic growth in 2019, GDP growth fell to 1.2% in 2020.
7. United States
Current International Dollars: 63,415
Did we say that the richest countries are also the smallest? That is not the case, of course, of the United States, which during a very difficult 2020 still managed to climb to the top 10 of the list after teetering on its edges for the best part of the last two decades.
But did Americans truly get richer during the pandemic? It depends on whom you ask. Certainly, not those who lost their jobs and businesses, who found themselves with astronomical medical bills and other expenses to pay, lined up at food banks. However, those in top in quintile of the population and earning over $60,000 a year managed in many cases to keep working from home, saw their stock investments grow in value, and received stimulus checks on top of that.
Yet another story is how the super-rich fared during the health crisis. Between March 2020 and April 2021, according to the Institute for Policy Studies, the collective wealth of American’s 719 billionaires leapt by $1.62 trillion, or 55%, from $2.95 trillion to $4.56 trillion. They now hold over four times more wealth than the roughly 165 million Americans in society’s bottom half. In 1990, the think tank says, the situation was reversed—billionaires were worth $240 billion and the bottom 50% had $380 billion in combined wealth.
In other words, if you are an American and your income is a fraction of the average GDP per capita, it is fair to argue that someone else is probably eating your proverbial lunch.
Current International Dollars: 65,800
Since the discovery of large offshore reserves in the late 1960s, Norway’s economic engine has been fueled by oil. As western Europe’s top petroleum producer, the country has benefitted for decades from rising prices. Not anymore: prices crashed at the beginning of 2020, then the global pandemic ensued—and the krone was sent in freefall. The Norwegian economy contracted by 2.5% last year, the biggest annual decline in half a century and possibly since World War Two.
Does it mean that today Norwegians are significantly less wealthy than they were just a couple of years ago? Probably not and GDP growth is already projected to rebound in 2021 to 3.9%.
Furthermore, when it comes to any economic problem fate might throw at them, Norwegians can always count on their $1.3 trillion sovereign wealth fund, the world’s largest. Yet Norwegians know that with great wealth comes great responsibility: unlike many other rich nations, high per capita GDP figures are truly a reflection of people’s financial wellbeing since Norway has amongst the lowest income inequality gaps in the world.
Current International Dollars: 72,873
White chocolate, the bobsleigh and—of course—the Swiss Army knife. But also the computer mouse, the immersion blender, velcro and LSD. The list just goes and on: these are only some of the inventions that Switzerland has contributed to the world. Today, however, this country of about 8.6 million owes much his wealth to its banking and insurance services and to tourism, as well as to exports such as pharmaceuticals products, gems and precious metals, precision instruments and machineries (from watches, to medical apparatuses and computers).
Is it really a surprise that Switzerland has the highest density of millionaires in the world? According to the most recent estimates, for every 100,000 residents there are 9,428 of them (billionaires included)—the 11.8% of the total considering just the adult population.
All that money, however, could not shield the Swiss economy from the effects of Covid-19: in 2020 production declined by 2.9%. Yet, things could also have been worse, especially when we consider that in Italy, Spain, France and Germany the contraction has been respectively of 8.8%, 10.9%, 8.2% and 4.9%.
To what do we owe the difference? According to the IMF, to a swift and sustained policy response through emergency spending and containment measures, but also to the make-up of the Swiss economy itself, with its solid public and household finances, competitive export industries, and low dependency on contact-intensive sectors.
Current International Dollars: 93,508
It’s not only the oversupply and demand crisis of last year and the exacerbating effect of COVID-19: oil prices have been in steady and sometimes dramatic decline since the mid-2010s. The per-capita GDP of a Qatari citizen was over $143,222 in 2014, it was “just” $97,846 a year later, and nowadays it is even lower than that.
Still, the country’s oil, gas and petrochemical reserves are so large, and its population so small—just 2.8 million—that this marvel of ultramodern architecture, luxury shopping malls and fine cuisine has managed to top the list of the world’s richest nations for 20 years.
Yet, with only about 12% of the residents being Qatari nationals, the country—similarly to many other Gulf states—saw COVID-19 spreading especially among low-income migrant workers living in crowded quarters at furious speed. Quarantines, curfews and lockdowns have been imposed more than once, yet Qatar suffered one of the highest rates of positive cases in the region.
