Producers Jeff Schaffer and David Mandel said that Baron Cohen's character was inspired by dictators Kim Jong-il, Idi Amin, Muammar Gaddafi, Mobutu Sese Seko and Saparmurat Niyazov. The film's opening credits dedicate it to Kim Jong-il, "in loving memory".
For years, the Republic of Wadiya has been ruled by Admiral General Aladeen (Sacha Baron Cohen), a childish, tyrannical, sexist, anti-western, and antisemitic despot who surrounds himself with female bodyguards, sponsors al-Qaeda (specially giving shelter to Osama Bin Laden after "they killed his double one year ago") and is working on developing nuclear weapons to attack Israel. He also refused to sell Wadiya's oil fields, a promise he made to his father on his deathbed. After the United Nations Security Council resolves to intervene militarily, Aladeen travels to the UN Headquarters in New York to address the council.
Shortly after arriving, Aladeen is kidnapped by Clayton (John C. Reilly), a hitman hired by his treacherous uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley), whom Aladeen's father passed over as successor in favour of his son. Tamir then replaces Aladeen with a dimwitted political decoy named Efawadh (Baron Cohen), whom he intends to manipulate into signing a document nominally democratizing Wadiya while opening up the country's oil fields to Chinese and other foreign vested interests. Aladeen escapes after Clayton accidentally kills himself in a botched torture attempt; when his burnt corpse is discovered, Tamir thinks Aladeen has been killed. However, Aladeen is practically unrecognisable as Clayton shaved off his iconic long beard prior to his death.
Wandering through New York City, Aladeen encounters Zoey (Anna Faris), a human rights activist who offers him a job at her socially progressive, alternative lifestyle co-op. Aladeen refuses the offer and encounters "Nuclear" Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), the former chief of Wadiya's nuclear weapons programme, whom Aladeen thought he had previously executed over an argument about the warhead's shape. Aladeen follows him to New York's "Little Wadiya" which is populated by refugees from his own country, and meets him in Death to Aladeen Restaurant, run by and visited by numerous people whom Aladeen had personally ordered to be executed. Nadal saves Aladeen from nearly being recognised by angry refugees and reveals that rebels infiltrated the secret police, and all the condemned were sent into exile instead of being executed. Nadal agrees to help Aladeen thwart Tamir's plot and regain his position as "rightful" dictator, on condition that Aladeen makes him head of Wadiya's WMD programme again. Aladeen agrees and accepts Zoey's job offer, as she is catering at the hotel where the signing is to occur. Aladeen grows closer to Zoey after she refuses his sexual advances and teaches him how to masturbate, and eventually falls in love with her after seeing her angry. Turning around Zoey's struggling business, Aladeen begins imposing strict schedules on everyone, forming a personality cult around Zoey and intimidating an inspector into giving the store a good review.
However, Aladeen's relationship with Zoey becomes strained after he decides to be honest with her and reveal his true self; she cannot love a man who was so brutal to his own people. After acquiring a new beard taken from a corpse, Aladeen ziplines into the hotel and tells Efawadh he has recovered; (his double being fooled into thinking the Supreme Leader was ill). At the signing ceremony, he tears up Tamir's document in front of the UN delegation, and holds an impassioned speech praising the virtues of dictatorship, drawing unintended parallels to current issues in the United States. However, upon seeing Zoey in the room, he declares his love for her and, knowing Zoey's strongly held views, vows to democratise his country and open up Wadiya's oil fields for business, but in a way where the general populace will benefit. Angry with Aladeen staying in power, Tamir attempts to assassinate him but Efawadh jumps in front of the bullet and survives, as it is his job "to be shot in the head". Tamir, afterwards, is arrested.
A year later, Wadiya holds its first democratic elections, although they are rigged in favour of Aladeen (who has now added the titles President Prime Minister to his previous Admiral General). Afterwards, he marries Zoey, but is shocked when she crushes a glass and reveals herself to be Jewish; throughout the film he was shown vowing to "destroy Israel". Scenes during the credits show Aladeen's convoy, now consisting of eco-friendly cars, visiting a reinstated Nadal, and later Zoey revealing in a television interview that she is pregnant with the couple's first child. Aladeen responds to the news by asking if Zoey is having "a boy or an abortion".
The unrated cut of The Dictator runs an additional fifteen minutes from the original 83-minute theatrical version. Much of the added material is additional sexual content and dialogue. There is a scene following Aladeen falling asleep in the back of the store where one of his bodyguards, Etra, tries to kill him by beating him with her enlarged breasts. Another added scene is Mr. Ogden, the manager of the Lancaster Hotel, talking to Zoey at The Collective and cancelling the catering contract because of Aladeen.
Paramount Pictures described the film as "the heroic story of a North African dictator who risked his life to ensure that democracy would never come to the country he so lovingly oppressed." Paramount said the film was inspired by the novel Zabibah and the King by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, though The New York Times later reported it is not an adaptation. Kristen Wiig and Gillian Jacobs had been considered for the role that Anna Faris eventually played and which Variety said "calls for strong improvisational skills". Baron Cohen, who also plays Efawadh in the film, based his performance primarily on Libya's Muammar Gaddafi. The film is dedicated to Kim Jong-il.
Morocco had been considered as a filming location. Location shooting took place at the Plaza de España in Seville and on the island of Fuerteventura, Spain, and in New York City from June to August 2011. Baron Cohen said the United Nations refused to let him film scenes inside the UN Headquarters and claimed they explained this by saying, "we represent a lot of dictators, and they are going to be very angry by this portrayal of them, so you can't shoot in there." When asked about it, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's spokesman commented by saying only, "Sacha Baron Cohen has a wonderful sense of humor." The United Nations shots were at a soundstage at Grumman Studios in Bethpage, New York.
A version of the trailer was made for a Super Bowl XLVI commercial in February 2012. Archival news footage of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and David Cameron in the beginning of the trailer are excerpts of their 2011 speeches condemning Colonel Gaddafi.
Internet rumors claimed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had banned Baron Cohen from attending the 84th Academy Awards in his role as Admiral General Aladeen, but the Academy said the rumors were unfounded, saying, "We haven't banned him. We're just waiting to hear what he's going to do", and specifying of the publicity stunt: "We don't think it's appropriate. But his tickets haven't been pulled. We're waiting to hear back." Baron Cohen eventually appeared at the awards' red carpet with a pair of uniformed female bodyguards (resembling Gaddafi's Amazonian Guard) and wielding an urn purportedly containing the ashes of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, which the actor spilled onto E! host Ryan Seacrest. The ashes were later reported to be pancake mix.
Baron Cohen appeared in character on the May 5, 2012, episode of Saturday Night Live during the "Weekend Update" segment, in which he appeared to torture film critics A. O. Scott and Roger Ebert to give the film positive reviews, as well as seemingly holding director Martin Scorsese hostage. Baron Cohen released a video in the wake of the 2012 French Presidential Election, congratulating François Hollande on his victory, and appeared in character with the pair of uniformed female bodyguards on the May 7, 2012 episode of The Daily Show.
A publicity prank involved fake invitations that have been arriving in mailboxes in Washington, according to which "President Robert Mugabe and the Ministry of Education, Sport, Art, and Culture invite you to the Premiere of The Dictator." The screening of the film would purportedly take place at Mugabe's palace in Zimbabwe on May 12.
The film score was composed by Erran Baron Cohen. The Dictator - Music from the Motion Picture was released on May 8, 2012 by Aladeen Records. The majority of the songs are sung in Wadiyan despite it being a fictional language; however, it is closely associated with the German, Hungarian, and Arabic languages.
"Mundian To Bach Ke" by Panjabi MC and Jay-Z was featured in the trailers. "Hey Baby (Drop It to the Floor)" by Pitbull was featured in the second trailer.
The Dictator received mixed reviews from critics. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a rating of 57%, based on 209 reviews, with the critical consensus reading, "Wildly uneven but consistently provocative, The Dictator is a decent entry in the poli-slapstick comedy genre." On Metacritic, the film has a score of 58 out of 100, based on 41 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film three stars out of a possible four, saying, "The Dictator is funny, in addition to being obscene, disgusting, scatological, vulgar, crude and so on. Having seen Sacha Baron Cohen promoting it on countless talk shows, I feared the movie would feel like déjà vu. But no. He establishes a claim to be the best comic filmmaker now working. And in a speech about dictatorships, he practices merciless political satire." Slant Magazine conversely concluded, "bound to be one of the year's biggest comedy letdowns, The Dictator doesn't so much stir hot-button issues as showcase a great satirist off his game." Keith Uhlich of Time Out approved, giving it four stars out of five, and calling the opening scenes in the film "a brisk, hilarious jeremiad" and its ending monologue "a rousing, uproarious climactic speech worthy of both Chaplin and Team America."
Several reviews noted that the Marx Brothers' 1933 film, Duck Soup, inspired parts of Baron Cohen's 2012 film. Scott Tobias of The A.V. Club noted that "Admiral General Aladeen and Rufus T. Firefly share the same bloodline, representing a more generalized contempt for world leaders of any stripe, whether they don a 'supreme beard' or a greasepaint moustache." Scott Wilson of the Nashville Scene detected "an echo here of that funniest of xenophobe-baiting funnies, Duck Soup." Peter Travers of the Rolling Stone claimed that Baron Cohen's film "dodges soothing convention and ultimately merits comparisons to the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup and Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator."
The film has officially been banned in Tajikistan, described as "unlikely" to be shown in Turkmenistan, shortened to 71 minutes by the censorship in Uzbekistan, and banned from screens two weeks after its premiere in Kazakhstan. In Pakistan, only the censored version has been released. Rumours were circulating that the film has been also informally banned from showing in Belarus, but state officials denied this referring to deficiency of properly equipped movie theaters suitable for showing the film distributed exclusively in digital format. The film was also reportedly blocked from theaters in Malaysia. In Italy, the reference to the "Italian Prime Minister" in the scene with Megan Fox has been substituted by a generic "politician", to avoid referring to Silvio Berlusconi.