Prince William and Kate Middleton royal wedding: Do monarchies still matter?

Prince William and Kate Middleton's royal wedding may have tinges of the turreted-castle fairy tale. But from romantic to ruthless, more than 40 modern monarchies, including Prince William's family, still influence global realities for better or worse.

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    This is the Monitor's cover story for the Monitor's weekly newsmagazine Feb. 21, 2011 edition. Britain's Prince William and Kate Middleton will marry April 29.
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Theirs is a thoroughly modern royal love story.

They met as students at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and love bloomed amid the mist and timeless splendor of a historic city of worn cobblestones, wind-swept beaches, and the Old Course, golf's ancestral home.

They dated for several years, broke up, got back together, and finally, much to the relief of a nation, issued a long-awaited engagement announcement.

Recommended: Royal baby photos: Modern monarchs

The April 29 wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton at Westminster Abbey in London will be an international event, a reminder of the power that royalty still packs in the early 21st century.

In a democratic age, monarchy still matters. More than 40 countries still have some form of monarchy: From Britain's constitutional monarchy headed by Prince William's grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, to sheikhs, emirs, and kings who preside over oil-rich states in the Middle East, the sun has never managed to fully set on royal reign.

Is monarchy anachronistic? You bet.

Is it necessary? That depends on the culture and the country.

Yet monarchy remains relevant, whether as fodder for tabloid stories and fairy-tale dreams for those in Britain and the United States, or for wielding real power over peoples and nations like the absolute monarchs who preside in Brunei and Saudi Arabia.

The British, at least, even when they're indifferent to the goings-on in the royal family, would probably have it no other way.

"It's easy just to say, 'tear it all down,' isn't it? But what are you going to replace it with?" asks Mary Thomas, a newspaper vendor who sells royal souvenirs near Green Park in London. "I think most people would say that they trust the queen a lot more than [they do] the politicians who run this country."

The British Empire may not be what it once was, but the House of Windsor holds symbolic sway. Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state of Britain and 15 commonwealth realms, including Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.

The wedding of William and Kate highlights the principal role of the modern European monarchy. It's symbolic, a family and institution that embody the hopes, dreams, and virtues of a nation.

"Before the 20th century, a royal wedding was a largely private thing. They really weren't public spectacles," says Noel Cox, chief of the legal department at Aberystwyth University in Wales. "The reason it changed was, with lost political power the monarchy reinvented its function, no longer political but symbolic. It provided entertainment."

•••

This wedding of Prince William and Kate – a commoner who would one day be queen if William takes the throne – won't be the most lavish royal spectacle of them all, and certainly won't match the grandeur of William's parents' ill-fated walk down the aisle. The 1981 wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer at St. Paul's Cathedral was big in every way, from the bride's 25-foot-long train of ivory taffeta and antique lace to the worldwide television audience of 750 million.

That union, of course, ended in scandal and divorce. In 1997, trailed through the streets of Paris by press photographers, Diana was killed in an auto accident, along with her companion, Dodi Fayed, and their driver, Henri Paul.

Diana's memory looms over her children – William and his younger brother, Harry – and her country.

"I think there is excitement," royal biographer Hugo Vickers says of the upcoming wedding. "I don't think it's quite the same as 1981. That was built up as such a fairy-tale occasion and it put too much pressure on the couple [Charles and Diana]. I think people are a little nervous to do that again."

Instead, this wedding is billed as something a little smaller. Well, as intimate as you can get inside Westminster Abbey, the coronation church since 1066.

"There is a lot of public sympathy for William," Mr. Vickers says. "He unites both sides of the coin, Prince Charles and Diana. Because he had a lousy time as a young boy, people wish him well, regardless of their sympathies toward the monarchy. He's a good boy doing a good job.

"You could say this is the first marriage of an heir to the British throne that is a complete love match," Vickers adds. "This is not a dynastic union. No one has pushed him into it."

The British monarchy, arguably the most renowned in the world, provides the glue that holds together the country's parliamentary system. Real power resides with the elected Parliament and the prime minister. Queen Elizabeth II remains above the political fray. Her role is ceremonial. Yet she carries out important functions, including opening each new session of Parliament. Public support for the monarchy usually remains solidly around 70 percent for keeping it – although there was a noticeable dip in the immediate aftermath of Diana's death. The country was convulsed by it. For some, grief turned to anger at the royal family, which was seen for a time as cold, remote, and somehow uncaring about Diana's death. The discontent was tamped down only when Queen Elizabeth II took to the airwaves the day before the funeral and spoke from the heart about Diana and her impact on the family and the nation.

