Ever since Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s tell-all interview with Oprah, interest in the Royal Family has reached new heights. But unlike the hubbub surrounding royal weddings and births, public sentiment is different this time. Markle’s specific charge of racist behavior within Buckingham Palace has sparked a debate about the relevancy of a monarchy. Does a centuries-old political system still have a place in the world?
Even if you think the Queen should be stripped of her crown, it wouldn’t put an end to monarchs. In case you didn’t know, there are currently dozens of royal families around the globe. Their levels of power and prestige vary, and none come close to being as popular as the Windsors, but they are major figures nonetheless.
For a crash course in geopolitics, take a look at the 27 royal families who currently wield power in the world.
The Royal Family Can Be Traced All The Way Back To The Year 1066
The death of Princess Diana. An abuse scandal linking Prince Andrew to Jeffrey Epstein. Prince Harry forfeiting his royal title. There’s no denying that the world is obsessed with any and every controversy related to the Windsors. But how did they attract this level of intrigue in the first place?
The Royal Family’s roots can be traced all the way back to 1066 when William the Conqueror established himself as the first Norman monarch of England. Since then, every English monarch who followed has been considered a descendant of William. In fact, some genealogists believe more than 25 percent of the English population—as well as a number of Americans—are a distant relative of the former ruler. Perhaps that’s why so many have an unwavering fixation on the family.
The British monarchy is by far the most far-reaching on the planet. During her 69 years in power, Queen Elizabeth II has been a figure in 32 independent countries. But she’s not the only ruling monarch by a long shot. There are currently 27 royal families in existence, each with different roles and responsibilities over their subjects. Here’s a breakdown of who they are and how they serve their territories.
Hassanal Bolkiah is the Sultan and Prime Minister of Brunei. Reigning since 1967, he trails behind Queen Elizabeth II as the second longest-reigning living monarch in the world. He is also one of the last absolute monarchs on the planet, meaning he is not bound to any written law. The sultan has been caught in countless controversies over the years but has never been held accountable due to his infallible status.
Kuwait is an autocratic emirate led by His Highness Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah. The emir, who took power in September 2020, is the monarch, head of state, and head of government. Heirs to the throne are limited to descendants of former leader Mubarak Al-Sabah; they must be appointed within the first year of the current king’s rule.
United Arab Emirates
Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, or Sheikh Khalifa, is the current President of the United Arab Emirates and Emir of Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi’s leadership is inherited, and there is an unspoken rule that the emir is always elected president of the entire UAE. As of 2019, his net worth was estimated to be $15 billion.
The Kingdom of Bahrain is a constitutional monarchy led by a King, Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. He and his predecessors all descend from the House of Khalifa, which has been Bahrain’s ruling family since 1783. The current cabinet, appointed in 2018, includes at least eight members of the family.
Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud holds absolute political power over Saudi Arabia. He is both the king of the House of Saud (its royal family) and well as the head of state. This means that he makes all political and government appointments—many of which are given to relatives. Kingship was always transferred from brother to brother until 2006 when a decree declared that future kings should be elected by a committee of senior princes known as the Allegiance Council.
Oman is an absolute monarchy led by its Sultan, meaning the government has zero separation of powers. Haitham bin Tarik Al Said assumed leadership in January 2020. The following year, he issued a change to State Basic Law, allowing citizens freedom of expression and opinion. He also eliminated a law that allowed the government to monitor private phone calls, mail, and social media use.
Swaziland, also known as the Kingdom of eSwatini, has been led by King Mswati III since 1986. Before his reign, kings were chosen by a council who appointed one spouse the “Great Wife” (Mswati has 15 wives). The Great Wife’s first son would become the heir apparent. However, the king dissolved the council within his first month of assuming power; therefore, his successor is unknown.
The State of Qatar is an absolute monarchy that the Al Thani dynasty has ruled since 1825. Its current emir, 40-year-old Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, is the youngest reigning monarch in the Persian Gulf region. The succession of power is determined by the House of Al Thani and must be limited to descendants of former leader Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani.
Vatican City, the world’s smallest state, is an absolute monarchy currently ruled by Pope Francis. According to Article 1 of the Fundamental Law of Vatican City State, “The Supreme Pontiff, Sovereign of Vatican City, has the fullness of legislative, executive and judicial powers.” This puts Pope Francis in the same company as the heads of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Brunei, and Qatar. However, since popes take a vow of celibacy, their title can never be inherited. Instead, a successor is chosen via papal conclave, with a two-thirds majority vote required to elect the next leader.
Morocco is a constitutional monarchy and its current king is Mohammed VI. He is a descendent of the Alaouite dynasty, whose first prince dates back to 1631. Although Morocco was once labeled an authoritarian regime, the royal family works with a parliament and operates under a constitution. Law requires kingship to be passed down to the living leader’s first-born son.
