Hassanal Bolkiah, Sultan of Brunei

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Hassanal Bolkiah, Sultan of Brunei

One of the last remaining absolute monarchs, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah (born 1946) has used enormous income from vast reserves of oil and natural gas to make his tiny sultanate one of the world's most economically prosperous and socially secure societies. As one of the world's wealthiest individuals, his own lifestyle has become famous for its extravagance and record-setting excesses.

The sultan of Brunei, whose official title is Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzaddin Waddaulah, first came to worldwide attention in the 1980's when the financial press revealed that this ruler of a traditional Islamic monarchy on the northwest coast of Borneo controlled a fortune in excess of $25 billion. For a time, he was regarded as the world's richest man, but in the late 1990's he may have lost that title to an American businessman. The sultan's current holdings, which officially belong to the country, are believed to be at least $40 billion. If his assets continue to grow at present rates, the Sultan's eldest son will almost certainly become the world's first trillionaire.

Hassanal is the 29th sultan in a dynasty that is believed to be one of the oldest in the world. Once a powerful trading nation, Brunei fell under British influence in 1846 and became a protectorate in 1888. Except for a brief period of Japanese occupation, Brunei continued to be closely tied to Britain until 1959, when a constitution transferred virtually all internal governing power to Hassanal's father, Sir Omar Ali Saifuddin. In an experiment with democratic elections urged by the British in 1962, all legislative seats were captured by the Brunei People's Party, which opposed involvement with the British and ultimately joined other revolutionaries in launching a revolt against the sultan. With the aid of British troops, the brief rebellion was crushed, and Omar declared a state of emergency and assumed almost unlimited powers of absolute leadership that persist to this day.

Hassanal was educated by tutors and attended schools in Brunei and Kuala Lumpur until 1961, when he was installed as the crown prince. In 1965 he married a cousin, Pengiran Anak Saleha, in an arranged marriage. As a cadet at Britain's Sandhurst Military Academy, he was recalled to Brunei when his father voluntarily abdicated the throne in a last desperate move to resist both communism and pressure from the British to permit greater democracy. The young sultan reluctantly was installed as the new ruler on October 5, 1967, and was coronated on August 1, 1968. His devoutly Muslim father continued to rule behind the scenes, however, in an increasingly tense power struggle over policy differences and his son's playboy image. In 1981, Hassanal displeased his father further by marrying his second wife, a former airline hostess and commoner named Mariam Bell. Father and son waged a public dispute over Radio Television Brunei, but in the end the police and the army declared allegiance to Hassanal.

Although oil was discovered in Brunei in the 1920's, it did not generate significant wealth until the oil crisis of the 1970's, when natural gas production also began. Profits, royalties, and taxes from hydrocarbon production and shipping were controlled from the beginning by the royal family in partnership with divisions of the Shell Oil company, and other international business interests were expected to include the sultan's family in their profits as well. The boundary between family and national assets is vague, but it is known that Hassanal's real estate holdings alone include an unknown number of luxury hotels and other properties in the United States, Great Britain, and southeast Asia as well as cattle stations in Australia that are larger than his entire country.

Like his father, Hassanal is an anglophile who wanted to preserve the British protectorate, but the British insisted on giving up their quasi-colonial relationship. Full independence came on January 1, 1984, when the State of Brunei became Brunei Negara Darussalam ("Country of Brunei, the Abode of Peace") in a celebration whose pageantry was staggering in its extravagance. To mark the occasion, a new palace was built which Forbes called "a gold-filigreed fanciful cross between an airport terminal and a Las Vegas casino." The Istana Nurul Iman, which houses government ministries as well as the royal family, has 1,788 rooms, gold-leafed domes, an 800-car garage, and dozens of record-setting interior features. Its cost has been estimated at between $300 million and $600 million, and it is the largest occupied palace in the world.

Upon independence, Hassanal became prime minister and minister of defense and installed various family members in high cabinet positions. In 1984 he also brought Brunei into the United Nations. In the early years of his rule, Hassanal showed little interest in affairs of state, preferring instead to indulge his taste for gambling, polo, race cars, and the company of international jet-setters such as arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, from whom he acquired the world's largest yacht. In the 1980's, however, he began increasing Brunei's role in regional affairs and in 1985 joined ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. He also began investing in international real estate while continuing to spend astonishing sums on hundreds of cars, polo ponies, works of art, jewels, custom airliners, and innumerable other items.

