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How Aristotle Onassis Became the Richest Man in the World

Aristotle Onassis Richest Man in the World
How Aristotle Onassis Became the Richest Man in the World. Credit: Greek Reporter illustration. Pieter Jongerhuis/ CC BY-SA 3.0 nl

Aristotle Onassis was one of the most famous Greeks in the entire world in the 20th century, a visionary who became one of the greatest shipping magnates in modern history. His wealth was acquired in a variety of ways, but it was the Suez Canal deal that made him the richest man in the world.

Onassis and his family fled their home in September 1922 when he was only sixteen years old and settled in Greece in the wake of the catastrophe of Smyrna. A year later, he left Athens, choosing to take up residence in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

After enduring all kinds of trials and being forced to live in poverty for years, Onassis didn’t hesitate to dream big. And his dreams were very large indeed.

He created his own brand of cigarettes, and introducing cigarettes with pink tips, aimed at the female market. Having been exposed to the shipping world through his tobacco-importing business, Onassis realized that much more money could be earned if he changed his business model strictly to shipping.

Soon after, he founded his first shipping and trade company, “Astilleros Onassis,” but his quest to acquire his vast fortune had only just begun.

Onassis Deal With Saudi Arabia

In the early 1950s, Aristotle Onassis worked out a deal with the King of Saudi Arabia to be granted exclusive rights for the shipping of the country’s oil.

After Onassis made the potentially lucrative deal, he purchased a series of tankers for the express purpose of shipping Saudi Arabia’s precious oil.

Due to the country’s massive oil production, Onassis acquired a great number of ships.

This investment turned out to be potentially disastrous, however, when the Greek shipping magnate was blocked from transporting Saudi Arabia’s oil by the US.

US companies, which had a prior agreement with Saudi Arabia for exclusive shipping rights over the country’s oil, were outraged by Onassis’ deal, and the US government even stepped in.

Saudi Arabia Deal Turns Into Disaster

The renewal of charters for Onassis’ ships was refused, and his vessels were not permitted to load any oil when they reached port in Saudi Arabia. Hence, the deal between the Greek shipowner and the country was voided.

The blockade of Onassis’ ship caused his incipient fortune to quickly drain, as his many vessels sat idle in the Red Sea.

Onassis even considered selling the massive fleet of tankers after he realized he could not afford to pay back the loans he had initially received to buy the ships.

His fortunes quickly turned, however, when Egypt cut off all access to the Suez Canal during the Suez Crisis in 1956 after Israel invaded the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip.

The Suez Canal, one of the most important trade routes in the world, remained closed for six months.

Suez Canal Blockage Makes Aristotle Onassis the Richest Man in the World

Aristotle Onassis
Aristotle Onassis. Credit: Public Domain

Ships were forced to circumnavigate the entire continent of Africa, a considerably longer trip, and soon there were not enough tankers to fulfill global shipping demands due to delays.

Luckily, Onassis had a massive fleet of ships that had sat unused, the perfect solution to a global need for extra tankers.

Onassis turned what could have been his ruin into a boon. As demand was so high and his ships were not under contract, the Greek magnate had the power to set any price he desired to lease them out, and he made a fortune.

According to records, Onassis could make a two million dollar profit on a single trip with a full tanker at the time.

When the Suez Canal reopened six months later, Onassis had amassed a considerable fortune. In 1957 alone, he made seventy million dollars, equivalent to about $740 million today. Just the year before, he had been drowning in debt.

Onassis made a name for himself as the most powerful and clever shipping magnate on the planet, and he later became the richest man in the world.

related video: Aristotle Onassis: The Triumph of the Ultimate Underdog

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