Many of the world’s richest countries are also the world’s smallest: the pandemic and the global economic slowdown barely made a dent in their huge wealth.
What do people think when they think about the world’s richest countries? And what comes to mind when they think about the world’s smallest countries? Many people would probably be surprised to find that many of the planet’s wealthiest nations are also among the tiniest.
Some very small and very rich countries—like San Marino, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Singapore—benefit from having sophisticated financial sectors and tax regimes that attract foreign investment, professional talent and large bank deposits. Others like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have large reserves of hydrocarbons or other lucrative natural resources. Shimmering casinos and hordes of tourists are good for business too: Asia’s gambling haven Macao remains one of the most affluent states in the world despite almost three years of intermittent lockdowns and pandemic-related travel restrictions.
But what do we mean when we say a country is “rich,” especially in an era of growing income inequality between the super-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 number of inhabitants.
However, 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), often expressed international dollars to allow comparisons between different countries.
Should we then automatically assume that in nations where PPP is particularly high that the overall population is visibly better off than in most other places in the world? Not quite. We are dealing with averages and within each country structural inequalities can easily swing the balance in favor of those who are already advantaged.
The COVID-19 pandemic lifted the veil on these disparities in ways few could have 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, those resources were not equally accessible to all. Furthermore, the economic fallout of lockdowns hit low-paid workers harder than those with high-paying occupations and that, in turn, fueled new kind of inequality between those who could comfortably work from home and those who had to risk their health and safety by travelling to job sites. Those who lost their jobs because their industries shut down entirely found themselves without much of a safety net—large holes in the most celebrated welfare systems in the world were exposed.
Then as the pandemic subsided, inflation surged globally and Russia invaded Ukraine, exacerbating the food and oil price crisis. Once again, lower-income families were hit hardest as they were forced to spend greater proportions of their incomes on basic necessities—housing, food, energy and transportation—whose prices are more volatile and tend to increase the most.
In the world’s 10 poorest countries, the average per-capita purchasing power is $1,380 while in the 10 richest it is over $105,000 according to data from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Since last October, per-capita purchasing power grew by just $30 in poor countries and by more than $5,000 in high-income countries.
A word of caution about these statistics: 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 their wealth was originally generated elsewhere which artificially inflates their GDP. While a global deal to ensure that big companies pay a minimum tax rate of 15% was signed in 2021 by more than 130 governments (a deal that has yet to be implemented due to the opposition of legislators and politicians in many of them), critics have argued that this rate is barely higher than that tax havens like Ireland, Qatar and Macao. It is estimated that over 15% of global jurisdictions are tax havens and the IMF has estimated further that by the end of the 2020s, about 40% of global foreign direct investment flows could be attributed to shrewd tax-evading tactics, up from 30% in the 2010s. In other words: these investments pass through empty corporate shells and bring little or no economic gain to the population where the money ends up.
THE 10 RICHEST COUNTRIESIN THE WORLD
10. San Marino
Current International Dollars: 78,926
Tiny San Marino is the oldest republic in Europe and the fifth smallest country on the map. It may have only 34,000 citizens, but it is among the wealthiest citizenry in the world. It helps that income tax rates are very low, at about one-third of the EU average. Nonetheless, San Marino is working towards harmonizing its fiscal laws and regulations with those of the European Union (EU) and international standards.
The tiny nation showed remarkable resilience during the pandemic and after amid tight monetary conditions and the energy crisis, with its tourism industry and manufacturing sector turning especially strong performances.
9. United States
Current International Dollars: 80,035 | Click To View GDP & Economic Data
Did we say that the richest countries are also the smallest? That is not the case, of course, with the United States, which managed to enter the top 10 list after teetering on it edges for the better part of the past two decades.
Did Americans get richer during the pandemic? The top quintile of the US population earning over $60,000 a year did; many of them worked from home while their stock portfolios grew in value and they received stimulus checks on top of that. At the opposite end of the spectrum were Americans who lost their jobs and businesses, found themselves saddled with astronomical medical bills and lined up at local food banks. The job market has recovered since then, but inflation at a 40-year high is hurting those who are employed, particularly the nearly 52 million workers—close to one-third of the entire labor force—who are earning less than $15 an hour according to Oxfam America.
At the height of the pandemic, research from the Americans for Tax Fairness (ATF) and the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) found that the richest Americans held over four times more wealth than the roughly 165 million in the country’s bottom half. In 1990, the situation was reversed—billionaires were worth $240 billion and the bottom 50% held $380 billion combined. The collective wealth of America’s billionaires leapt by $1.7 trillion from March 2020 to May 2022 according to Forbes although their combined fortune decreased from $4.7 trillion to $4.5 trillion as markets retreated in 2022 according to the magazine’s newest Annual World’s Billionaires List.
Still, the US remains home to more billionaires than any other country—735.
Current International Dollars: 77,808 | Click To View GDP & Economic Data
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.