In the 1980's, Hassanal also became involved in several embarrassing financial transactions. He was alleged to be the funding source for Mohamed Al-Fayed's controversial attempt to take over the House of Fraser and other business interests in Great Britain. He also may have unknowingly provided capital for fraudulent deals made by another foreign advisor, Khoo Teck Puat. In 1986, he was secretly approached by Elliott Abrams, a senior official in the U.S. Department of Defense, who requested money for Contra "freedom fighters" battling against the government of Nicaragua. Months later, as the Iran-Contra scandal began to break, the donation was returned to Hassanal after it was learned that it had been deposited to the wrong Swiss bank account.

After independence, Hassanal did not, however, encourage the development of democratic institutions or delegate his power. He serves as king, prime minister, finance minister, and commander of the armed forces as well as head of the Royal Brunei Police, the Petroleum Unit, the Broadcasting and Information Services, and Supreme Head of Islam for Brunei. He allowed formation of The Brunei National Democratic Party in 1985, but it was dissolved in 1988 after calling for the Sultan to resign as head of state. There are no immediate plans to introduce elections or party politics, although in a rare interview with the New Yorker in 1991, Hassanal affirmed that he did have a plan for political reform, but he did not intend to reveal it in the interview. There is no free press in Brunei, however limited freedom of expression has recently been permitted in the Borneo Bulletin, which the royal family owns. Hassanal is believed to acknowledge that his absolute power can not last forever and to favor a gradual introduction of limited democracy.

Hassanal's immediate concerns are for maintaining Brunei's stability while reducing its dependence on oil. Beginning in 1990, Hassanal began trying to strengthen the role of Islam through the concept of Melayu Islam Beraja (or Malay Islamic Monarchy), which links Malay identity, Islam, and the role of the monarchy as an official ideology. He has warned against Islamic fundamentalism, however, and declared that he would not permit extreme religious forces to influence his people. Even though Brunei has a long tradition of popular support for monarchy as a stabilizing institution, he is said to be concerned about external influences eroding his support as he tries to attract foreign investment and diversify the economy. Some problems of a wealthy welfare state are emerging, including drug use, crime, and limited job opportunities for the young.

In 1997, Hassanal was again exposed to world scrutiny when an American former beauty queen, Shannon Marketic, alleged sexual abuse by Hassanal's brother, Prince Jefri. At the same time, Hassanal replaced Jefri as finance minister, most likely because of problems involving Jefri's business interests. Marketic brought suit against the royal family in the United States, but a U.S. judge later ruled that Hassanal had sovereign immunity. Prince Jefri's indulgent personal life was further publicized in a 1998 British court case involving property deals he had failed to honor.

During the Asian currency crisis of 1997-98, Hassanal took an aggressive and highly visible role in supporting fellow ASEAN member nations by increasing investments in Malaysia and offering significant aid to Indonesia and Thailand. With government incentives to attract new industries, particularly tourism, Brunei's absolute monarch will be increasingly faced with the dilemma of how to cooperate on a global scale, guarantee future security, and open his country to outside influences without sacrificing its traditional values.

Further Reading

Bartholomew, James, The Richest Man in the World: The Sultan of Brunei, Viking, 1989.

Leake, David, Brunei: The Modern Southeast-Asian Islamic Sultanate, McFarland, 1989.

Asian Survey, February 1997.

Cosmopolitan, June 1995.

Far Eastern Economic Review, April 29, 1993.

Forbes, July 14, 1989.

Los Angeles Times, February 8, 1998.

Newsweek, October 21, 1985.

New Yorker, October 7, 1991.

New York Times, July 14, 1988.

People, June 1, 1987; June 23, 1997.

"Richest of the Rich," Asia Inc. Online,http://www.asia-inc.com (April 2, 1998).

"Fun Brunei?," Asia Week,http://www.pathfinder.com (March

27, 1998). "Settlement for Record Civil Case," BBC News,http://news.bbc.co.uk (April 4, 1998).

"Monarch Who Really Cares," Brunei Home Page,http://www.jtb.brunet.bn (April 2, 1998).

"Background," Brunei Web Page,http://www.asean.or.id (March 24, 1998).

"Brunei Sultan Plans to Help Asian Crisis," Excite News,http://my.excite.com (April 1, 1998).

"Affair of State or Family Dispute?," Newsmap: Brunei,http://www.pathfinder.com (March 24, 1998).