There are 6.8 billion people on the planet. These are the 68 who matter.
We are fascinated by power. We stand in awe of those who apply it adroitly — and in fear of those who abuse it. We lust for power. Everyone would rather be a hammer than a nail.
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The people on this list were chosen because, in various ways, they bend the world to their will. They are heads of state, major religious figures, entrepreneurs and outlaws. Comparing the relative power of such a diverse group is slippery business. To do it, we defined power in four dimensions. First, we asked if a person has influence over a lot of people. For heads-of-state we looked at population, for religious figures we measured the size of their flocks, for CEOs we counted their employees and for media figures we considered the size of their audience.
Second, we checked to see if they have significant financial resources relative to their peers. This meant comparing GDP for political leaders, net worth for billionaires and their ranking on the Forbes Global 2000 for CEOs. The Global 2000 lists the largest companies in the world based on a composite of market capitalization, assets, sales and profits.
Then we determined if they were powerful in multiple spheres, awarding bonus points for those who can project their power many ways. Silvio Berlusconi (No. 14), for instance, got a big boost for not only being the prime minister of Italy, but because he is also a billionaire media mogul who owns soccer team, AC Milan.
Finally we insisted that they actively wield their power. This eliminated some the richest people in the world, including Ingvar Kamprad, the billionaire founder of Ikea and the descendants of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton.
We culled an initial suspect list of over 100 names to 75 and then asked seven Forbes editors to rank them in all four categories. Those ranks were averaged to produce the final list. Obviously our rankings are not intended to be definitive; they are meant to spark a conversation, even an argument or two.
They certainly produced some surprises. The editors picked Hu Jintao, the president of the People's Republic of China as the world's most powerful man, ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama (No. 2). Julian Assange (No. 68), the editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, snuck onto the list in last place, while many traditional media types, including Mark Thompson, the Director-General of the BBC, fell off altogether. In a clear sign of the times, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (No. 40) ranked a full ten spots higher than Bill Keller (No. 50, the Executive Editor of the New York Times.
Power can be used for good or ill and three criminals made the list this year: al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden (No. 57), Joaquin Guzman (No. 60), the billionaire drug trafficker who heads Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel and Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar (No. 63), who runs a vast criminal enterprise in India and who is thought to have a hand in the 2008 terror attacks on Mumbai which killed 174. These rankings are not meant to justify or glorify these odious men. They simply reflect reality.
#1 Hu Jintao
Country of citizenship: China
Paramount political leader of more people than anyone else on the planet; exercises near dictatorial control over 1.3 billion people, one-fifth of world's population. Unlike Western counterparts, Hu can divert rivers, build cities, jail dissidents and censor Internet without meddling from pesky bureaucrats, courts. Recently surpassed Japan to become the world's second-largest economy both in absolute and purchasing power terms. Credible estimates have China poised to overtake U.S. as world's largest economy in 25 years — although, crucially, not on a per-capita basis. Creditor nation oversees world's largest reserves at $2.65 trillion — $1.5 trillion of which is in U.S. dollar holdings. Refuses to kowtow to U.S. pressure to change its exchange-rate regime. Heads world's largest army (in size). His handpicked successor, Xi Jinping, set to assume the presidency in 2012.
White House Photo by Pete Souza
#2 Barack Obama
Residence: Washington, DC
Country of citizenship: United States
Obama's Democrats suffered a mighty blow in U.S. midterm elections, with the president decisively losing support of the House of Representatives, and barely holding onto the Senate. It's quite a come-down for last year's most powerful person, who after enacting widespread reforms in his first two years in office will be hard-pressed to implement his agenda in the next two. He can take comfort in the fact that he remains commander-in-chief of world's largest, deadliest military, leader of world's largest (in spending) and most dynamic economy and holds the unofficial title of "Leader of the Free World."
#3 Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al Saud
Country of citizenship: Saudi Arabia
Absolute ruler of desert kingdom that contains the world's largest crude oil reserves, two holiest sites in Islam. State-owned oil producer Saudi Aramco has reserves of 266 billion barrels, or one-fifth of planet's known supply (worth $22 trillion at today's oil prices). Pushing for gradual social and legal reforms, while maintaining good relations with deeply conservative religious establishment. Ultimate succession unclear: 86-year-old king's official heir is 82-year-old Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud. Established committee of senior princes to ensure smooth transition in the event both become incapacitated.
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