Princes, Power, and Politics

Why do we still have royal families?

By Claire Kalikman


[dropcap]R[/dropcap]oyal families are relics of a global monarchical past that increasingly has little place in modern politics. Yet, forty-four countries still have monarchies, and seven are still ruled by absolute monarchies. My research seeks to explore why Bhutan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Kingdom still have monarchies, as well as what role they play in their respective countries. These countries have different forms of government, religions, customs, and histories. Yet, each royal family has played a large part in the shaping of the country, which has impacted how these families have maintained or lost power.



Bhutan occupies a unique role on the spectrum of power of royal families. It is a small, landlocked, Buddhist south-Asian country that was never colonized. Over the course of 100 years, the ruling family initiated democratization and willingly gave up power. The House of Wangchuck rules Bhutan in the role of Druk Gyalpo, known in English as the “king.” This dynasty has ruled since the 1907 reunification of Bhutan consisting of five reigning monarchs.  

The rule of the Wangchuck dynasty is strongly connected to the history and politics of the country. Between 1616 and 1907, many regional powers vied for control. Tibet and Britain both supported various factions. Ultimately, an assembly of subjects elected Ugven Wangchuck as the first king in 1907. The first two kings established relations with England and India. In maintaining a relationship with England, in particular, they managed to affirm their independence on a global scale.

Because of its isolated nature, the country was immune to the various political movements that took hold of the world in the 20th century, whether capitalism or communism. However, the decolonization of South Asia, and the changing governance of neighboring China and Tibet did have an impact. Suddenly, the King felt that Bhutan too needed to modernize.

The later three monarchs have been responsible for putting the country on a path of democratization, decentralization, and development. The third King established a unicameral National Assembly. This king also separated the government’s power into three branches, judiciary, legislative, and executive. The King created the High Court with himself as highest appellate authority and nominator of judges.

The fourth King established Gross National Happiness as an important concept in Bhutan, and wrote the first constitution. At the start of his rule, the King had a veto on all acts and decisions made by the Assembly. In 1968,  he voluntarily relinquished this right. He also established a triennial vote of confidence. He willingly abdicated in 2006 to make way for progress in democratization, and to allow his son to rule.  “It was the first time in world history that a monarch, who was initially vested with absolute powers, voluntarily reduced the scope of these powers and eventually abdicated with no other reason than his own dedication to political reforms”, said Thierry Mathou, an ambassador of France who wrote a book about the fourth King of Bhutan.

Jigme Khesar Navomel Wangchuck assumed the throne as the fifth King in 2008 as the kingdom adopted its first democratic constitution. In 2008, the country transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy and held the first election to the National Assembly of Bhutan, which has a two-party system. This system of government was enacted by the Royal Government. The Constitution was planned and written by multiple government officers and agencies for seven years before it was enacted. The constitution is based on Buddhist Philosophy, democracy, the International Conventions on Human Rights, and the Gross National Happiness.

Bhutan is now a democratic, constitutional monarchy. The current king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, is the head of state. However, the Prime Minister, Jigme Thinley, is the head of the cabinet and holds executive power. The country held its first general election for the National Assembly in 2008. An EU monitoring team issued a report that the elections generally met international standards, which has pleased those working in the Bhutanese government. For example, in 2008 Chief Justice of Bhutan Lyonpo Sonam Tobgye said, “Democracy in Bhutan is truly a result of the desire, aspiration and complete commitment of the monarchy to the well-being of the people and the country.”

The Bhutanese royal family used its absolute power to usher in a series of democratic reforms, slowly giving up its own power. It is perhaps because of this, coupled with the isolated nature of the country, that the royal family has been able to stay in power for so many years. The constitution also upholds traditional Bhutanese customs and the Buddhist religion, which advocates peace. These too might be factors as to why the people continue to accept royal rule. Now, the king still holds an important role in the country, but the main political power is vested in the prime minister and the three branches of government.


Saudi Arabia

On the more extreme side, Saudi Arabia has an absolute monarchy. The House of Saud has thousands of members and traces its lineage to Ibn Saud, the modern founder of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabians are ruled completely by the King and by Sharia law. The country does not possess a constitution and the Quran is considered the country’s law. It is one of the most repressive countries in the world.

Although, the Albert Shanker Institute and Freedom House have reported that Saudi Arabia’s practices diverge from the concept of the rule of law. Criminal law punishments in Saudi Arabia include public beheading, hanging, stoning, amputation and lashing. Serious criminal offences include not only internationally recognized crimes such as murder, rape, theft and robbery, but also apostasy, adultery, witchcraft and sorcery. There are no political parties or national elections. Women are forced to wear the full abaya, and must have a male relative as her ‘guardian’. The guardian has control over many critical aspects of a woman’s life, such as if she can study or work. There is no freedom of religion or expression. The repressive nature of the regime likely contributes to the royal family’s ability to stay in power. The people are not allowed to voice criticism of the regime.

