By Alan Yuhas
April 4, 2019
When Brunei put harsh new laws in place this week that made adultery and gay sex punishable by stoning, it focused international attention on the country’s sovereign, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, 72, whose vast wealth and family spending have landed his name in the tabloids for decades.
The sultan, as the main enforcer of religion in the Southeast Asian country, has in recent decades advocated a hard-line vision of Islam that is at odds with the royal family’s opulent lifestyle. Here is a look at his powers, his background and the international condemnation of Brunei’s new laws.
In Brunei, a tiny sultanate on the island of Borneo, Sultan Hassanal has many more roles than monarch. He is, according to his official biography, also prime minister, defence minister, finance minister and foreign minister. He became crown prince at 15, in 1961, and was crowned Brunei’s 29th sultan in 1968, the year after his father abdicated.
Sultan Hassanal ascended to the throne while Brunei was still a British protectorate, and he studied at a military academy in Britain before becoming sultan. (He also studied in Malaysia.)
By the time Sultan Hassanal took over from his father, Brunei was already fantastically wealthy thanks to its oil resources. When it gained independence in 1984, the country had one of the highest per-capita incomes of any nation, about $48,650 a year in today’s dollars.
Powered by the oil company Brunei Shell Petroleum — Brunei was nicknamed the “Shellfare state” for its entitlement programs — the country of about 430,000 people remained relatively secluded compared with its neighbours.
“Brunei has been religiously very conservative and highly restrictive for a long time,” said Amy Freedman, a research scholar at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University. “In the 1990s, when it felt like Malaysia and Indonesia were seeing more relaxed attitudes about social conventions, Brunei was already exercising very tight state control over religious interpretation and practice.”
Palaces and Polo
For decades, Sultan Hassanal was regarded as one of the world’s richest men, and he spent accordingly.
He amassed the world’s largest collection of rare cars, including a gold-coated Rolls-Royce; built an extensive polo complex, with around 100 ponies and a stud farm; and constructed a 1,788-room palace, Istana Nurul Iman, the largest private home in the world. For his 50th birthday, he hired Michael Jackson to perform.
Some of Sultan Hassanal’s relatives have shown a similar propensity to spend. Prince Abdul Mateen, one of the sultan’s 12 children, regularly posts images of himself on Instagram in gilded halls, playing polo and appearing with a tiger cub and other tokens of wealth. Prince Azim, another son, was reported in 2007 to have flown jewelry to Mariah Carey on a private jet.
Prince Jefri Bolkiah, the sultan’s younger brother, built an amusement park that was free to visitors, purchased hotels around the world and gained a reputation in Western tabloids for mansions and mistresses.
He spent so freely in the 1990s — during a financial crisis in Asia — that in 2000 the sultan sued him, accusing him of misspending billions on 2,000 cars, 17 airplanes, several yachts and a variety of investments. (It was only the start of a long-running feud between the brothers.)
The Brunei Investment Agency, an arm of the government, owns nine of the world’s most exclusive hotels, including the Beverly Hills Hotel and Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles, the Dorchester in London and the Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris.
A Law and a Backlash
Homosexuality was already illegal in Brunei when the country first announced the new penalties for gay sex, adultery and theft — which include amputation as well as stoning — six years ago. International outrage at the time, though, prompted the nation to delay them.
Similar condemnation followed the recent announcement that Brunei would go ahead with the laws, which took effect on Wednesday. Celebrities and Los Angeles officials called for boycotts of the hotels, and students at King’s College London and Oxford have asked their universities to strip the sultan of honorary degrees. The United States, Britain and other countries also denounced the penalties.
On Friday, most of the nine hotels in the The Dorchester Collection, which is owned by Brunei’s sovereign wealth fund, curtailed their presence on Twitter and Instagram by removing accounts or making them private because of what it said was “personal abuse directed at our employees.”
Public pressure is unlikely to convince the sultan to change his mind now, said Francisco Bencosme, the Asia-Pacific advocacy manager for Amnesty International. “The more international outcry there is, it makes the sultan look more like he’s the defender of conservative Islam,” he said.
Still, by targeting Brunei-linked hotels and businesses, activists could put financial pressure on the sultan, Mr. Bencosme said.
“It’s not only a moral thing or a commitment to international law,” he said, “but it’s also going to impact the businesses of many of these particularly middle- and upper-class people of Brunei.”