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Asia’s petro billionaires

Observations on Brunei's monarchy

When Prince Azim of Brunei and three of his siblings threw a joint birthday party last month, the bill for flowers alone was said to have come to £70,000. A little steep for most of us, but not for the son of Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah, whose fortune puts a handy $20bn or so at his disposal. That the sultan – an absolute monarch who, the constitution declares, “can do no wrong in either his personal or any official capacity” – enjoys such bounty is good luck indeed. For twice in the past 150 years, tiny Brunei almost ceased to exist.

In the mid-19th century, in return for help crushing rebellions, the then sultan ceded much land to a British adventurer, James Brooke, the self-styled White Rajah of Sarawak. The sultan was only able to save his state by signing a treaty of protection with the British.

Then, in 1963, Brunei was on the verge of becoming part of Malaysia. But at the last minute the sultan pulled out. Elections in his state the previous year had returned a party a bit too radical for the ruler’s tastes. If this was democracy, he decided, he didn’t want any of it. Elections have not been held since.

Oil and gas started generating serious revenue in the 1970s, and the sultan began spending in a manner that makes Elton John look frugal. According to reports in 2007, he has 5,000 cars, he paid £5m for Michael Jackson to perform at a party, and his PR officers, housekeepers and badminton coach all earn salaries in the millions. The figures only came out because the sultan took his youngest brother, Prince Jefri, to court in Britain, accusing him of embezzling an astonishing £8bn during his period as finance minister. Jefri’s days of ostentatious high living may be over (he owned hotels worldwide, and a yacht tastefully named SS Tits equipped with speedboats “Nipple 1” and “Nipple 2”).

But there is still plenty in the coffers to pay for free education and healthcare for Brunei’s half million population, and to keep the sultan and his family in the style to which they are accustomed – right down to the last gold-plated lavatory brush holder.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman