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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.

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