It’s Good To Be The Sultan

Posted: January 23, 2008    Categories: Asia, Brunei

The house where the Sultan was born.

The house where the Sultan was born.

You cannot discuss Brunei without talking about the Sultan of Brunei. Not talking about the Sultan is like not talking about an elephant in the middle of the room.

Brunei is the Sultan and the Sultan is Brunei. It is a form of government unlike anything in the world today.

The Sultan is one of the most facinating leaders in the world today, and if you don’t know why, by the time you finish this you should see why I have a Paris Hilton like facination with him. You dare not look, yet you cannot turn away.

Power

The Sultan of Brunei is Hassanal Bolkiah, 29th Sultan of the Bolkiah House which can trace its history back, uninterrupted to 1485. His full title is:

His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah, Sultan of Brunei Darussalaam, and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalaam.

The Sultan is the absolute ruler of the country. Unlike most monarchies in the world today, the Sultan holds real authority. He is not a figure head. In addition to the titles above, he also holds the title of Prime Minister, Defense Minister, Finance Minister and he is the head of religion in Brunei. There is no elected parliament. The only advisers are appointed by the Sultan.

Where the Sultan lives now. Over 1,700 rooms and looks a lot like a Vegas casino.

Where the Sultan lives now. Over 1,700 rooms and looks a lot like a Vegas casino.

Martial law was declared in 1962 and technically has never been lifted.

But that isn’t all. He recently changed the constitution such that it is impossible for him to do wrong. It says “His Majesty the Sultan. . . can do no wrong in either his personal or any official capacity.” He has an official degree of infallibility which goes well beyond that of the pope.

Moreover, (and the reason why I wrote this after I left Borneo) according to the Brunei constitution, “No person shall publish or reproduce in Brunei or elsewhere any part of proceedings … that may have the effect of lowering or adversely affecting directly or indirectly the position, dignity, standing, honour, eminence or sovereignty of His Majesty the Sultan.”

He also has two wives, one of which is a former Malaysian TV personality who is 33 years younger than him.

Way to go Sultan!

The Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque in Bandar Seri Begawan is the unofficial symbol of Brunie. It was built by the previous Sultan.

The Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque in Bandar Seri Begawan is the unofficial symbol of Brunie. It was built by the previous Sultan.


Money

The Sultan has Bill Gates amounts of wealth. He is left off the Forbes list of richest people because he is a monarch and really didn’t earn it. Regardless how he got it, he has it. I’ve seen estimates of his personal worth at $22-53 billion dollars. I’m sure the recent spike in oil prices hasn’t hurt things.

Because of his position, he personally owns the resources and much of the land in Brunei. It just so happens that there is a lot of oil in Brunei. If you travel along the coast in Brunei, you can see the influence which Shell Oil has in the country. In the royal museum which has the regalia of coronation, there are gifts given from monarchs and countries from around the would. What really stood out, amongst the gifts from all the heads of state, was a gold and jewel encrusted model of an oil platform from ….. Shell Oil.

I’d like to say that he served as a wise steward of the wealth of the people of Brunei. However, that would be a lie. He is probably the most profligate and ostentatious spender in the world today. Consider the following:

  • It is estimated he owns between 3,000-5,000 cars, all of which are rare luxury cars. He owns more Rolls Royces than any other person in the world and has spent upward of $3 billion dollars on cars.
  • He own his own 747 with gold plated toilets.
  • He built a $3b theme park in Brunei that used to open to the public at no cost.
  • He built the worlds largest residential palace. It has 1,788 rooms and is over 2 million sq. feet (200,000 m2.
  • He recently transferred $3b in cash into his own private accounts, which is more than the entire GDP of Brunei.
  • When his brother Jefri was finance minister, it is estimated he embezzled or spent over $23b. He is now in exile in London.
  • The Sultan owns 200 polo ponies.

..and there is a lot more than that.

It is as if he was given a copy of a Richie Rich comic when he was younger and thought it was an instruction manual.

…or perhaps he got his ideas from watching Scarface. He got the money, he got the power, and he got the women.

Life Under the Sultan

This is one of those subjects where my biases as an American really shine through. I really, really cannot understand, at the core of my being, why people would sit around and allow someone to piss away the resources of a nation like this. There is a good reason why monarchies in most countries have gone by the wayside over the centuries. (I can’t even understand why Canadians keep the Queen on their currency).

All the regalia from the royal coronation as well as gifts to the Sultan from other heads of state are housed in their own public museum.

All the regalia from the royal coronation as well as gifts to the Sultan from other heads of state are housed in their own public museum.

Yet, to be intellectually honest, I have to confess that the picture I painted above about the Sultan is something you’d never ever guess from just being on the ground in Brunei.

There are no secret police. There is freedom of religion. The press is heavily biased towards the government, but there were multiple sources of information including foreign news sources.

Brunei has no taxes of any sort. Education and health care is free to all citizens. Per capita GDP is the highest in Asia (however, I think this really reflects the problem with economic statistics. I noticed no real difference in development between Brunei and Malaysia, yet on paper, Brunei has twice the per capita GDP as Malaysia. If anything, Malaysia seemed more developed. Most of the Brunei economy is concentrated in one person.) A great deal of manual labor is done by foreign workers (I saw Filipinos in Brunei too)

In other words, life is not bad in Brunei. I didn’t get any impression that there was discontent. (but at the same time, if there way, they might just keep it private) I doubt if anyone feels oppressed enough to really want to rock the boat.

However, at some point in the future the oil will run out or prices will drop. At some point in the future, perhaps several generations from now, someone will be on the throne who is truly nuts. If fate had worked out differently, his brother could have been Sultan. It always happens in monarchies. After all, the royal family in Brunei is the result of centuries of inbreeding. (the crown prince recently married a 17 year old distant cousin. His mother and father are also cousins.)

If all the money spent on cars, palaces, yachts and jewelry were instead spent on infrastructure in Brunei, the country would have a bright future. Think of Dubai or Qatar as a better example. Instead, at some point, perhaps not in my lifetime, this whole works will come crashing down and it will not be pretty.

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