10 Countries Where Royalty Still Rules

Prince's palace of Monaco

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For most of the world, the era of powerful kings and queens is long passed. Today’s royals might enjoy a great deal of wealth and celebrity status, but most have no real political clout.

In the following countries, though, there are monarchs who still hold “real” power. Most of these rulers have to share the legal and political decision-making with an elected or appointed government as part of a “constitutional monarchy.” However, a few have still managed to maintain total control of every aspect of ruling their country.

1. Brunei

Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, saluting at an event
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Brunei is small enough to escape most people's notice. It sits on a speck of land along the northern coast of the island of Borneo, almost completely surrounded by Malaysia. Its leader is known as the Sultan of Brunei. Worth about $20 billion thanks to his tiny nation's oil wealth, the sultan, whose given name is Hassanal Bolkiah, is part of a ruling family, the House of Bolkiah, that has been in power since the early 15th century. Though the country has a constitution and a partially popularly elected legislative body, Bolkiah is officially both the head of state and the prime minister, so he has the political power to move the country in whatever direction he chooses. He has been criticized, both at home and abroad, for recently moving to introduce a very strict version of Sharia law into this majority Muslim nation.

2. Swaziland

King Mswati III
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Swaziland, a tiny nation that is squeezed in between South Africa and Mozambique, has a political dynamic that is not unlike Brunei's. The current king, Mswati III, took the throne at the young age of 18 after his father died. He directly appoints many parliament members, though a few MPs are chosen by popular vote. Mswati is known for his lavish lifestyle and his prolific polygamy. At last count, he had 15 wives. Though he has taken some steps to increase the level of democracy in his country, both Swazis and human rights watchdog groups like Amnesty International have criticized him for the lack of scope of these reforms.

3. Saudi Arabia

King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia during a state visit to the UK
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Saudi Arabia has one of the most well-known absolute monarchies in the world. King Abdullah (Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud) took the throne in 2005 after the death of King Fahd, who was his half-brother. In practice, he has ruled as regent since the mid-1990s because of Fahd's poor health in the last years of his life. Since the early 1920s, all Saudi rulers have come from the House of Saud, though the family controlled large parts of the Arabian Peninsula for centuries before that. Saudi royal succession is partially based on seniority, but a committee of Saudi princes can elevate any fellow prince to the head of the line if he is seen as a capable leader. This is distinctly different from Western-style monarchies, which tend to have a set of unbreakable rules about royal succession through seniority.

4. Bhutan

His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck smiles during his coronation
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The current king of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, started his reign in 2006. He is part of the Wangchuck family, which has ruled Bhutan since the early 20th century. Wangchuck has overseen dramatic democratic reforms, which were begun by his father. Over the past few years, Bhutan has transformed from a absolute monarchy into a constitutional monarchy with a popularly elected legislature.

Wangchuck is a popular king, in no small part because of his good looks and media-ready personality. His 2011 wedding was the most watched media event ever in Bhutan. He regularly takes charity trips to remote villages to give land to poor peasants. However, along with these public relations activities, the new Bhutanese constitution still gives him real power to veto laws approved by the parliament and to personally appoint members of the country's judiciary.

5. Monaco

Prince Albert II of Monaco waving at a state function
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Monaco is the second-smallest independent country on earth in terms of area. Its ruler, Prince Albert II, is the official head of state, and he holds a significant amount of political power. Albert is a member of the House of Grimaldi, a family that has ruled Monaco, on and off, for centuries. The prince is responsible for introducing new laws, which then have to be approved by the popularly elected National Council. Albert also has power over Monaco's judicial branch. He is the son of movie star Grace Kelly and Monaco's previous prince, Rainier III, whose tax policies made the country a haven for wealthy Europeans.

6. Bahrain

Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the King of the Kingdom of Bahrain, shaking hands with Sailors.
Official U.S. Navy Page / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

A tiny peninsula in the Persian Gulf, Bahrain has been in the international news over the past few years because of violent pro-democracy protests. The country is ruled by Sheikh Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa, who became “king” in 2002 after changing his title from “emir.” In practice, he has ruled since 1999. His uncle, Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, has been the only prime minister in Bahrain since 1970 (he is currently the longest-serving prime minister in the world). The bicameral legislature has one house whose members are directly elected by the people and one house whose members are all appointed by the king. Since all legislation must pass by a majority in both houses, Sheikh Hamad, has power, though his appointees, over the whole legislative process. He can also veto any laws that are passed by the government. Bahrain has seen ongoing political protests since 2011.

7. Liechtenstein

Hans-Adam II, Prince of Liechtenstein, with his wife Marie
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Along with Prince Albert of Monaco, Liechtenstein’s Prince Hans-Adam II is one of the last remaining monarchs in Europe to have actual political power.

Thanks to a new monarch-friendly constitution, he retains the power to veto laws and to appoint judges. The prince is also charged with choosing government officials, including the prime minister. He has the ability to dissolve parliament as well. In practice, it is Hans-Adam II's son, Prince Alois, who handles most of the day-to-day duties of ruling. Despite being unelected leaders, both father and son are very popular in Liechtenstein. A 2012 referendum to limit the prince’s power to veto laws was struck down by a three-quarters majority.

8. Vatican City

Pope Francis delivering a blessing message
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Though it is quite different from the other monarchies on this list, the world's smallest sovereign state, Vatican City, is technically an absolute monarchy. However, it is a unique “elective monarchy,” with a college of cardinals electing a pope, currently Pope Francis, to rule over the world's Roman Catholic Church and also to be the political leader of Vatican City.

Though he appoints cardinals (who all must be ordained Catholic priests) to oversee various day-to-day affairs, the pope has the power to remove anyone from their office and to change any laws or practices of Vatican City at any time. Because of these far-reaching powers, many people consider him to be the only absolute monarch still ruling in Europe. In practice, however, the pope focuses on spiritual leadership, appointing other trusted officials to oversee the political affairs of the Vatican.

9. United Arab Emirates

Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi
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The United Arab Emirates is a federation of seven different kingdoms (emirates), each with its own ruler. Dubai and Abu Dhabi are the most well-known of the emirates and their absolute monarchs hold the most power of the seven members. However, all seven emirs sit on the Federal Supreme Council, which, in effect, oversees all operations of the country. This group appoints various ministers, advisors, and 20 members of the 40 member National Council. The other 20 National Council representatives are elected, but by members of an electoral collage, not by popular vote. Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and to a lesser extent the other emirates, are known for their rapid pace of modernization, with the emirs commissioning massive and ambitious construction projects to draw investment and tourism.

10. Oman

Sultan qaboos sticker on a window shop
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Yet another nation on the Arabian Peninsula to have a king (actually the official title here is “sultan”), Oman has been ruled by Qaboos bin Said al Said since 1970. He came to power in a palace coup, overthrowing his father, who was exiled to England where he died two years later. Recently, Sultan Qaboos has brought about political reforms, allowing parliamentary elections for the first time. Despite its status as an absolute monarchy, Oman has enjoyed a reasonable level of prosperity under the Sultan. The country is considered more open and liberal than other theocratic Arabian Peninsula nations, and healthcare and education are a major part of government spending. Critics have likened Qaboos to a dictator, however, saying he has more absolute control over his country than any other monarch in the world.