According to The Economist, the secret of their success can depend on two things: having little power or having a lot.
For other kings and monarchs, the twentieth century was probably the worst century in history. At least until the 18th, almost every single decade saw the disappearance of more or less a dozen ancient and historical monarchies. At the end of the Ten years, for example, there were no longer kings, emperors, or sultans in Portugal, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey. In the same years, the largest and oldest monarchy in the world, the Chinese one, also disappeared, while in 1918, the Russian royal house also disappeared from the map of the world.
After the Second World War, the phenomenon became even more excited. Half a dozen monarchies disappeared in Central, and Eastern Europe swept away by the Red Army and local communists. The independence movements in the developing world killed several dozen of them. One of the last monarchies to fall was that of the Shahs in Iran, deposed by the religious revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. From that moment to today, however, the disappeared monarchies can be counted on the fingers of one hand. In Nepal, for example, the monarchy was abolished in 2008 after a long and bloody communist insurgency. However, in many other countries, the prestige and seizure of sovereigns seem never to have been so strong.
A good starting point is probably to divide the current monarchies by type (which also corresponds to a division by geographical area). The first category is that of the European constitutional monarchies: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Spain, plus a handful of micro-nations. All have sovereigns whose powers are limited by a written constitution and which does not seem they will be eliminated in a short time (sovereigns are a more suitable term than kings and queens, given that some of these monarchist countries are principalities or grand duchies).
The secret of their survival is in their weakness. It seems a paradoxical idea, but "the less power a monarch has, the fewer people there will want to take it away from him." Because in fact to undertake the complicated political path that would lead, for example, to the end of the Bernadotte dynasty in Sweden (which in addition to being the local monarchs are also descendants of a general of Napoleon), when in essence the family is limited to carrying out a certain number of public appearances and to make charity? Removing a constitutional and theoretically harmless monarch is even more difficult when the monarch in question is not only empowered, but also sympathetic. Only very few Danes, for example, would like to get rid of Queen Margherita, a compulsive smoker who leaves the royal palace by bicycle even in the middle of winter.
To this, we must add that, according to some, modern sovereigns play a positive role even without having great powers. If they are skilled, they can, in fact, embody the tangible representation of national unity, a particularly important value in an era of political polarization such as the one we are experiencing. As a member of the court of Elizabeth II of England quoted by, ”politics deals with what divides, the monarchy with what unites" (it must be said, however, that this role is very successful also in the republics.
The Japanese imperial dynasty, one of the oldest in the world, probably played a similar role in the recent past.
Not all over the world, the survival of kings and princes has been based on positive values such as unity and inclusiveness. Outside Europe, many monarchies managed to survive simply because of their brutal force. In a sort of evolutionary selection process, "the weak monarchies have disappeared and the strong ones have survived, with the pockets full of the money necessary to survive."
The Middle East is the symbolic place of this type of monarchy. From Saudi Arabia, the largest, richest and most powerful, to the United Arab Emirates, from Qatar to Bahrain, kings, emirs, and princes have maintained a substantially absolute power mainly due to the energy resources extracted in their territories, which allow them to finance a generous welfare and sophisticated security apparatuses capable of keeping those who do not settle at bay.
In the case of Saudi Arabia, a monarchy where power was traditionally distributed within the vast royal family on the basis of complicated alchemies, the last few years have seen an increase in the country's "monarchist" character. In fact, more and more power has moved from the royal family as a whole to the hands of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (often abbreviated as MbS), considered today the true leader of the country, despite the title of the king still belonging to his father.
Petrodollars are not the only advantage of monarchies over other types of regimes. The kingdoms of Jordan and Morocco, for example, do not have many resources, but they can boast legitimacy based on centuries of history dating back to the prophet Muhammad PBUH. The royal families of the Persian Gulf, however, almost all have more recent history and above all less noble. Also, due to an older legitimacy, these families have built over the centuries a structure of power whose roots are broad and sink in tribal and religious fidelity. This allows them to maintain power with less effort than the many dictators in the region, almost all "new men" who have appeared on the scene in the past half-century.
The few dozen deaths caused by the repression of the Arab Spring in countries like Jordan and Bahrain are incomparable to the thousands of victims caused by the dictatorial regimes of the so-called Arab republics, such as Egypt, Syria, and Iraq.
Today there are about forty surviving monarchs all over the world, which in some cases even thrived in the Third Millennium. However, they all have in common a characteristic that makes them irremediably fragile unlike democracies and oligarchies, which have incorporated systems to renew their ruling class; a monarchy is, by definition, subject to the vagaries of history.
The quality of a monarch is random, and getting a bad one can have unpredictable consequences. There are many, for example, who wonder if the British monarchy is able to survive the designated heir, Carlo, a staunch supporter of a series of eccentric theories.
If succession puts at risk a stable and ancient monarchy like that of the United Kingdom, things are even more dangerous for the young and turbulent ones. In Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman concentrated on himself the powers that were previously divided into the multiple currents of the royal family, but at the same time made the whole structure more fragile, making it dependent on the choices and temper of a single individual (i.e., himself at the moment).
Something very similar has already happened in Thailand, where the revered king Bhumibol has been replaced by Maha Vajiralongkorn, a reckless man known for his alcoholic parties and for the numerous children scattered around the world.
In Thailand, the power of the monarchy has always been based on close collaboration with the army; the former provides legitimacy to the military, which often intervene in public life in the name of the king (the last time deposing the legitimately elected government in 2014). On the other hand, the royal family sees its prestige and influence guaranteed by the military. It is a delicate balance, which can easily be broken by a reckless and unpredictable new monarch. In short, no matter how powerful, ancient, or respected, a royal family is. Just one wrong roll of the dice of history and a millennial legacy can disappear in a generation.
Feb 26, 2020