There is rich, and then there is Carlos Slim Helu. The Mexican telecommunications tycoon has hopped over the internet software king Bill Gates and the investment "sage" Warren Buffett to take the top spot on Forbes magazine's annual global list of billionaires.
In a remarkable acceleration of fortunes, Carlos Slim, as he is known in the business world, saw his net worth rise by US$18.5 billion (Dh67.94bn) last year to $53.5bn after building a telecoms empire two decades ago. Just behind him came Mr Gates, 54, the chairman of Microsoft, whose net worth increased $13bn to $53bn. Mr Buffett, 79, the chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, was in third spot with $47bn, a jump of $10bn.
"We've been watching Slim for a while and kind of wondered when the stars would align and he would take over," said Luisa Kroll, a Forbes senior editor. Mr Slim's Telefonos de Mexico remains the biggest landline phone company in the country, with about 80 per cent of the lines. His Telmex Internacional, which America Movil is planning to buy, controls Brazil's biggest long-distance and cable-TV companies, as well as phone and video carriers in Colombia, Peru and other South American countries.
In Mexico, the 70-year-old's holdings extend from retail, with the Sanborns chain of department stores, pharmacies and restaurants, to banking and construction. "His management of America Movil, which I believe is the principal reason for his wealth, has been exceptional," said Jose Miguel Garaicochea, who helps to manage $793 million of shares, including stock in the wireless carrier, at Banco Santander. "And when he has gone outside of Mexico, he has also done very well."
The number of billionaires around the world has nearly recovered this year after dropping by a third last year during the global financial crisis. There are now 1,011 billionaires, compared with 793 last year and 1,125 in 2008. The net wealth of those billionaires grew to $3.6 trillion from $2.4tn last year, but is still down from $4.4tn in 2008, according to the Forbes list, which took a snapshot of the super-rich on February 12 to compile its ranking.
The average billionaire is now worth $3.5bn, up $500m from last year. And the number of women on the list climbed to 89 from 72 last year. "The global economy is recovering and it's reflected in what you see in the list this year," said Steve Forbes, the chief executive of Forbes. "Financial markets have also made an even more impressive comeback from the lows of just about a year ago, particularly in emerging markets. Asia is leading the comeback."
The number of billionaires in the Asia-Pacific region grew by 80 per cent to 234, and their net worth almost doubled to $729bn, which Forbes attributed to the region's "swelling stock markets and several large public offerings during the past year". "The global boom that we experienced from the 1980s, particularly since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which was temporarily derailed in 2007, now looks like it's beginning to get back on track," Mr Forbes, said in New York. "But Asia and a handful of others are surging. Relatively, the US and western Europe are lagging."
Away from the big three, two Indian tycoons rounded out the top five richest people in the world - Mukesh Ambani, with a petrochemicals, oil and gas fortune of $29bn, and the steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, who is valued at $28.7bn. The biggest gainer on the list was the Brazilian mining magnate Eike Batista, 52, with $27bn, up from $7.5bn. He made his riches through the initial public offerings of several companies and is now planning to take his shipbuilding and oil services concern OSX public next week.
Of the 97 names making their debut on the rich list, 62 are from Asia. "For the first time, mainland China has the most billionaires outside the US," Forbes magazine said. "US citizens still dominate the ranks but their grip is slipping." Behind the figures, the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, 25, is the world's youngest billionaire, with a $4bn fortune. The second-youngest is Japan's Yoshikazu Tanaka, 33, the founder of the social-networking website Gree, who is worth $1.4bn. The oldest is 99-year-old Walter Haefner of Switzerland, who is worth $3.3bn.
But the numbers do not tell the whole story. While the wealth of Mr Gates and Mr Buffett far exceeds that of others in the top 10, they would have been even richer if they had not given away a lot of their money. "They would be far richer today if it wasn't for their tremendous philanthropy," said Matthew Miller, a Forbes senior editor. "Buffett would be worth at least $55bn - and Gates' net worth would exceed $80bn had it not been for his philanthropy."
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