Until it didn’t: prices crashed at the beginning of 2020, then the global pandemic ensued—and the krone was sent into freefall. In the second quarter of that year, Norwegian GDP fell by 6.3 %, the biggest decline in half a century and possibly since World War Two.
Does that mean Norwegians became significantly less wealthy than they were before the pandemic? Certainly not. After the initial shock, the economy gradually pared the losses and closed the year at -1.2% GDP growth. Then in 2021 the economy rebounded, growing overall by almost 3.9% and around 3.3% in 2022.
When it comes to any unforseen economic problem, Norwegians can always count on their $1.3 trillion sovereign wealth fund, the world’s largest. But unlike many other rich nations, Norway’s high per capita GDP figures are are a reasonably accurate reflection of the average person’s economic well-being the country has amongst the smalleset income inequality gaps in the world.
Current International Dollars: 87,963 | Click To View GDP & Economic Data
White chocolate, the bobsleigh, the Swiss Army knife, the computer mouse, the immersion blender, velcro, and LSD are just some of the noteworthy inventions brought to the world by Switzerland. This country of about 8.7 million people owes much of its wealth to banking and insurance services, to tourism, and to the export of pharmaceuticals products, gems, precious metals, precision instruments (think watches) and machinery (medical apparatuses and computers).
According to the 2022 Global Wealth Report by Credit Suisse, Switzerland once again came out on top when it comes the mean average wealth per adult at a whopping $700,000. Furthermore, roughly one adult in six owns assets worth more than one million U.S. dollars. Is it really a surprise that Switzerland has the highest density of millionaires in the world?
Unfortunately, all of this largesse could not shield the Swiss economy from the effects of COVID-19: in 2020, production declined by 2.5%. Yet things could have been worse. Growth suffered less than in neighboring countries due to a swift policy response (emergency spending and containment measures) and due to the make-up of the economy itself, with its low dependency on contact-intensive sectors, competitive export industries, and solid public and household finances.
Does that means the Swiss don’t have any economic worries at all? Not exactly. In March, Credit Suisse nearly imploded before a government-engineered rescue by its long-time rival, UBS Group. Not only has the demise of Credit Suisse shaken the country, it has damaged Switzerland’s reputation as a secure and reliable global banking center with even more jobs at risk than the 9,000 already axed in a restructuring plan last year.
6. United Arab Emirates
Current International Dollars: 88,221 | Click To View GDP & Economic Data
Agriculture, fishing and trading pearls: these used to be the economic mainstays of this Persian Gulf nation. Then oil was discovered in the 1950s and everything changed. Today, the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) highly cosmopolitan population enjoys considerable wealth. Traditional Islamic architecture mixes with glitzy shopping centers and workers come from all over the world lured by tax-free salaries and year-round sunshine; only about 20% of the people living in the country are actually locally-born.
The UAE’s economy is also becoming increasingly diversified. Outside of the traditionally dominant hydrocarbon sector, tourism, construction, trade and finance are major industries. This is not to say that the UAE was not impacted by the pandemic and the concomitant fall of oil prices: quite the contrary. Incredible as it may seem, the UAE briefly slipped out of the IMF’s ranking of the richest countries globally for the first time in decades. Yet fossil fuels have not gone out of fashion: as soon as energy prices recovered, the UAE quickly regained its historic position among the top 10 richest countries in the world.
5. Macao SAR
Current International Dollars: 89,558
Just a few years ago, many were betting that the Las Vegas of Asia was on its way to becoming the richest nation in the world. Formerly a colony of the Portuguese Empire, the gaming industry was liberalized in 2001 this special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China has seen its wealth growing at an astounding pace. With a population of about 700,000, and more than 40 casinos spread over a territory of about 30 square kilometers, this narrow peninsula just south of Hong Kong became a money-making machine.
That, at least, was until the machine started losing money rather than making it. When Covid struck, global traveling came to a halt, and for a while Macao even slipped out of the 10 richest nations ranking. Today, after more than three years since the start of the pandemic, Macao is slowly returning to business as usual. Yet, it also is the only country on the list whose per-capita purchasing power is lower than before the global health emergency—it was about $125,000 in 2019, down by more than $35,000 today.
Current International Dollars: 124,834 | Click To View GDP & Economic Data
Despite the recent surge, oil prices have declined since the mid-2010s. In 2014, the per-capita GDP of a Qatari citizen was over $143,222; one year later, it plunged significantly and remained below the $100,000 mark for the next five years. However, that figure has gradually grown, increasing by about $10,000 each year.
Still, Qatar’s oil, gas and petrochemical reserves are so large and its population so small—just 3 million—that this marvel of ultramodern architecture, luxury shopping malls and fine cuisine has managed to stay atop the list of the world’s richest nations for 20 years.
