It’s Good To Be The Sultan

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.


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.


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.

6 thoughts on “It’s Good To Be The Sultan”

  1. What is in the country belongs to the people and the country should be managed by people who make up the country.

    Trouble will brew when people feel stifled and the monarchy will be made redundant.

    No wealth can last for 3 generations! God is great!

    • I can say, living in Brunei, that most people are completely content about situations. Of course, as is mentioned, oil will soon run out, but luckily people within Shell, and the Sultan himself are starting to realize this, and that money isn’t infinite. At the moment, a Canadian/Hong Kong company has been hired which is creating a ‘master plan’ to drastically improve the capital, and the rest of the nation. Hopefully this will attract more foreign businesses and eventually shift the dependency on oil a bit.

  2. Currently Brunei is looking to branch away from oil into other resources, such as a fertilizer manufacturing plant. Also they are surveying areas such as Temburong as a pontential source for building dams to generate hydro electricity to ease the people from oil dependency.

    “He built a $3b theme park in Brunei that used to open to the public at no cost.”

    I wish to point this out that the theme park was built by his brother (not by HM), Prince Jefri when Prince Jefri was finance minister, and then was presented to His Majesty on HM's birthday.

    I don't think we would go back to the dinosaurs when the oil is dry (we have two large fields in reserves and still exploring for more.) but I am concerned about how 'spoiled' we are.

    People say that HM splurge away the country's money, but look at other nation's politicians. They spend millions for their political campaigns and put on a dog and pony show. While during such campaigns they arouse unrest and broken peace amongst the public.

    “The crown prince recently married a 17 year old distant cousin.”

    We're talking really distant cousin here, example like the crown prince's great grandfather's sister's branch of the family. Plus the bride's mother is swedish. Throw that into the gene pool and I don't think we're gonna have any problems anytime soon.

  3. When education and healthcare is free , nobody complains.
    Just get married and have lots of children . After all , the state will take care of it. If you are ill , you can get overseas treatment free (plus one companion).
    If you study overseas , it is also free. If you are in the university, they give you a monthly allowance.

    Well fed people , don’t complain. This way , the Sultan can continue to splurge away the country’s money.

    Food is bad , I got food poisoning twice here. Others have the same complaint. However , nobody cares.

    Public transport is dirty , slow , packed , poor coverage too. Everyone goes home at 12 to send kids home , then back to work. When life is easy, why complain.

    This country will go back to the dinosaurs when oil is dry. The people will have nothing , but the Sultan will be fine in one of his many properties overseas.

  4. That is simply.. unbelievable.. and then you say.. people don’t feel oppressed enough to do anything about it? incredible!

  5. I think americans (and brazillians – I am one) are going same way you mention in the end of the article – building economic sand castles.

    Due to the good results in world and domestic ecnomic development, most people (in middle-class) are going crazy spending money. In order to buy houses or cars, people here will willingly enter 80-month mortages or leasings, effectively paying double the price because of hight interest rates.

    I wonder when the “credit bubble” will burst around here.

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