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Uncovering kleptocratic behaviour in private jet flights

Mamadou Sacko, Pierre-Louis Vézina, and Inês Conde

29 June 2023

The world’s poor suffer under the rule of kleptocrats, and this is especially true in many oil-exporting countries, where the misappropriation of public funds and wealth accumulation by ruling elites hinder growth and perpetuate inequality. Ill-gotten funds are often secretly diverted to tax haven accounts, invested in international financial markets with the help of banking friends in London, New York, and Geneva, and converted into luxury real estate and high-value art. As described by Jason Sharman in his work on kleptocracy, the conspicuous spending habits of ruling elites and their families, including multi-million-dollar property purchases, luxury vacations, and extravagant lifestyles, posted on Instagram, often betray the misappropriation of public funds. The kleptocratic class even uses its wealth and power to maintain a world system that is favourable to such thievery. This post suggests tracking the private jet flights of authoritarian leaders to banking locations like Geneva and luxury holiday spots can provide valuable insights into kleptocratic behaviour and the siphoning of oil revenues.

Private Jet Flights: A Window into Kleptocracy

Costing anywhere between $2 million and $100 million, ministers owning private jets can already be an indicator of kleptocracy. In 2014, Diezani Alison-Madueke, the petroleum minister of Nigeria, was investigated by federal lawmakers for squandering N10 billion ($12.3 million) of government funds on the maintenance of her private jet. In 2017, when the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia initiated a crackdown on corruption, dozens of private jets belonging to princes and government officials, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, were stranded at airports across the kingdom. The flight patterns of dictators’ private jets, to tax havens or fancy holiday destinations, may provide further clues into kleptocratic behaviour.

To track the flight activities of dictators, two Swiss journalists launched GVA Dictator Alert in 2016. It started as a Twitter bot tracking planes used by authoritarian regimes landing at Geneva Airport. They now track private jets registered to authoritarian governments landing at airports around the world, using their own network of antennas.

By examining flight destinations and correlating them with kleptocratic activities, we can gather anecdotal evidence and establish patterns that reveal the misuse of public funds. For instance, tracking multiple trips to Geneva, a renowned financial hub, might suggest attempts to hide or invest illicitly acquired wealth.

Oil Money and Dictator Private Jet Flights

The windfall gains from petroleum exports often become a source of illicit wealth for autocratic rulers. A study in the Journal of the European Economic Association found that around 15% of the revenue accruing to oil-producing countries with autocratic leaders is diverted to secret accounts. And a doubling of oil prices caused a 22% increase in haven deposits. Do oil-rich regimes also fly more on private jets?

GVA Dictator Alert's data suggests a significant correlation between a country’s oil wealth and its government private jet flights. Among autocracies, it indeed appears to be those with large amounts of oil money that use private jets the most. Russia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates top the lists in terms of tracked flights. Among African countries, it is the leaders of oil rich Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Angola, and Libya that fly the most.


A poignant example of the misappropriation of oil rents is the Vice-President of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, who also happens to be the son of the president. His flamboyant lifestyle is everywhere on his ostentatious social media presence, featuring private jet flights, luxurious meetings, and extravagant parties. This not only reveals his kleptocratic ways but also showcases a deeply ingrained arrogance, signalling an apparent belief in their immunity from consequences. Obiang is known for his $35 million Malibu mansion, his luxury cars and his private jet. Concurrently, 67% of the population of Equatorial Guinea is living in poverty according to the African Development Bank. Obiang has been prosecuted and convicted by US, Swiss and French authorities over claims of corruption, money laundering and appropriation of public resources. His superyacht and homes were seized in South Africa, and the Swiss authorities confiscated eleven of his luxury cars at Geneva airport.  The dictator alert data captured his trips to Madrid (Equatorial Guinea is an ex-Spanish colony) but also to tax havens Dubai and Geneva as well as to the autocrats’ favourite, Moscow.  


Another example is that of the eldest daughter of Islam Karimov, the president of gas-rich Uzbekistan from 1991 to his death in 2016, Gulnara Karimova. She was also frequently seen on social media, attending high-profile events and releasing new music videos. In 2016, she got $850 million of her assets taken away from her by the US Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative. Turned out she had pocketed $1 billion in telecom “deals”. And when she got charged for corruption, she flew to Dubai, on her Malta-based €50 million private jet.

Private jets also appear to be a tool of choice for grand corruption in the mining sector. In 2022, the Serious Fraud Office in the UK convicted Glencore, a major commodity trading and mining company, for using private jets to pay bribes to gain preferential access to oil in Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and South Sudan. Disguising the bribes as ‘service fees’, ‘signing bonuses’ and ‘office expenses’, Glencore officials would withdraw money and fly it out in private jets. Glencore’s profits in 2022 were around $18 billion, a manifold increase from previous years. While kleptocrats get their share of it, the poor remain poor across the developing world.

Private jets and Autocracy Inc

The flight patterns of kleptocrats can also reveal insights into Autocracy Inc, the cluster of authoritarian actors sharing a desire to preserve and enhance their personal power and wealth through sophisticated networks of kleptocratic financial structures, security services and professional propagandists. As Anne Appelbaum writes in The Atlantic, “their links are cemented not by ideals but by deals—deals designed to take the edge off Western economic boycotts, or to make them personally rich—which is why they can operate across geographical and historical lines”. This type of malign exporting of kleptocratic behaviours across geographical lines might be linked to the Qatari’s private flights.

What do Qatar kleptocrats do when they fly to London? Nesrine Malik writes in the Guardian, that “Qatar and other wealthy undemocratic regimes around the world are empowered in Britain, and by extension on the global stage, by a parliamentary system open to lobbying, a lucrative weapons industry, and a real-estate economy that is geared to a global wealthy elite.” And “In the runup to the World Cup, the value of Qatar’s gifts to British MPs was greater than the amount spent by all the other 15 countries whose governments made donations to British MPs *combined*.” George Eaton tweets a list of UK assets and landmarks owned by Qatar: Harrods, Sainsbury’s, Heathrow airport, The Shard, Barclays, One Hyde Park, Chelsea Barracks. In other words, they fly to London to invest their gas money and exert foreign influence.


Planespotting is being increasingly used, notably by the Global Investigative Journalism Network and police authorities, to track government officials and uncover grand corruption and money laundering schemes. As we continue to delve into dictators’ private jets’ destinations and gather anecdotal evidence, we can contribute to the global effort to expose and deter kleptocracy, ultimately striving for a more just and equitable world.

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Pierre-Louis  Vezina

Pierre-Louis Vezina

Reader in Economics

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