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Where Egyptian President Mubarak’s money comes from

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Kai Ryssdal: Back to Egypt, for a bit. While that country’s economy is coming very slowly back to life — as people get accustomed to near-constant protests — one person who’s certainly not hurting economically is the man the protests are directed against. Depending on what you read, Hosni Mubarak is worth many millions, quite possibly billions, of dollars.

Christopher Davidson is a professor of Middle East politics at Durham University in England. Welcome to the program.

Christopher Davidson: Thank you.

Ryssdal: Is there an easy and accessible way to figure out how much Hosni Mubarak is worth?

Davidson: No, absolutely not. All of the figures we’ve seen in the press over the last week are speculation. Admittedly, some educated guesses along the way. I would have thought that if we had been able to have some proper investigation and come up with a figure, then the very highly paid and very smart people who have been employed by the Mubarak family to secrete and store the wealth overseas won’t have done their job.

Ryssdal: Well however he much he has, then, how did he get it?

Davidson: Well I think this is — if you excuse the expression — a pyramid of wealth that’s been built up over the years. Of course, Mubarak began his time and influence as a military man before he even became president, of course. Back then it seems a lot of deals — both with the West and the Soviet Union — kickbacks on many of these contracts that were signed, kickbacks all the way up to the top. Much of that wealth seems to have been invested overseas. A traditional way to store this wealth, for many Arab elites, is to put it in mature Western real estate, in particular in London and the United States. And the indications are that Mubarak has done exactly that. Alongside all of that real estate investment, there will be the good old-numbered bank accounts, most likely in Switzerland, too.

Ryssdal: Has he turned this into family wealth for his spouse and his children?

Davidson: Well that seems to be part of the tension at the moment in Egypt. That it’s not so much Mubarak himself, who has been fairly discreet over the years, and after all he is a military man by background. It rather seems to perhaps be his wife and his sons who have been a little bit more ostentatious with the wealth. And the sons, in particular, have built up these business empires.

Ryssdal: It’s not as easy as it used to be for dictators to fade into posterity with their bank accounts in tact. If President Mubarak eventually does go, does his money go with him or will it be able to be recouped in some way?

Davidson: I think given the recent ruling, the former Haiti dictator “Baby Doc” — he’s not getting his hand in Swiss bank accounts and that’s being returned to the legitimate government of Haiti. I’m sure that Mubarak is well aware of this in Egypt. I’m sure at the moment Mubarak is doing everything he can to move things around wherever it is in the world, so that he can get his hands on it if he needs to leave. Another way of perhaps looking at this is that he cannot afford to be just ousted because then he is no longer seen as a legitimate president who stepped down, so he does need to leave gracefully and this may explain some of the delays in Egypt at the moment.

Ryssdal: I imagine if you go down into Tahrir Square and talk to some of those protesters, they don’t care about the money, they just want him gone.

Davidson: I think they want him gone. I think, though, that as it becomes increasingly clear that Mubarak and his genre in the Middle East have very much been accumulating this wealth, I think there will be cries to have some of this repatriated to the country — especially given that Egypt, like Yemen, Tunisia, etc. all have fairly low GDP per capitas, and quite a chunk of the population are living below the poverty line.

Ryssdal: Christopher Davidson, he’s a professor of Middle East politics at Durham University over in England. Professor, thank you so much for your time.

Davidson: Thank you. You’re welcome.

Ryssdal: We’ll have more tomorrow from our Economy 4.0 correspondent David Brancaccio on what’s being done to stop dictators from cashing in when they’re deposed. And we’ll go back to Jordan to see what life’s like for those on the other end of the power and money continuum.

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