The news that Meghan and Harry, the Duchess and Duke of Sussex, will be “stepping back” from royal duties and becoming “financially independent” has precipitated all kinds of questions: What will this mean for the future of the Windsors, Britain’s royal family? Where exactly will the couple live, and how will they afford their lifestyle? What will become of the their battles with British tabloids, which they’ve accused of racist and malicious coverage?

It’s a royal mess. But the Windsors are not alone. Around the globe there are tens of royal families still sitting court, some in official ruling capacity and others maintaining symbolic roles. Their numbers have dwindled: Some of the world’s royals have been ousted in coups or revolutions. Others have decided for various reasons to leave. At times, these ousters, exiles and abdications (and compromises in between) have entirely upended political and social systems. In other cases, everyone has just carried on.


Albert II was the largely ceremonial king of Belgium for nearly 20 years until 2013, when he announced his abdication on national television. The then-79-year-old monarch designated his 53-year-old son, Crown Prince Philippe, as his successor.

At the time, Albert II attributed the change to his failing health and old age. There had also just been a new twist in a long-standing accusation that he fathered a daughter with a woman other than the queen: Shortly before the abdication, the alleged daughter filed in court for a paternity test. Seven years later, the ex-king is still alive and embroiled in the paternity court battle.


Princess Martha Louise of Norway, 48, is no longer royalty when she’s doing business, so she says. Last year, she announced that she would stop using her official title in her work with her American boyfriend, Shaman Durek (also known as Durek Verrett). Their speaking tour, focused on spirituality and healing, had been called “The Princess and the Shaman.”

“There have been many discussions about my use of title in a commercial context lately,” she wrote as part of her 2019 announcement on Instagram. “The fact that I used Princess in the title of my tour, I have said before that I am very sorry, and I still stand by that. It was a mistake and I understand that it provokes when the princess title is used this way.”


April 30, 2019, was a momentous day in Japan: For the first time in 200 years, an emperor abdicated the throne. Japan’s then-85-year-old Emperor Akihito resigned, paving the way for the island’s 126th emperor, his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, 59.

The former monarch cited health issues, including heart surgery, as his reason for stepping down. But to do so, Japan had to change legislation to allow him to retire.

“Akihito is a much-loved figure in Japan,” The Washington Post’s Simon Denyer wrote at the time. “With his wife at his side, he humanized the role of the emperor, once viewed here as a living god, by reaching out to vulnerable members of society and victims of natural disasters and by looking ordinary people in the eye when talking to them. … But he also encouraged Japan to acknowledge its wartime past, and he never pandered to the conservative nationalists who revere the tradition embodied in his role, experts said.”

United Arab Emirates

Princess Haya bint al-Hussein is royalty on several fronts. The 45-year-old is the daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan and half sister of the present king, Abdullah II. She’s also the sixth wife of Dubai’s 70-year-old ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum.

Only she’s trying to escape the latter.

In summer 2019, the princess fled her royal position in the United Arab Emirates and went first to Germany and then to London, where she applied for guardianship of her children and said she feared for her life. The year before, one of Sheikh Mohammed’s daughters had reportedly tried to flee Dubai, only to be caught and forcibly returned; details of this ordeal allegedly pushed Princess Haya to leave.


The tiny country of Lesotho, nestled inside South Africa, is ruled by a constitutional monarchy that’s survived several rounds of palace coups, among other challenges.

The current, largely ceremonial king is 56-year-old King Letsie III — and he has been dethroned and rethroned once already. First in 1990, Letsie became monarch after his father, King Moshoeshoe II, was forced into exile by the military. But five years later, during a time of political instability in Lesotho, Letsie abdicated his title after his father was able to return and become monarch once more. A year later, Moshoeshoe died in a car crash, and King Letsie III was restored.


It wasn’t so long ago that Iran was ruled by a heavy-handed monarch, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, propped up by the United States and Britain. In 1953, the CIA and Britain’s MI6 even orchestrated a coup to oust Iran’s elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh and put the shah back in place. (Mosaddegh wanted to nationalize Iran’s oil industry, which investors Britain and the United States did not like).

But then, in 1979, after months of mass demonstrations, the shah fled Iran and soon after landed in the United States. The shah’s abdication marked the success of Iran’s revolution; in the months after he left, revolutionary forces jockeyed for power, setting up what’s now the country’s Islamic republic. Meanwhile, members of the shah’s family in exile still sometimes speak out, advocating for their rightful return.


There are, of course, many other British royals who for personal and political reasons have stepped down or back from the throne over the many centuries that the family has ruled on the basis of divine lineage. Edward VIII, Queen Elizabeth’s uncle, stepped down as king in 1936, at which point the queen’s father then became king, setting the stage for developments to come.