By Rafia Zakaria
May 14, 2014
THE Sultanate of Brunei is running out of oil. Lower production levels led to a 34pc drop in crude oil exports last November, which amounted to a loss of nearly $400 million in revenue. Because so much of the country’s economy is dependent on the energy sector and oil exports, the result was a drop of 1.4pc in the country’s GDP.
The people of Brunei are quite troubled. By any standards, the country’s population of 420,000 has enjoyed a lovely life thanks to their oil reserves: none of the citizens pay taxes, everyone gets a pension, medical care is free, there is little crime, and many leisure activities are paid for by the government. With such a surfeit of cash divided amongst so tiny a population, life has generally been easy.
On top of all those enjoying the good life is the Sultan of Brunei himself, who lives in a palace of 1,800 rooms and has ruled the country for decades. For all involved, times have been good — until recently, when the prediction that Brunei would run out of oil, along with the actual and drastic drop in oil production in the last quarter of the year, have together lent credence to the awful prospect that there may be an end to paradise.
But the sudden plummeting of oil reserves is not the only news from Brunei these days. On May 1, the sultan (who is also the defence and finance minister) announced large-scale legal reforms that would implement his chosen version of Sharia law. In this, the first phase of the implementation, violations such as not fasting in the month of Ramazan and the missing of Friday prayers are now punishable by hefty fines or jail sentences.
In the next phase, which is to take place after a year, Hudood punishments for theft and the consumption of alcohol will be implemented. In the final phase, capital punishment (including stoning) for the crimes of blasphemy, adultery and fornication will be in place.
Coming as they do in quick succession, the two developments — the implementation of Sharia and the realisation of dwindling oil reserves — can be said to bear some connection. Indeed, Pakistan, which has (as per the Brunei definition) already seen some enforcement of Sharia, has experience in using large-scale legal reforms during times of crisis.
One form of implementation took place under Gen Ziaul Haq’s martial law regime, when the shadow of a military coup and an executed prime minister darkened the political landscape. Promulgating various ordinances, the Zina and Hudood Ordinances among them, helpfully redirected the national debate away from the violations of the Constitution and the impact on institutions of democracy. It worked in Pakistan back then, and perhaps Brunei has taken note.
There are other reasons to question the intentions of the sultan. Until now, few of his habits and predilections have reflected much of a concern for religion and its place in the public sphere.
One example presented itself in the immediate aftermath of his Sharia announcement. Appalled by the descriptions of the flogging and stoning punishments to come, a gaggle of celebrities in Hollywood announced a boycott of the Beverly Hills Hotel because it was owned by the Brunei Investment Agency, which is owned by the sultan. The event, the ‘Night before the Oscars’, which was scheduled to be held at the hotel, one Hollywood news source reported, would now be held elsewhere. Another awards event, to be hosted by television personality Jay Leno, was similarly moved to another location.
Those are the misgivings of Hollywood. For our purposes of evaluating the intentions of the sultan’s implementation of Sharia, the interesting aspect of this latest development is quite simply the fact that he continues to own properties that, under the code imposed in Brunei, would require the fining and jailing of his customers.
In simple terms, then, and in the tradition of oil-rich monarchs elsewhere, the sultan sees no problem in owning assets and encouraging abroad what he has himself declared sinful and punishable at home. The ruse is not limited to owning hotels in Hollywood. A cursory search of the sultan’s past and that of other men in his family reveals a decadent lifestyle shorn of any sense of ethics, Islamic or otherwise.
In one article, a woman claimed she was the mistress of the prince of Brunei, the sultan’s brother. Hers is a story of casting calls held in New York through which beautiful women were selected and taken to Dubai. Once there, it is alleged they were entertained at lavish parties featuring gold woven carpets and limitless alcohol, and encouraged to compete to attract the attentions of the lucky prince.
This month, the brother of this profligate prince became a champion of Sharia law, the hypocrisy visible to all who know anything about the decadent doings of the Brunei royal family.
Here in Pakistan where the Sharia’s influence in several areas has still not succeeded in making the country adequately Islamic, the experiment in Brunei is worthy of note. Protecting the sanctity of faith, and of the legal code based on it, should perhaps also mean preventing it from being so grossly misused as a cover-up for the political machinations of the power-hungry.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.