With only about 12% of the country’s residents being Qatari nationals, the initial months of the pandemic saw COVID-19 spreading rapidly among low-income migrant workers living in crowded quarters. Quarantines, curfews and lockdowns have been imposed more than once and yet Qatar suffered one of the highest rates of positive cases in the region.
Even so, the economy has proven to be resilient. It contracted by a relatively modest 3.5% in 2020, has grown roughly by 1.5% in 2021, and grew 4.2% in 2022 thanks to greater gas and oil revenues and tourists coming to see the World Cup.
Current International Dollars: 133,895 | Click To View GDP & Economic Data
The richest person living in Singapore is the founder of the medical equipment firm Mindray, Li Xiting, whose net worth is estimated at $15.6 billion. Brothers and property developers Robert and Philip Ng are second, and Goh Cheng Liang of Wuthelam Holdings, which manufactures paints and coatings, comes in third. In fourth place with assets of about $9.6 billion (although for many years he occupied the top spot of the ranking) 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 attract so many high net worth individuals? 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 and 98% of the adult population is now literate. Unfortunately that did not make it immune from the pandemic-driven global economic dowturn: in 2020, the economy shrank by 3.9%, knocking the nation into recession for the first time in more than a decade. In 2021, Singapore’s economy bounced back with 8.8% growth, but then the slowdown in China, a top trading partner, derailed the recovery. China’s economic problems hit Singapore’s manufacturing sector—which makes 21.6% of Singapore’s total GDP—partcularly hard, contracting by 6% in the first quarter of 2023. This in turn is dampening Singapore’s fortunes with its economy projected to expand by just 1.5% in 2023.
Current International Dollars: 131,580 | Click To View GDP & Economic Data
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 in the country again. Doing so would be a pity: situated at the very heart of Europe, this nation of close to 650,000 has plenty to offer, both to tourists and 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.
While the global financial crisis and pressure from the EU and OECD to reduce banking secrecy may have had little impact on Luxembourg’s economy, the coronavirus outbreak forced many businesses to close and cost workers their jobs. But the country has weathered the pandemic better than most of its European neighbors. Its economy rebounded from -0.8% growth in 2020 to 5.1% growth in 2021. Unfortunately that rebound did not last long: the economy grew by just 1.5% in 2022 and will likely reach only 1.1% this year thanks to lower business and consumer confidence and higher prices for energy and food.
Weak economic growth may not be worth complaining about though given that Luxembourg topped the $100,000 mark in per capita GDP in 2014 and has never looked back ever since.
Current International Dollars: 140,694 | Click To View GDP & Economic Data
Ireland appears unstoppable. Even before the pandemic, while the rest of Europe was facing all sorts of uncertainties (Brexit, trade tensions with the U.S., refugee and migrant crises to name a few), the Irish economy was humming along. In 2019, while the Eurozone’s economy grew by a meager 1.5%, Ireland’s expanded by over 5.4%, making it the fastest-growing economy in the bloc. Unlike almost every other nation, the global pandemic did not lead to economic contraction in Ireland but further growth, hitting 6.1% in 2020, followed by an astounding 13.5% in 2021, and an impressive 11% in 2022. Forecasts for 2023 are somewhat more conservative (5.5%), but what nation wouldn’t dream of achieving such a level of growth during a global recession?
A nation of just 5 million inhabitants, Ireland was one of the hardest hit by the 2008 financial crisis. Following some politically difficult reform measures like deep cuts to public-sector wages and restructuring its banking industry, the island nation regained its fiscal health, boosted its employment rates and saw its per capita GDP almost double in a short amount of time.
Do citizens feel three times as rich as a decade ago? Probably not: Ireland is one of the world’s largest corporate tax havens, with ordinary people benefitting far less than multinationals do. And while they are undoubtedly better off than they used to be, according to data from the OECD the national household per-capita disposable income is in reality slightly lower than the overall EU average. With a considerable gap between the richest and poorest (the top 20% of the population earns almost five times as much as the bottom 20%) most Irish families would likely balk at the idea that they are not just rich but among the richest in the world.
World’s Richest Countries 2023
GDP-PPP per capita ($)
|6||United Arab Emirates||88,221|
|12||Hong Kong SAR||74,598|
|62||Trinidad and Tobago||32,054|
|64||St. Kitts and Nevis||29,662|
|74||Antigua and Barbuda||24,012|
|83||Bosnia and Herzegovina||19,604|
|96||St. Vincent and the Grenadines||17,793|
|142||West Bank and Gaza||6,688|
|150||Republic of the Congro||5,155|
|153||São Tomé and Príncipe||4,874|
|156||Papua New Guinea||4,516|
|189||Democratic Republic of the Congo||1,474|
|191||Central Afrian Republic||1,127|
|—||Afghanistan, Lebanon, Syria, Ukraine||N.A.|
Source: International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook April 2023. Values are expressed in current international dollars, reflecting the corresponding exchange rates and PPP adjustments.