Beverly Hills Hotel Boycott: A Brief History of Brunei
Yachts, fast cars, private jets — and universal health care for under a dollar!
This story first appeared in the June 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
A tiny coastal territory about the size of Rhode Island on the Southeast Asian island of Borneo, Brunei has been ruled by the same bloodline of Muslim sultans for over six hundred years. Once a regional power-player, the sultanate fell into international obscurity for generations, until the British discovered oil there – a lot of it -- in 1926.
The current Sultan of Brunei, the 26th, had the fortune of sitting in the seat of faux-power just as Great Britain finally was accepting that its colonialist adventures in the region no longer were tenable. As Brunei won independence in 1984, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah assumed supreme rule. With global demand for gas soaring, he was the richest man in the world by 1997, with a net worth of $40 billion.
And so began one of the greatest runs of debauchery in history. Over the next decade, the sultan and his youngest brother, Prince Jefri Bolkiah, indulged in an unprecedented spending spree: At the peak of his consumption, the sultan owned 17 private jets, thousands of luxury cars, an armada of super yachts and a museum's worth of fine art, including a Renoir bought for a record $70 million. In 1984, the sultan built a 1,788-room palace on 49 acres, said to be the second largest royal residence on earth, behind only Beijing's Forbidden City (it cost an estimated $1.4 billion – in 1984 dollars).
The sultan and price are said to have flouted Muslim teachings regarding sexual morality as spectacularly as they spent. After approaching Islamic law's quota of four wives per man with three each, they allegedly dispatched their attachés to scour the globe for exotic beauties to enlist in Jefri's personal harem (in her 2010 memoir, Some Girls: My Life in a Harem, former actress-turned-escort-turned-author Jillian Lepore shared her story of spending 18 months in the sultanate's coterie of paramours). In a characteristically crass flourish, Jefri named his 180-foot super yacht "Tits" -- and its tenders "Nipple 1" and "Nipple 2."
During the next decade and a half, the prince outdid the sultan for extravagance, personally embezzling and spending an estimated $14.8 billion. A historic falling-out ensued, resulting in the sultan spending an estimated $400 million in legal fees to reclaim his assets. Prince Jefri lived in exile for years, jumping between various luxury residences around the world.
Throughout, ordinary Bruneians (of whom 80 percent are Muslim and 10 percent Christian) have remained prosperous. The sultan keeps them happy by subsidizing nearly every aspect of civic life with the nation's oil revenues -- what some have called the "Shellfare state," as Shell Oil Company services the country's wells. Brunei citizens -- there are an estimated 410,000 -- pay no income taxes. For health services, they pay B$1 (80 cents), and when treatments aren't available locally, they are flown overseas at the government's expense, with a guest of their choosing and an allowance. Education and foreign exchange study also are free. At age 50, Bruneians get $200 a month, on top of their pension.