Queen Elizabeth II has reigned since the 1952 death of her father, George VI. Her political views are closely held. Her power, if she has any, comes from her position as a unifying figure as well as her weekly meetings with the prime minister. She has been consulted by every one of them on a weekly basis, going back to Winston Churchill.

All that pomp and ceremony does cost money, although the monarchy has supposedly slimmed down over the years, matching the country's new age of austerity.

British taxpayer support of the monarchy was $57.8 million in the year that ended March 31, 2010, according to Buckingham Palace. Others say the true cost is higher – with antimonarchist groups estimating it is at least three times greater. On the other hand, the royal family reports that it is patron to about 3,000 charity organizations; and Prince Charles's philanthropic umbrella group – The Prince's Charities – is the largest multicause enterprise in Britain. It alone raises $161 million annually.

The cash benefits of monarchy, though, are evident to citizens every day on the streets of London.

Lee Price, for example, a paramedic standing beside his motorcycle in Trafalgar Square while waiting for his next call, cites "massive" numbers of tourists who pack The Mall, the majestic route from the square to Buckingham Palace. "There definitely is a huge amount of money that comes into the country as a result of the royals being here," he says.

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In a sense, the British monarchy is a vestige of another age, when bloodlines created political power and when families, for better or worse, charted the histories of nations.

Across Europe, monarchies became casualties of World War I, swept away as a new political order was fashioned from the Continent's killing fields.

Europe is home to constitutional monarchies in countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway, where royals carry out ceremonial roles as heads of state.

Today, the Spanish monarchy is perhaps the most politically significant in Europe.

King Juan Carlos earned the respect of Spaniards not only for his role in leading the democratic transition of his country after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, but also for defending the newly gained liberty during a failed coup in 1981.

Indeed, Juan Carlos is a sort of guarantor of democracy and liberty for Spaniards, says Carmen Enríquez, a journalist who has chronicled the Spanish royal family for more than 15 years.

"If the king had wanted, that coup would have been successful," Ms. Enríquez says. "If he hadn't come out on TV to oppose it, the military would not have stepped down."

Spain's popular king is the official head of state, but never intervenes publicly in politics. (Although at a 2007 Ibero-American summit he famously responded to leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who was interrupting a Spanish official's speech, by asking "Why don't you shut up?")

But unlike the British royals, the king's every move is not followed. Private news about the royal family is rarely aired, and when it is, it refers to the prince and princesses, never the king and queen.

Polls show younger generations don't share their parents' respect for the crown, even if support for a monarchic succession remains at around 70 percent. But the population still looks to the king to mediate the often sour division between right and left political parties that continues to divide Spaniards.

On the other side of the world – in Cambodia, Thailand, and Japan, for example – monarchies have ancient roots in religion and are deeply revered by much of their populations, even when they've played controversial roles in using their iconic power to unite their nations in times of political strife. Some critics consider them an ancient damper on modern democracy – particularly in the developing nations of Cambodia and Thailand – where showers of arbitrary royal largess can perpetuate the notion that power resides in a person, not the people.

In Cambodia, King Norodom Sihanouk – the "king father" whose son, Norodom Sihamoni, is the acting king – saw the country through independence in 1953. Through a period of instability starting in 1970 – that included war with Vietnam and the bloody reign of the Khmer Rouge – King Sihanouk managed sometimes awkward alliances within Cambodia that allowed him eventually to help his country regain stability after 1989.

"I think the monarchy has a key role to play in leading Cambodian society forward," says Prince Sisowath Thomico, King Sihamoni's first cousin. In 1993 elections when "Cambodia was about to burst into another civil war," Prince Thomico explains, King Sihanouk supported negotiations between political factions, and again in 1998 and 2003. Photographs of King Sihanouk and his son are displayed on walls all over Cambodia and are widely believed by Buddhists, who revere the king, to bring good luck. The king's birthday is a public holiday and many streets bear his name.

Across the border from Cambodia, Thailand offers another approach. King Bhumibol Adulyadej – the world's longest reigning and richest monarch, whose fortune Forbes magazine estimates to be more than $30 billion – officially heads a constitutional monarchy. Yet, through his tenure, he has been the country's indispensable political player.

"The king is the most revered and most powerful person on the Thai political scene," says Joshua Kurlantzick, a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

In September 2006 a coup launched by several powerful Army generals with the avowed aim of "protecting the monarchy" against democratically elected populist Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra radically altered Thailand's political landscape. The four years since have pitted staunch royalists among the country's financial and military elites against Mr. Thaksin's beleaguered followers, who come largely from the rural and urban poor. The voice of political dissent, previously strong by Asian standards, has been largely suppressed with the help of Thailand's draconian lèse-majesté law. Even the mildest criticism of any member of the royal family, whose doings merit daily laudatory reports by the country's sycophantic press, can earn critics long prison sentences.

