Modern Royalty: Past, Present and Future - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Modern Royalty: Past, Present and Future

EDINBURGH, UNITED KINGDOM - JULY 04: Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh smiles during a visit to the headquarters of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force's (RAuxAF) 603 Squadron on July 4, 2015 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo by Danny Lawson - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Modern Royalty: Past, Present and Future

By OZY Editors


Because being a royal is never easy.

By OZY Editors

This morning, Buckingham Palace announced the passing of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and husband to Queen Elizabeth II, at age 99. “His Royal Highness passed away peacefully this morning at Windsor Castle … The Royal Family join with people around the world in mourning his loss,” the announcement said.


In recent weeks, the royal family has been rocked by the Oprah interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in which allegations of racism and mistreatment came to light. The life of a royal sure seems grand in our imaginations, but for those who have followed the departure of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle from the U.K. — or binged on previous royal scandals or The Crown — can attest, it is not always easy. Today, OZY delves into the complicated and surprising world of today’s monarchs — the real, the imagined and the surprising.

for richer or ‘poorer’ 

  1. The King and (Not) I. The grandfatherly King Bhumibol Adulyadej ruled Thailand for seven decades and was beloved, his visage displayed in nearly every home. His son? Not so much. King Vajiralongkorn, who took over in 2016 but spends most of his time among a harem of women in Germany, is considered the world’s richest monarch with a net worth of around $40 billion. But having been ruthless in consolidating power, he now faces intensifying street protests against his rule.
  2. Black Gold, Texas Tea. Thanks to the country’s oil reserves, the Saudi royal family controls an estimated $1.4 trillion divided among some 15,000 family members who reside in lavish palaces. Must be nice. But that money fountain isn’t a sure thing: State-owned Saudi Aramco has struggled this year amid rock-bottom oil prices. The kingdom has long talked of diversifying its economy, but that initiative has not yet taken off. Meanwhile, the country’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 35, is finding himself marginalized globally for his human rights abuses, and U.S. President Joe Biden promises to be far less friendly with MBS than Donald Trump.
  3. Europe’s Poorest (and Wokest) Monarch. Belgium’s King Philippe is worth a mere $14 million, which puts him in the poorhouse relative to his continental counterparts. But the 60-year-old is showing that words can be worth more: His striking statement of regret last year for Belgium’s brutal colonization of the Congo under Leopold II, who ruled until 1909, was a landmark moment for the country — and a step toward healing. 
  4. The Last Absolute Monarchy in Africa. It’s good to be the king, as Mel Brooks once quipped. And Eswatini’s Mswati III is making the most of it, living the kind of playboy lifestyle that would make a hip-hop star jealous. Wielding absolute power, he’s preserved the tiny kingdom’s identity as distinct from neighboring South Africa. Read more on OZY:
  5. Kingdom Come. When the Papal States were created from the Byzantine Empire in the eighth century, the pope became an absolute monarch over his territory. Though the land has shrunk to just Vatican City, a 109-acre city-state within Rome, the pope continues to rule it completely. That makes Pope Francis an unusual kind of monarch who has taken a vow of poverty, even as he controls vast wealth. The holdings of the Roman Catholic Church are incalculable, and the Vatican Bank alone has $5.7 billion in assets.
  6. The Power List. The absolute monarch club isn’t what it used to be: Aside from Saudi Arabia, Eswatini and the Vatican, the Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, has wielded complete control over his tiny country for a half-century — plus some $20 billion, mostly in oil wealth. But even monarchs limited by their country’s constitution can still throw their weight around: Consider how Malaysia’s King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah has stepped into a power vacuum created by the country’s choppy politics, tapping Muhyiddin Yassin as the new prime minister and shaping the country’s coronavirus response.   
  7. Weak Links. Queen Elizabeth II is by far the most famous royal in the world, and her “kingdoms” technically include everything from Australia to Canada to Tuvalu to Belize. Alas, she’s rendered almost completely powerless by her country’s constitutional system — which is the case for most of the world’s remaining monarchs. That includes King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck of Bhutan, who presided over the end of the country’s absolute monarchy and transition to democracy, an initiative rather stunningly pushed by the monarchy rather than the people.

in the wilderness

  1. Kaiser Role. Germany’s last emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, was deposed in 1918, but his descendants want their stuff back. Led by Wilhelm’s great-great-grandson and heir, Georg Friedrich, the family is trying to reclaim its castles, artworks and more, sparking a debate in Germany about its royal heritage — and the nature of laws meant to compensate people whose property was stolen during the Nazi or Communist eras.
  2. Meghan and Harry … and Andrew. The world was shocked by “Megxit,” when Prince Harry and Meghan Markle relinquished their royal titles to move to California and launch an independent life in 2020. The decision came just months after Prince Andrew (Queen Elizabeth’s third child) resigned from all public royal roles after being linked to convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein — though Andrew continues to deny having an alleged sexual relationship with a 17-year-old sex-trafficking victim. Then, in March, Harry and Meghan’s interview with Oprah Winfrey offered up a new royal battle: Accusing their estranged royal family of racism, they prompted both a measured palace response and an ill-advised denial from Harry’s brother, Prince William. While applauded by those seeking more racial awareness, the Sussexes’ popularity in Britain has never been lower.
  3. Prodigal King. King Constantine II and his teenage bride were booted from Greece after a 1967 coup, fleeing to England where they spent decades away from home hobnobbing with Europe’s royals. The country formally abolished the monarchy in 1974, stripping the royal family of their possessions. But now Constantine is back in Greece, quietly living out his remaining years as a commoner.
  4. Government in Exile. Soulivong Savang lives in Paris, but the grandson of the last king of Laos dreams of taking back the throne in Vientiane, after the monarchy was booted from power in 1975 by the Pathet Lao. Laos remains a one-party communist state, and Savang and his cohorts — including a shadow prime minister — are arguing not for their own version of iron-fisted rule but a democratic transition that would respect human rights and allow for a constitutional monarch. 