The current King of Jordan is Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein, a 41st-generation direct descendant of Muhammad. He is also a member of the Hashemite dynasty, which has been the country’s royal family since 1921. His son, 26-year-old Hussein bin Abdullah, has already been named their heir to the throne.
Royal Families With Some Political Power
Vajiralongkorn, or King Rama X, has been the King of Thailand since 2016. Although the country is labeled a constitutional monarchy, it often comes under fire for its harsh laws. Critics of the king are punished with prison time. The king also retains constitutional powers; his approval is required to pass all bills by the legislature.
Tonga is the only indigenous monarchy in the Pacific Islands. However, its role in government is minimal. In 2008, three days before his coronation, King ʻAhoʻeitu Tupou VI announced that he would relinquish day-to-day powers and leave major decisions in the hands of Tonga’s prime minister.
As the King of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck oversees ongoing efforts at the democratization of his country. He is following in the footsteps of his father, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, who ceded absolute authority in the 1990s. In 2011, the King of Bhutan surprisingly married a commoner. The couple had a son in 2016, and he is the heir to the throne.
Hans-Adam II is the reigning Prince of Liechtenstein, a tiny German-speaking country in Central Europe. In 2003, voters made the decision to put more power in his hands. Hans-Adam, who already had the authority to dissolve Parliament and call elections, was granted the right to hire and fire governments at will. His son, Alois, has already been named Hereditary Prince and Regent of Liechtenstein.
Prince Albert II of Monaco descends from the House of Grimaldi. He is one of three monarchs in Europe, along with Liechtenstein and Vatican City, who has an active role in their city-state’s politics. A report from 2017 indicated that Prince Albert II is the richest royal in Europe, with a personal net worth of $3.5 billion.
Royal Families As Figureheads
Sweden’s monarchy is a rare example in which females are eligible to take the throne. When its current leader, King Carl XVI Gustaf, passes, his daughter Victoria will ascend to power. However, the role is mostly ceremonial—monarchs lost all formal executive powers in the 1970s.
Letsie III is the king of this former British Crown Colony. However, his role is purely symbolic. He has no executive authority and is prohibited from participating in political initiatives. But, according to an interview with Al Jazeera, he’d be willing to take on more responsibilities if asked.
Harald V has been King of Norway since 1991. The Constitution provides him executive power, but with caveats: his decisions must have the approval of Norway’s prime minister, and his veto power (which he has never exercised) can be overturned. His title is inherited, and Haakon, Crown Prince of Norway, is Harald’s heir apparent.
The Imperial Family of Japan is currently led by Emperor Naruhito, who ascended to the throne in 2019. He is Japan’s 126th emperor, making him part of the oldest continuous hereditary monarchy in the world. Although his formal title is head of state, he does not have any political powers. His role is primarily limited to ceremonial duties.
Malaysia’s monarchy is an unusual one. A monarch is selected every five years and is chosen from a group of hereditary sultans. The current leader is Abdullah of Pahang, who ascended in 2019. Since the country’s prime minister and parliament maintain power, his role is mostly ceremonial. Duties include swearing in the PM and issuing royal pardons.
King Norodom Sihamoni was crowned in 2004. He performs various functions of the state, such as appointing the prime minister, issuing pardons, and awarding national honors. However, he has minimal political or military power.
His Majesty King Felipe VI has been Spain’s monarch since 2014. Although it is the highest office in the country, it is mostly symbolic. The king’s powers are always limited: as commander-in-chief, he can declare war, but he has no control over the military. And even though he appoints the prime minister, he does it with the consent of parliament.
Greenland recognizes Denmark’s Margrethe II as its queen. She is the first female monarch of Denmark since the 1400s. As a public figure, she does not participate in politics or even express her political opinions. Her first son, Frederik, Crown Prince of Denmark, is the heir apparent to the throne.
King of the Netherlands Willem-Alexander ascended to the throne in 2013, following his mother Beatrix’s abdication. The monarch is limited in power, but he does have weekly meetings with the prime minister and signs royal decrees. His 17-year-old daughter, Catharina-Amalia, is his heir apparent.
Philippe, King of the Belgians, has ruled since 2013. But as the head of a constitutional monarchy, his role is limited. He only signs laws with the approval of a Minister, and he awards distinctions and titles to accomplished citizens of Belgium.
Although Luxembourg considers itself a democracy, it has a constitutional monarch who goes by the title grand duke instead of king. Henri, Grand Duke of Luxembourg, has served in this role since 2000. His powers are limited to the country’s Constitution; in 2008, parliament voted “so that bills will no longer require Henri’s approval before passing into law.”