How Rich is Prince Ali?

Partway through the film Aladdin, Aladdin rides into Agrabah under the name of Prince Ali. Thanks to his new friend the Genie, he’s got all the trappings of wealth and power. He certainly makes a splash – but one must wonder just how much the Genie gave him. After all, purchasing-power parity is a slippery concept, and it could well be that 95 monkeys isn’t actually all that many.

To begin with, we’ll look at the relevant scenes from both the 1992 animated and the 2019 live-action films. Combining the two, we see that Prince Ali has the following:

  • 75 golden camels

  • 53 purple peacocks

  • 95 white Persian monkeys

  • Ten thousand servants and flunkies (in the live-action version; in the animated version, it’s an indeterminate number of “slaves, servants, and flunkies,” but we’ll go with this because it’s a hard number)

  • 60 elephants

  • Llamas, bears, and lions

  • A brass band

  • 40 fakirs

  • Cooks and bakers

  • Birds that warble on key

  • A chest full of gold coins (not mentioned in the song but prominent in the visuals in both versions)

Songbirds are cheap enough to be a rounding error in the sorts of calculations we’re going to be doing, and the explicit mention of the brass band, cooks, and bakers is probably an elaboration on the servants and flunkies so we can ignore them. Fakirs were holy men who lived entirely on alms. Ali would have had them to show off how much he respected wisdom and faith, rather than to demonstrate his financial power. We can assume they weren’t a major drain on the Genie’s purse. Ali throws coins out of his chest to the people on the street, so presumably he would pay his servants from it too. As long as we can calculate their total salaries, we don’t have to worry about the chest itself. That takes care of a lot of the easy targets. We’re left with the flunkies, llamas, bears, lions, camels, and elephants.

Start with the flunkies. Aladdin is very clearly set in the Islamic Golden Age, often thought of as “the world of the Arabian Nights.” The Caliph in the Arabian Nights is Harun al-Rashid, a real person who ruled from 786 to 809. This gives us some dates to work with. According to Sevket Pamuk and Maya Shatzmiller (“Plagues, Wages, and Economic Change in the Islamic Middle East, 700-1500”, The Journal of Economic History, vol. 74, no., Mar. 2014), the wage for an unskilled laborer in Baghdad in 760 was 0.22 gold dinars per month, and by 850 it had risen to 0.65.

Ali’s people are described as “lousy with loyalty” to him. Since he hasn’t actually known them for very long, I can think of two possibilities. The first is that they’re simply brainwashed. This is actually 100% in-character for a One Thousand and One Nights genie, but Aladdin’s Genie is friendlier than that. The other option is that Prince Ali pays well. This squares with his description as “generous, so generous,” so let’s put the salary a bit on the higher side and call it half a dinar per month. Ten thousand servants all drawing an average of that salary means he spends sixty thousand dinars a year.

The weights of currency at the time were strictly controlled, and coins were traded based on the weight of precious metal rather than on any fiat value, so we can confidently say that dinar was 4.25 grams of pure gold (Adam Abdullah, “The Islamic Monetary Standard: The Dinar and Dirham”, International Journal of Islamic Economics and Finance Studies, Mar. 2020). That puts Prince Ali’s yearly employee expenses at 255 kilograms of gold.

We can try to put this into modern terms, but we won’t get far. At current gold prices, that’s a bit over $15 million. On the other hand, in terms of purchasing-power parity at the time, it’s enough to buy forty thousand tons of wheat (Pamuk and Shatzmiller), which, on today’s market, costs only $15,000. Employing ten thousand people at forty hours a week for a year, paying $16/hr, costs $160 million. The most we can say with certainty is that Prince Ali is impressively wealthy for an individual, but, on a governmental scale, he’s still possibly small potatoes. (An individual with that much wealth at that time would of course have serious governmental power, either de facto or de jure, but remember: Ali is a prince. He’s not just a rich guy. Even compared to them, one would hope he was on another level.)

To remedy that, let’s consider the camels. Both the live-action film and the animated version make it clear that these camels are not merely gold-colored animals, but are in fact model camels out of gold. The live-action has each one be a model that would easily fit in a shoebox, but the much less cowardly animated film has each one require two men to carry it. We’ll go with that interpretation, as I cannot imagine the Genie ever passing up an opportunity to be extra. Now, we just need to figure out how much they weigh.

Naively, we can say that a real camel weighs about a thousand pounds. A camel is mostly water, and 1000 pounds of water is 455 liters, so that’s the volume of an average camel. 455 liters of gold is 8780 kilograms… and that’s about where we should start to worry. 8780 kilograms is heavy. A 2024 Ford Maverick pickup truck only weighs 1680. There’s no way that two people could carry that, even with the Genie’s ability to grant Prince Ali the strength of “ten regular men, definitely.”

Candidates for SAS selection carry packs that weigh up to 30 kilograms. The course is meant to push your body to the limit, so this is a very generous estimate, but let’s put the weight of each camel at sixty kilograms – probably they’re hollow. Sixty kilos of camel times seventy-five camels is 4500 kilograms of gold, or almost twenty times what Prince Ali spends on his ten thousand servants. We’re well into princely territory now.

This just leaves the menagerie. We aren’t told how many llamas, bears, and lions Prince Ali has, and honestly I don’t particularly care. The elephants are much more interesting. Harun al-Rashid, the Caliph from earlier, had diplomatic relations with Emperor Charlemagne of the Franks. In 798, Charlemagne asked the Caliph for an elephant, a request which was granted in 801 with the delivery of Abu al-Abbas. This gift is notable not just because of the difficulty of transporting an elephant from the Middle East to Carolingian France, but because it was so uncommon in the first place. Caliphs had very few elephants, as a general rule. In 917, a display for Byzantine ambassadors in Baghdad showed 100 lions and four elephants, and Caliph al-Mu’tasim, fourth after Harun al-Rashid, seems to have had exactly one (Sam Ottewill-Soulsby, “Peccavi, or What has Charlemagne’s Elephant got to do with a Civil War in Northwest India?”, The Historian’s Sketchpad). Elephants were extremely rare. They were imported from India, or possibly taken as war trophies. The Caliph had the personal right to dispose of any that were seized in battle. These were the ultimate symbols of royalty. No minor ruler would ever have one. The greatest of the Caliphs would only ever have a few.

Prince Ali has sixty of the things.

Prince Ali is unimaginably wealthy and unimaginably powerful. The Sultan shouldn’t just be offering him his daughter; he should be pursuing all kinds of military and diplomatic treaties with him, thanking his lucky stars that he’s on his side. (He should probably also fire Jafar, on the grounds that keeping abreast of the whims of someone with sixty elephants is kind of a Vizier’s job.) The Genie has outdone himself. Aladdin truly never did have a friend like him.

Written on September 27, 2023