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Tea Leaves

How long can Brunei keep punching above its weight?

After 50 years on the throne, the sultan is finding it harder to keep his country relevant

Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, center, arrives with Indonesian President Joko Widodo, left, and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte for a royal banquet in Bandar Seri Begawan on Oct. 6.   © Reuters

In 2000, I obtained an exclusive interview with Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei, absolute ruler of an oil-rich jungle enclave on Borneo that has the world's fifth-highest per capita income, measured by local purchasing power.

The sultan agreed to meet me in his golden-domed, 1,788-room palace only because it was Brunei's turn to host the annual 21-country Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. The multibillionaire leader of 440,000 subjects, cruelly dubbed the Sultan of Bling by the Western media, wanted to show that he was up to the job.

I was more interested in the sultan's dispute with his then-estranged younger brother, former Finance Minister Prince Jefri Bolkiah, who was alleged to have misappropriated billions of dollars from Brunei's coffers during a 10-year spending spree. The siblings had recently settled the dispute out of court, but 300 nonroyal creditors were still owed $1 billion.

That was not a topic the sultan intended to discuss. "The matter has been resolved amicably, and I do not think it would serve any purpose to revive it," was his curt (and probably well-rehearsed) response.

Fast forward 17 years and that interview with the sultan, now a still-vigorous 71, serves as a reminder of the resilience of the 600-year-old feudal Muslim dynasty, whose ruler continues to punch above his weight in a fast-modernizing region.

The sultan's clout was most recently on display on Oct. 5-6, when he threw a lavish golden jubilee party to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his accession to the throne. The highlights included the sultan and his senior wife parading through the streets of the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, in a golden chariot hauled by 50 of their subjects.

Brunei is the smallest but second-wealthiest member of the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the guest list read like a who's who of ASEAN leaders, including Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, whose country shares an interchangeable pegged currency with Brunei and sends its armed forces there for jungle training. ASEAN, it seems, needs Brunei as much as Brunei needs its neighbors.

Then there is APEC. This year, Vietnam will host the leaders' summit, starting on Nov. 5. The sultan will be there, as usual, mingling with the likes of U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Yet there are signs that at least some of the sultan's influential friendships may be under strain.

Under his rule, Brunei has long observed a strict interpretation of Islamic morality -- although its ban on alcohol could be easily circumvented, at least by non-Muslims. It was only necessary to eat at a Chinese restaurant, where a request for "special tea" was met with the response: "Certainly, sir. Carlsberg tea or Heineken tea?"

I am not sure I would try that now. In 2014, the sultan unnerved many of his neighbors by announcing that Brunei would become the first East Asian nation to adopt Sharia (Islamic law), including penalties such as death by stoning, severing of limbs and flogging.

The sultan wants Sharia to be implemented in three phases, and the more draconian penalties have yet to be introduced. Perhaps they will be delayed indefinitely. After all, he does not have a great track record in delivering on his promises.

When I interviewed him, he said his priority was to broaden Brunei's economic base, which then depended on oil and gas for more than half of gross domestic product and 80% of exports. He wanted to turn Brunei into an offshore financial center with its own stock market.

Seventeen years later, Brunei remains entirely hostage to hydrocarbons. The economy has been ravaged by the plunge in energy prices, undermining the cradle-to-grave social system funded through Brunei's 50% holding in Brunei Shell Petroleum. The offshore financial center plan remains a work in progress. And the stock exchange has still not opened.

Meanwhile, the sultan has quietly rehabilitated Prince Jefri. The two were photographed together by local media at a polo tournament during the golden jubilee festivities. Also in the picture was another brother, Prince Mohamed, who was Brunei's foreign minister for 31 years before being abruptly removed in 2015.

What is going on? Among his people, the sultan appears popular. There is nothing to suggest that the Bolkiah dynasty is under threat. But whether or not Brunei starts stoning adulterers, the sultan and his heir, Crown Prince Al-Muhtadee Billah, 43, may find it increasingly difficult to ensure that the tiny country continues to punch above its weight.

William Mellor is a Hong Kong-based writer.

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