If you thought YOUR life was complicated and you were stretched to the limit, consider the many positions held by the Sultan of Brunei:
29th Sultan (King)
Yang di-Pertuan (Head of State)
Supreme Commander in Chief of the Royal Brunei Armed Forces
Minister of Finance
Minister of Foreign Affairs
Head of Customs
Chancellor of Universiti Brunei Darussalam
Chancellor of Universiti Islam Sultan Sharif Ali
Inspector General of the Police
Head of Religion (Sunny Islam)
Do you think the Sultan has trust issues? Before I shed light on that question, let me share some “must-know-facts” about the tiny nation of Brunei.
Brunei is a tiny nation on the island of Borneo, in 2 distinct sections surrounded by Malaysia and the South China Sea. It's known for its beaches and biodiverse rainforest, much of it protected within reserves. The Ulu Temburong National Park, accessed by longboat, affords canopy walks, glimpses of traditional longhouse culture and endemic fauna and flora, such as the proboscis monkey.
With roughly the size of the State of Delaware, you’ll need a magnifying glass to find Brunei on the world map. Located just above the equator on the north coast of Borneo and taking up about 1% of the island’s landmass, the nation of Negara Brunei Darussalam (“Abode of Peace”) may be small, but it is mighty in terms of wealth and political influence in the region. As a former British protectorate, Brunei achieved independence from the United Kingdom in 1984, however, its political structure as a monarchy (sultanate) has a century-old history.
Everything changed for Brunei with the discovery of oil and natural gas in 1929. Since then, natural resources have contributed enormously to the wealth and stature of this small nation. They currently contribute 90% to the national GDP. Now, Brunei is listed officially as a "developed nation" and it ranks second (after Singapore) in South-East Asia on the Human Development Index. Brunei is ranked fifth in the world by gross domestic product per capita, fifth on the Forbes list of the world’s richest nations and is one of only two nations on the planet, beside Libya, that can claim to be debt-free. Close to 50% of the country’s work force is employed by the government. There is no income tax in Brunei.
Since its independence from England in 1984, the 69-year old Sultan decided to consolidate his power. Between his coronation in 1972 and 2015, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah also assumed the role of Head of State, Head of Religion, Prime Minister (1984), Minister of Finance (1984), Commander in Chief of the Royal Armed Forces (1986) and Minister of Foreign Affairs (2015).
In 1991 the Sultan introduced a conservative ideology to Brunei called Melayu Islam Beraja. Approximately 70% of Bruneians are devout Sunny Muslims. Minarets and mosques, (the beautiful Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque is pictured above), can be seen everywhere in the capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan and throughout the country. In 2006 the Sultan amended Brunei’s constitution to make himself infallible under Bruneian law. He also introduced Sharia Law in 2014 with its long list of gruesome punishments that include caning, amputations and stoning for adultery. The use of alcohol is prohibited in Brunei (visitors may bring their own for private consumption). Smoking in public is not allowed. Homosexuality is outlawed. Crime is virtually non-existent.
With all the roles, controls and responsibilities the Sultan assigned to himself and with all of his wealth (the Sultan’s net worth is estimated to be US $20 billion), you’ll need
lots of children to secure the future of the monarchy. The Sultan’s three wives conceived 5 sons and 7 daughters for the Sultanate. He also has 10 grandchildren. Plenty to ensure it's survival.
lots of cars to drive your big family around town and to impress your political guests. The Sultan’s car collection of approximately 2,000 vehicles include Lamborghini, Bentley, Ferrari, Bugatti and his favorite, a Rolls Royce covered in 24k gold.
a big plane to take your family on holidays. The Sultan pilots his own Boing 747-400.
and a big house to accommodate your big family and your many guests. The Sultan’s residence (Istana Nurul Iman) is, according to the Guinness World Records, the “world’s largest residential palace”. The Istana’s 2,152,782 sqft (200,000 sqm) floorspace features 1,788 rooms, 257 bathrooms, a mosque and a banquet hall that can seat 5,000 people. The palace, which was completed in 1984 at a cost of US $1.4 billion, also includes a 110-car garage, an air-conditioned barn for 200 polo ponies and 5 swimming pools. We were not invited.
A snapshot of the country of Brunei would not be complete without mentioning the Sultan’s brother, Prince Jefri Bolkiah. Being somewhat careless with monetary assets, it was not a good idea for the Sultan to appoint his brother to the post of Minister of Finance. After the prince made billions of dollars disappear in dubious real estate and investment transactions, some of which included real estate properties such as the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles and the New York Palace Hotel in Manhattan, it is not surprising that Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah wants to keep that responsibility in his long list of portfolios. While Prince Jefri has not been stripped of his royal privileges, the law suits against him continue and an arrest warrant for him is outstanding in the UK… I wonder if he ever gets to drive his brother’s Rolls Royce.
Driving through Brunei is pleasant. The sun shines, the traffic is manageable, the streets and sidewalks are clean, people smile and wave and the buildings are modern and new. Everybody seems to be well looked after. The welfare system is very comprehensive. But before you add Brunei to your list of most impressive countries, consider this: Since 1962 (the year of a revolt against the monarchy) Brunei has been under martial law and the Sultan’s emergency powers have been renewed every two years. With that and Sharia Law in mind, no wonder the population is on its best behaviour.