The king, who is claimed by the state to be above politics and is considered divine by the nation of Buddhists, exerts that power through an array of institutions "without leaving his fingerprints," Mr. Kurlantzick says.

Among the levers of power available to him are a privy council and the royal family's business holdings. How long this system can survive is an open question. The king is ailing. And the heir apparent, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, whose relations with three known consorts – one of whom he married and divorced, and two common-law wives – have earned him little of his father's popularity with the people.

"The country has revolved around the stabilizing presence of the king," Kurlantzick says. "Without him there is concern that the political system will collapse. They haven't had a royal transition of power in over six decades."

In Japan, monarchy is traditional, ceremonial, and without a hint of actual governing power. The emperor's role was transformed by Japan's defeat during World War II – American occupiers forced the royal family to renounce its Shinto divinity as the country embarked on a modern political path under occupation.

And yet Emperor Akihito is part of a link in a long chain, Japan's 125th emperor. In his ceremonial role, he has embarked on delicate and symbolic foreign missions to heal old wounds, including those that occurred under his father's reign during World War II.

During a 2009 address to commemorate the 20th anniversary of his accession to the throne, Emperor Akihito reminded his people of the lives lost during the war and the country's hard period of reconstruction. He said: "We must not forget that present-day Japan is built upon those huge sacrifices and pass this history on accurately to those born after the war. I believe this is important for the future path of our country."

•••

The Middle East is where royalty still holds political power, for better or worse.

Back in 1948, as anticolonial fervor swept the globe, King Farouk of Egypt is said to have opined: "The world is in revolt. Soon there will be only five kings left – the King of England, the King of Spades, the King of Clubs, the King of Hearts and the King of Diamonds."

King Farouk was overthrown in 1952. But monarchy has survived in the region, from the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia to constitutional monarchies in Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, where true power resides within the ruling families.

But with the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt rattling the status quo in the region, these monarchs are feeling heavy internal pressure for reform. In Jordan, King Abdullah II named a new prime minister to help quell protests in early February, and he was facing erosion of support even among traditional supporters.

"Because of the petroleum resources, the Gulf monarchies are still probably the most relevant as political institutions and the tensions they're in, they're all going through growth spasms at this point," says Joel Gordon, a political and cultural historian who directs the King Fahd Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at the University of Arkansas.

Mr. Gordon says the modern monarchies of the region, particularly in the Gulf States, "are consolidating a hold on vast resources, Arab media, and popular culture."

Qatar is home to the news network, Al Jazeera, one of the most potent forces in the region. The country's international rise was also signaled when the country was awarded soccer's 2022 World Cup. These significant developments were accomplished under the rule of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, whose own rise to power occurred in a bloodless coup against his father in 1995.

In the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum has sought to build a glittering global city in Dubai, where national aspiration is embodied by soaring towers filled with offices and residences. Some stand virtually empty as grand plans have given way to the reality of a world recession.

The world's most potent monarchy exists in Saudi Arabia, where the House of Saud presides over vast oil reserves as well as Mecca, the holiest site in Islam. King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz and his family are absolute rulers. Yet they face a great tension within the country, trying to preserve stability and their power while also combating extremist elements. The cosseted ruling elite must walk a very fine line in presiding over the people and the vast oil wealth.

Human Rights Watch says that in Saudi Arabia, "authorities continue to systematically suppress or fail to protect the rights of nine million Saudi women and girls, eight million foreign workers, and some two million Shia citizens. Each year thousands of people receive unfair trials or are subject to arbitrary detention."

And yet, Gordon says that monarchies are not stagnant.

"There are tension points in all of these societies for greater say, but by and large the peoples of the Arabian Peninsula are living a very comfortable lifestyle," Gordon says. "And it becomes a kind of bargain; you live with it.… The regimes are always defining themselves under certain pressure."

Change may yet come to the Middle East.

•••

In Britain, change occurred over centuries, a slow yet steady seepage of royal power. What's left is something of an ideal bargain: Royalty keeps the perks but not the power; the people enjoy the pomp and circumstance of royalty while exerting their political will at the ballot box.

William and Kate, a prince and his bride-to-be, somehow connect the monarchy with the people through the simple power of a single word: love.

"The monarchy is not going away, nor should it," says Vickers, the royal biographer. "People say you wouldn't invent and create this strange system and yet, it's wonderful to have."

Ben Quinn in London; Julie Masis in Phnom Penh, Cambodia; and Andrés Cala in Madrid contributed to this article. Research by Ilana Kowarski, staff.

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