the newest monarchies

  1. Cambodia. Recorded royalty in the Khmer kingdom goes back to the first century, but Cambodia is considered one of the world’s newest monarchies because it voted to bring back the monarchy in 1993 — as the country was emerging from the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. The European-educated bachelor king Norodom Sihamoni has ruled since 2004, though he holds little power in this constitutional monarchy. Prime Minister Hun Sen is the one who rules with an iron fist, having controlled the country since 1985.
  2. United Arab Emirates. The seven Persian Gulf kingdoms that were former British protectorates came together in 1971 to form the UAE under an absolute monarchy that continues to reign with tight religious controls. Though small (its population is less than 10 million), the country has emerged as hugely important given its pivotal location and natural gas wealth. Plus, Dubai has the world’s tallest building and one of its busiest airports.

rethinking monarchies

  1. Monarchists’ Revival. For most countries that don’t have one, the notion of a king or queen can appear hopelessly outdated. But a growing group of monarchists believe the unity projected by a royal family — well-constrained within national constitutions — can be a salve for the ugly politics of our current era. Could the U.S. crown its very own queen?
  2. Climate Crusaders. Europe’s royals, particularly the younger generation, have increasingly become public advocates for tackling climate change. Late in 2019, the British royal family launched the Earthshot Prize as a reward for scientists and others who come up with climate solutions. Denmark’s royals have been strong advocates, though the 80-year-old Queen Margrethe II this year bungled the message by suggesting climate change is not a big deal. But the real climate action and innovation is happening in cities, as our special report with Goldman Sachs reveals. Read more on OZY:
  3. Don’t Read the Comments. The Crown is not particularly kind to Prince Charles, even implying that he had an affair with Camilla — now his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall — throughout his courtship and marriage to the late Princess Diana. This bit is not backed up by evidence, though Charles and Camilla reportedly did begin a physical affair in 1986, five years into his marriage to Diana. Crown-loving internet trolls are now torching Charles and Camilla for the indiscretions (real and Netflixed).
  4. Healing the Wounds of War. Emperor Akihito, who staged a historic abdication from the Japanese throne in 2019, played a vital role despite his limited formal power. Taking over from the controversial Hirohito, who led Japan’s aggression in World War II, Akihito became the first Japanese emperor to visit China and even acknowledged Korean heritage in his country’s royal family — olive branches that would have been unheard of before he took the reins. Read more on OZY

american royalty …

  1. Beyoncé and Jay-Z. Queen Bey is not a real monarch but she might as well be. This first couple of American pop culture are fabulously wealthy, intensely chronicled in the press and have a stormy love life that’s the subject of endless fascination. But we’ve yet to see a real royal pull this off.
  2. Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson. Hanks is a classic historical trope: the everyman king. He is a blockbuster actor with basically a 100 percent approval rating, while still being impossibly nice. When Hanks and Wilson contracted COVID-19 last March, it finally convinced America that this thing was serious. And what a relief it was to find out they recovered.
  3. Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird. They certainly have enough gold to be royals. Rapinoe, the U.S. women’s soccer team star, became a global darling for her stellar play and devil-may-care attitude during the team’s 2019 World Cup triumph — her third gold medal (two World Cups, one Olympics). Bird, the other half of this sporting power couple, is one of the best women’s basketball players in history. This past fall, she won her fourth WNBA title (to go along with four Olympic golds and four FIBA World Cup golds). 
  4. Silicon Valley Titans. The more imperious American monarchs are those who have captured our attention via our smartphones and become ungodly wealthy — especially so during the pandemic. These billionaires are at once lionized, feared and resented, the kind of cocktail a powerful monarch expects. Just consider Elon Musk the oddball of the family.

… versus american dynasties

  1. The Trumps. Get used to it — they aren’t going anywhere, even if the patriarch has grudgingly left the White House. Don Jr. has clear political aspirations. Ivanka will keep up a carefully curated public profile alongside husband and jack-of-all-trades Jared Kushner. Eric will pilot the family business, and one can imagine emerging public roles for both Tiffany and Barron, while Melania continues to have a high profile. Then, of course, there’s Donald himself, who will continue to be omnipresent in the media for as long as he likes.
  2. The Bushes. The old-time GOP dynasty that extended from Sen. Prescott Bush to President George H.W. Bush to President George W. Bush to Gov. Jeb Bush was disrupted by Trump, essentially the anti-Bush. But this dynasty ain’t done yet. George P. Bush, 44, the Texas land commissioner and son of Jeb, is weighing a bid for attorney general in 2022 — a steppingstone to the governorship and perhaps a third Bush presidency at last. Watch Jeb Bush on The Carlos Watson Show:
  3. The Clintons. After Bill Clinton’s two terms in the White House and Hillary’s two near misses for a job that long seemed predestined, what’s the next move for this clan? Chelsea Clinton, 41, has become more outspoken during the Trump years and toyed with the idea of running for office — though she declined a congressional bid last year. 
  4. The Kennedys. The closest thing the U.S. had to royalty in the 20th century was this glamorous yet star-crossed clan. But this Congress convened in January without a Kennedy for just the second time in 73 years: Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III’s bold Democratic primary challenge of Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey failed, while Amy Kennedy (wife of former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who’s now a mental health advocate after battling bipolar disorder and substance abuse) came up short in her congressional bid. But Joseph, 40, is likely to resurface. The Kennedys don’t go quietly.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories