Did Brunei Sultan’s Iniquitous Past Stir Shariah?

The stunning announcement that Brunei will make gay sex and adultery punishable by death by stoning starting on April 3 appears to stem from a sense of panic on the part of the country’s 73-year-old sultan, Hassanal Bolkiah, that his own astonishingly profligate past may catch up with him, according to sources with lines into the tiny, oil-rich Southeast Asian kingdom.

“The sultan has been advised by religious experts that he can make amends by a 180-degree turn to conservative shariah law and promotion of 12th-century Arabic tribalism including banning Christmas, stoning gays, amputating the hands of thieves and flogging adulterers,” said a source with knowledge of the goings on in the gigantic 1,762 room palace, the world’s biggest, on the shores of the South China Sea.

That may not succeed in getting Hassanal into heaven. But here on earth, the announcement has uniformly horrified human rights organizations across the planet. Shariah has been in the background since before British colonial rule but was suspended until Hassanal’s dying father, Sultan Sir Omar Ali Saifuddien, reminded him in 1986 to restart it. Now, close to the State Mufti, the country’s Muslim prelate, he sees shariah as unfinished business. He would particularly like to reunify the Temburong district, physically separated from the capital Bandar Sri Begawan by a wide stretch of sea and a chunk of Malaysia, with a bridge.

Temburong “is becoming a major concern for the authorities because that’s where the majority of ethnic communities live and while some have converted to Islam, most of those have reconverted back out of Islam,” a source said. “Plus there's also growing concerns for the religious authorities that Christian missionaries are doubling their efforts in Temburong.”

With the sultan reportedly beginning to contemplate his mortality, the cloud on the horizon is the succession. There are 23 princes in line, the premier one being the Pengiran Muda Mahkota, or crown prince, Al-Muhtadee Billah, 45, whom many regard as not up to the job. The real contender, according to these sources, is Hassanal’s 72-year-old brother, Mohamad, who has long been at odds with the sultan. Eighth in line, Mohamad, the former foreign minister, got into a turf war with the sultan in 2011 over control of the economic development portfolio.

“The challenge to succession will center on control of the economy and the allocation of budgets,” a source said. “Mohamad Bolkiah was given the Foreign Ministry to keep him out of domestic national matters. Somehow, he wrangled the Economic Development portfolio, which was snatched back by the Sultan. As Hassanal prepares to meet his Maker, Mohamad will claw back, or forever lose out.”

In 2013, in a daring move Muhammad sought to change the succession laws so that the sultanship would pass from brother to brother instead of from father to son. That failed and Mohamad lost his foreign ministry portfolio. No longer in the cabinet, he has been quiet. So in protocol terms Mohamad may be a long shot although getting his hands on the economics portfolio would make him the de facto powerhouse against a weaker crown prince.

Somewhere way down on the succession ladder is Hassanal’s youngest brother, Jefri, 18th in line, and a longer shot than that to say the least. Immediately on publication of the sultan’s stoning and amputating intentions, a flock of observers pointed out that Hassanal could start with his own brother Jefri, who reportedly has no intention to come home from his comfortable exile in London and who by all accounts set an astonishing record for decadence when he was younger. His yacht, “Tits,” famously was accompanied by two tenders named “Nipple 1” and Nipple 2.

Nor was Bolkiah far behind, leading one observer to say he is unlikely to get his 72 virgins in heaven since he has probably already had more than 72 here on earth.

“The brothers routinely traveled with 100-member entourages and emptied entire inventories of stores such as Armani and Versace, buying 100 suits of the same color at a time,” according to a July 2011 article in Vanity Fair. “When they partied, they indulged in just about everything forbidden in a Muslim country. Afforded four wives by Islamic law, they left their multiple spouses and scores of children in their palaces while they allegedly sent emissaries to comb the globe for the sexiest women they could find in order to create a harem the likes of which the world had never known.”

As Asia Sentinel reported in 2006, Prince Jefri is thought to have blown as much as US$40 billion in astonishingly bad or venal investments through the Brunei Investment Agency, which was responsible for investing the proceeds from the country’s energy extraction, and Amedeo Development Corp., Jefri’s personal corporate plaything. When Amedeo collapsed in 1998, the infuriated sultan banished Jefri to England, where he remains today

The state put some 10,000 items putatively worth US$17 billion in a debtor’s sale that brought only about US$2 billion. A long string of lawsuits continued. The collapse of Amedeo actually triggered a recession in the oil-steeped kingdom.

“Public finances have yet to recover from the so-called ‘Jefri Scandal,’” said a 2003 report by the World Markets Research Centre.

In 1997, Shannon Marketic, 27, a former Miss USA from California, sought to sue the sultan, charging in her complaint that she and six other beauty queens were hired for “modeling and promotional work” in the sultanate but were held against their will in the palace for over a month, during which the scantily clad models were forced to attend parties with men who tried to force them to perform sex acts. Another model described an adulterous evening in a Kuala Lumpur hotel room with the sultan.

Hassanal denied the allegations and the US State Department intervened, persuading US District Judge Consuelo Marshall to rule that the sultan was a foreign head of state, and therefore was protected by sovereign immunity from lawsuits filed in the United States. Nonetheless, Marketic was hardly the only alleged witness to decadence. Many other reports have detailed similar charges of debauchery and dissolution.

The Sultanate, a 5,765-sq. km double wedge of jungle and mangrove swamp—only 10 sq km of it in agricultural cultivation—stuck into the northern flank of Borneo, has been steadily growing more conservative for decades. The last bar for tourists, in the Sheraton Utama Hotel, went dry on Dec. 31, 1997. However, as the sultanate grew steadily more publicly conservative, the rich and mobile continued to flock discreetly to its shores. A gigantic disco in the basement of the garish Empire Hotel continued to host revels well into the middle of the past decade before it too went dark.

However, Hassanal declared full shariah law in April of 2014. The 17.5 percent of the population – most of whom work jobs the natives don’t want -- who aren’t Muslim, regularly hustle to the border just a few kilometers away to stock up on booze and other forbidden items. Some 65 percent of all Bruneians work for the government.

The betting is that once Hassanal goes, the next in succession will lighten up and return Brunei to its still-austere form of Islam. There is some chance even that Jefri, now 63, might even be welcomed back.