Even so, the economy has showed a certain resilience (it contracted by a relatively modest 2.6% in 2020) and is now projected to rebound amid a rise in gas production and investment in preparation for the 2022 World Cup.
Current International Dollars: 94,391
Until recently, Ireland seemed unstoppable. While the rest of Europe was facing all sort of uncertainties (Brexit, trade tensions with the U.S., refugee and migrant crises to name a few), the Irish economy just kept humming along: in 2019, while the Eurozone grew only 1.2%, it expanded by over 5.9%, consolidating its role as the fastest-growing country on the continent. That all changed in 2020: economic growth more than halved from the previous levels, although it is expected to rebound nicely this year.
A nation of fewer than 5 million inhabitants, Ireland was one of the hardest hit by the 2008 financial crisis. Following some politically difficult reform measures like deep cuts to public-sector wages and restructuring its banking industry, the island nation regained its fiscal health, boosted its employment rates and saw its per capita GDP almost double in a short amount of time.
Do citizens feel twice as rich as 10 years ago? Probably not: Ireland is one of the world’s largest corporate tax havens, with ordinary people benefitting far less than multinationals do. And while they are undoubtedly better off than they used to be, according to data from the OECD the national household per-capita disposable income is actually lower than the overall member countries’ average, about $25,300 a year versus $33,600. Furthermore, with the planned withdrawal of government pandemic supports leaving around 100,000 more people jobless than before the pandemic, the country’s unemployment rate is expected to climb to 8.1% from its current 5.8%. With a considerable gap between the richest and poorest (the top 20% of the population earns almost five times as much as the bottom 20%) most families would balk at the idea that they are wealthy.
Current International Dollars: 97,056
With an estimated net-worth of $23 billion, restaurateur Zhang Yong is the richest person living in Singapore; the 93-year-old Goh Cheng Liang, the founder of one the world’s largest paint manufacture, is a close second with his $21.7 billion fortune. In third place with assets of about $15 billion (to some people’s surprise) is Eduardo Saverin, the co-founder of Facebook, who in 2011 left the U.S. with 53 million shares of the company and became a permanent resident of the island nation. Saverin did not choose it just for its urban attractions or natural gateways: Singapore is an affluent fiscal haven where capital gains and dividends are tax-free.
But how did Singapore become so prosperous? When the city-state became independent in 1965, one-half of its population was illiterate. With virtually no natural resources, Singapore pulled itself up by its bootstraps through hard work and smart policy, becoming one of the most business-friendly places in the world. Today, Singapore is a thriving trade, manufacturing and financial hub (most importantly, 98% of the adult population is now literate). That is not as saying that it has been immune from the effects of the global downturn: in 2020 the economy plummeted a record 5.4%, knocking the country into recession for the first time in more than a decade.
Current International Dollars: 118,001
You can visit Luxembourg for its castles and beautiful countryside, its cultural festivals or gastronomic specialties. Or you could just set up an offshore account through one of its banks and never set foot again, as many do. It would a pity though: situated at the very heart of Europe, this nation of about 625,000 has plenty to offer, both to its tourists and its citizens. Luxembourg uses a large share of its wealth to deliver better housing, healthcare and education to its people, who by far enjoy the highest standard of living in the Eurozone.
Yet, while both the global financial crisis and the pressure from the EU and OECD to reduce banking secrecy have had little impact on the economy, the coronavirus outbreak forced many businesses to close and workers to lose their jobs.
Still, through effective testing and contact tracing measures, Luxembourg has weathered the pandemic better than most of its European neighbors. As a result, in 2021 the grand duchy’s GDP will rebound by 4% from -1.3% in 2020. The country topped the $100,000 mark in per capita GDP in 2014 and has never looked back ever since. Even the pandemic couldn’t change that.
|9||Hong Kong SAR||59,520|
|11||United Arab Emirates||58,753|
|16||Taiwan Province of China||55,724|
|59||Trinidad and Tobago||25,031|
|63||St. Kitts and Nevis||20,987|
|73||Antigua and Barbuda||18,618|
|83||Bosnia and Herzegovina||15,047|
|100||St. Vincent and the Grenadines||12,606|
|138||West Bank and Gaza||5,388|
|150||Republic of Congo||4,188|
|153||Papau new Guinea||3,833|
|154||São Tomé and Príncipe||3,829|
|189||Democratic Republic of Congo||1,106|
|191||Central African Republic||979|