The Sultan of Brunei
Despite his wealth, Hassanal Bolkiah Muizzaddin Waddaulah, Sultan and Prime Minister of Brunei since 1967, is surrounded by gloom. From his father he inherited a personal fortune estimated at $40 billion, which once placed him at the top of Fortune magazine’s list of the world’s richest people. Recent reports, however, suggest that his treasure has dwindled to a mere $10 billion — peanuts, these days.
The question is: where in earth can it all have gone? It’s not so easy to blow $30 billion, which is roughly equivalent to the entire annual income of all 125 million people living in Bangladesh.
Well, a sizeable chunk of it went on the Sultan’s palace, a monstrosity that boasts 1,788 rooms and is larger than the Vatican — in a tiny country with just 300,000 inhabitants. When the Sultan’s daughter turned 18 he bought her an Airbus. For himself he prefers his own jumbo jet, originally designed to carry over 400 people.
Great skill in extravagance has also been acquired by his brother, Prince Jefri. Having heard of Disneyland, he decided to build the Jerudong Park Playground in the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, at a cost of $1 billion.
Between them, the brothers Bolkiah own London’s Dorchester Hotel, the New York Palace and the Plaza Athenée in Paris. After the Sultanate’s independence from Britain in 1984 they bought 2,000 luxury limousines and became the world’s biggest customers for Rolls Royce motor cars.
But their combined spending talents, have proved unequal to the task of disposing of the revenues that constantly flow into their private bank accounts from Shell Oil, which is responsible for extracting the Sultanate’s vast but only natural resource.
So a small army of hangers-on was assembled, among them one Mohamed al Fayed. The Sultan and his brothers have long been suspected of bankrolling Fayed’s subsequent purchase of the upmarket Harrods store in London. Fayed — at the centre of recent bribery scandals in the British Parliament, as well as the father of the boyfriend who died with Princess Diana — claims that during the financial crisis of 1992 the British Government approached him personally to intercede with the Sultan to keep his billions in London.
Such large sums of cash automatically attract political interest. In 1987 it was reported that when US colonel Oliver North asked the Sultanate for help in subverting the Nicaraguan Government — $10 million was duly deposited in a Swiss bank account.
Britain, in keeping with its role as the major arms supplier to the region — Brunei is an enclave in Malaysian territory on the island of Borneo, most of which is Indonesian — concluded an arms deal with the Sultan in 1991 valued at $150 million. Few people can have suspected the presence of British Gurkha (Nepalese) troops in Brunei until they emerged to join the peace-making forces in East Timor.
Even this, however, would have made only a small dent in the Sultan’s wealth had it not been for straightforward financial incompetence, a prolonged fall in the price of oil, and the Asian crash of 1997. Large sums of money were lost on property deals and attempts to prop up the currencies of neighbouring countries.
So the Sultan has had to slaughter some of his polo ponies and sell off other prized trophies, such as Embankment Place in London, valued at $376 million and home to accountants Pricewaterhouse-Coopers. Last autumn, 200 British accountants from Arthur Anderson went through the books in search of what was left, as billions disappeared from the Sultan’s portfolios with bankers Morgan Grenfell, JP Morgan, Citibank and Nomura. The annual $1 billion spent on running Brunei’s ‘Shellfare State’ is now thought to be at risk, along with the polo ponies.
Though the people of Brunei are far from poverty-stricken, they have not been allowed to vote since a failed uprising in 1962. Six political prisoners incarcerated then were finally released in 1991.
Brunei is another of the stains the oil business makes wherever it goes — in the Arabian Gulf, Nigeria, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Burma, the Caspian Sea and, arguably, Britain as well. The grotesque extravagance and greed it engenders, and the political methods used to control its production, invariably provoke widespread chaos. In this ugly pantomime the Sultan and his brother have taken prominent roles as the world’s most spendthrift individuals.
Sources: The Observer Magazine, 25 April 1999; The Observer, 15 August 1999; World Guide 1999-2000.
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