Antique Autocrats

Fidel Castro ruled Cuba for forty-seven uninterrupted years—making him the world’s most tenured autocrat—before his grip slipped in August. Below are the next four longest-ruling living dictators. Their experiences suggest that money can buy the people’s love, that power corrupts, and that after too long in the presidential palace, dictators tend to go a bit mad.

40 Years

Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, King of Tonga

The increasingly erratic, eighty-eight-year-old king of this feudal island nation was once the world’s heaviest head of state, at 444 pounds. (He’s since slimmed down to around 280.) Recently, he’s been making cryptic announcements about an unnamed American investor who wants to deposit $1 billion in the Reserve Bank of Tonga, raising fears on the island that the king may be falling for something akin to a Nigerian e-mail scam. Past financial adventures include the hiring of a former American dot-com investor as the king’s “court jester,” then entrusting him with the investment of $26 million in state funds—with predictable results.

39 Years

Sir Hassanal Bolkiah, Sultan and Prime Minister of Brunei

Thanks to oil and gas sales, the sultan, known as the Big One despite his small stature, was once the world’s richest man (worth an estimated $38 billion in 1997). He’s topped other lists as well, living in the world’s largest private residence ($300 million; 1,788 rooms; 4,000-person banquet hall; gold dome), and throwing the most lavish birthday party ($17 million; three performances by Michael Jackson). The spending habits and sexual appetites of the royal family have brought legal and financial troubles to Brunei—among many other embarrassments, a former Miss USA claims she was lured to Brunei by the sultan and his brother Jefri, then gassed and fondled in the palace library. The sultan’s slow-witted son, Prince Haji al-Muhtadee Billah—a product of the sultan’s marriage to his first cousin—is first in line for succession.

38 Years

El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba, President of Gabon

Dubbed the Dean of Africa, this seventy-year-old father of at least thirty children has created a measure of stability and prosperity rare for his corner of the continent, thanks to its natural resources and to an extremely cozy relationship with the protective French petroleum interests and troops that keep order in Gabon. Bongo’s mild cult of personality and election-time handouts (known locally as “electoral francs”) have for the most part tamped down the population’s occasional impulses toward real democracy. But opposition in the restive urban slums, and border fights with Equatorial Guinea over oil reserves (Gabon’s supply is dwindling) threaten to tarnish the last years of his golden reign.
37 Years

Colonel Muammar Abu Minyar al-Qaddafi, Revolutionary Leader of Libya

The colonel (he has never given himself a weightier title, and in keeping with his Bedouin roots still sleeps in a tent, albeit a very nice one) has mellowed since the ’80s when he was running a rogue state and funding terrorists. Stuck with shrinking oil profits, and spurned by many of the Arab leaders he once courted, Qaddafi—who travels with an all-female crew of bodyguards—began to reconcile with the West in the late 1990s. He eventually gave up his nuclear-weapons program, and in May was rewarded with the restoration of diplomatic ties by the United States. But he continues to behave unpredictably and was accused in 2004 of approving a plot to assassinate the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, with whom he had traded insults at an Arab summit in 2003.