The head of the House of Saud is the King of Saudi Arabia, who is the Head of State and monarch of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The King holds absolute political power. The King appoints ministers to his cabinet who supervise their respective ministries in his name. The important appointments, such as ministries of Defense, the Interior, and Foreign Affairs are usually held by members of the Saud family, as are most of the thirteen regional governorships. House of Saud family members also hold many of the Kingdom’s critical departmental posts in the military and government. Ultimate power in the Kingdom has always rested upon the Saudi Family, though support from the merchant community the ulema and the population at large has been key to the maintenance of the royal family’s political power. The royal family has been able to retain total control in large part due to its wealth. The family is estimated to a net worth of $1.4 trillion, which would make them the richest family in the world. With their wealth, however, they are criticized for spending extravagantly while the rest of the country is on an austerity budget.


United Kingdom

In contrast, the British monarchy was once an absolute monarch. However, its powers are now reduced to those of a figurehead: the current royal family is a trace of the past. The British monarchy started losing its absolute power centuries ago. The current British monarchy started in 1066 with William the Conqueror. The loss of power began with the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, which began the rule of constitutional law in England and ended absolute rule. Then the English Civil War of 1642-51 fueled the loss of power, culminating in the establishment of the Commonwealth of England in 1660, which replaced the monarchy. The monarchy was, however, restored in the Restoration of 1660. Fortunately, by then Parliament had limited Charles II’s royal powers, by decreeing that Charles II had no right to arbitrarily suspend laws passed by Parliament. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 imposed that the King too is subject to laws. Then the Reform Act of 1832 refashioned the British electoral system and enfranchised more people, bringing more power to the people and parliament and less to the Crown.

Currently, the Monarch is the official Head of State. “God Save the Queen/King” is the national anthem, and the monarch’s face appears on coins, banknotes, and stamps. She does also have a weekly conference with the Prime Minister, memorialized in the play “The Audience”. The monarch has little role in legislative government. Any power she does have is actually controlled by other forces. The legislative power is exercised by Parliament, executive power by the Prime Minister and Cabinet, judicial power by the Judiciary. The monarch’s power is limited mostly to non-partisan functions, such as granting honors. Walter Bagehot, a writer about constitutions, called the monarchy a “dignified part” rather than the “efficient part” of government in 1867.

Despite nearly nonexistent political power, the monarch still has monumental power, and retains the title. Scholars attribute the vestiges of the monarchy to many factors. “They represent, for better or for worse, the nation’s love affair with the past,” said author Sarah Gristwood. Before the First World War, for example, royal weddings were private affairs. Yet,  after the war they became fun diversions for the public. Royal weddings are important and grand affairs, but the detachment from actual politics allows them to remain immune to the foibles of government in London. Two billion people tuned in to watch the most recent royal union. From a consumerist standpoint, they are Britain’s biggest exports. There are thousands of blogs and websites dedicated to tracking the current royal family’s every move, and especially their fashion choices. There are gift shops, documentaries, movies, books, and fan fiction devoted to this family. It is perhaps a way for many to live out their dream of being a princess, another outdated role.

The monarchy has therefore perhaps survived in its current state due to the relative popularity of the current royal family, and especially the Queen. But that leads many to worry about what will happen after the death of the 91-year old sovereign. Many believe that the monarchy will suffer greatly. Her son Charles, next in line to the throne, is hugely unpopular, after divorcing the beloved princess Diana and marrying his longtime mistress Camilla. Some have urged him to abdicate in favor of the much more popular Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, i.e. William and Kate. But the inevitable death of the Queen may stir conversation about the necessity of a royal family at all. The citizens of the UK have their grievances, especially how much money the monarchy costs the country. After all, “admiration for the present incumbent does not necessarily translate into support for the institution itself”, said writer Anne Whitelock.



So why do some countries still have royal families? For Bhutan, the royal family is able to exist because they willingly gave up absolute power in favor of democracy over the course of a century. Comparatively, in the case of Saudi Arabia, it is nearly the opposite. The Saudi Royal Family has maintained total control; thereby leaving insurrection impossible. In comparison, the British royal family has lost essentially all real political power. Instead, they exist to fulfill a ceremonial fantasy role. The continuation of the monarchy is due to its relative international and national popularity. All in all, monarchies exist for a myriad of reasons. With pressure from their citizens, some monarchies have evolved like the Bhutanese monarchy, while others still resist change.


Claire Kalikman ’21 is in Morse College. Contact her at