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Brunei: The Sharia Welfare State

The story of George Clooney, Sharia law and a dubiously named yacht.

Brunei recently implemented the death penalty by stoning for male homosexual relations and adultery. Additionally, thieving is penalized by forced amputation. Following the implementation of these harsh sharia punishments, George Clooney is leading a boycott of luxurious hotels connected to the small sultanate. International pressure eventually forced the sultan to postpone the infected legislation.

 Far from everyone has heard of the small, oil-filled sultanate of Brunei Darussalam (Arabic for ‘abode of peace’). Once ruler of the island of Borneo, but today only a mere fraction remains of what is once was. For the last decades it has been keeping a low profile on Borneo’s northern coast. Its landmass is completely surrounded by Malaysia, with the exception of the South China Sea to the north.

Southeast Asia’s largest oil fields are within Brunei’s borders, which naturally represents more than 90% of its total exports. This has brought great wealth for sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who’s personal worth is estimated at around 20$ billion. He was the richest person in the world back in 1998, until he had to give up the title to Bill Gates. A collection of over 7000 luxury cars and the world’s biggest residential palace are just a few of his personal belongings.

Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah with his first wife waving to Bruneians in Bandar Seri Begawan. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Although the sultan’s spending frenzy is rather profound – to say the least – the gold medal goes to his brother. Prince Jefri of Brunei is said to have spent more money than any other person in modern history. Among other expenditures, he wasted almost 15$ billion from a government oil investment fund. He even bought an enormous yacht and named it ‘Tits’, with its accompanying lifeboats; ‘Nipple 1’ and ‘Nipple 2’. Prince Jefri “conveniently” used the yacht as a harem, paying women to entertain at his parties. Perhaps the most known investment was to fly in Michael Jackson on Jefri’s directive, to perform for the Sultan’s 50th birthday for 17$ million in an arena specifically constructed for the occasion.

Michael Jackson performed at the Sultan’s 50th birthday. Photo: Wikimedia commons.

Bandar Seri Begawan – the world’s most complicated name for a capital city – is usually resting peacefully by the Brunei Bay. However, the last couple of weeks it has been in the global spotlight since the sultan recently announced the implementation of new draconian penal codes based on Sharia law. This does not come as a surprise since the sultanate first announced in 2013 its intention to introduce sharia law into its legal system. It has nevertheless caused global outrage since the new laws facilitate death by stoning as a punishment for male gay sex and adultery, as well as amputation of a hand and a foot for the simple crime of theft. It should be added that the new regulations apply only to Muslims.

George Clooney, along with other celebrities such as Ellen DeGeneres and Elton John, have voiced their opposition to the new laws. Clooney urged his fellow colleagues as well as other wealthy people to boycott hotels with ties to the sultan of Brunei. The actor stated: “Are we really going to help pay for these human rights violations? Are we really going to help fund the murder of innocent citizens?” in a guest column on Deadline Hollywood.

George Clooney is leading a boycott of luxurious hotels connected to the small sultanate. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Naturally, celebrities are not the only ones taking a stance in defending human rights. The decision has been condemned by a number of countries and organizations – including Sweden and the EU – as well as by the UN. Erywan Yusof – the Bruneian minister of foreign affairs – replied the following to the criticism: “Sharia law focuses more on prevention than punishment. Its aim is to educate, deter, rehabilitate and nurture rather than to punish.”

Now, why has the sultan imposed these new sharia regulations?

The simple theory is that the sultan has grown more religiously conservative in the past years. Additionally, there is an existing view which points at the possibility of discovering additional oil deposits if Allah’s will is further adopted. Brunei is after all facing the issue of emptying their oil and gas reserves within the next 20 years.

Another working theory is that the implementation of the draconian sharia laws is a method of paving the way for the heir to the throne, crown prince Haji Al-Muhtadee Billah. The laws could give the royal family judicial ground to restrain people of opposing to the not-as-popular crown prince.

Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah (left) with crown prince Haji Al-Muhtadee Billah (right). Photo: Jerome Tayborn /U.S. Airforce.

In spite of the laws being extremely discriminatory and gruesome, the Bruneian LGBT-community are relieved to see that the chances for persecution are relatively low. A confession together with at least four Muslim witnesses are needed to prosecute.

However, a clear reason to celebrate is the latest announcement made by the sultan. It included a moratorium, a postponing of the sharia death penalties. It is unclear exactly which was the trigger point for the royal backlash.

It goes without saying that the negative public attention that has pursued the country played a role. However, the most possible reason for the decision to currently not enforce the brutal death penalty is Brunei’s appearance before the Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations Human Rights Council. This review includes a thorough examination of Brunei’s human rights record. Another pressure point is the financial consequences, as a result of several boycotts and the loss of foreign investment, including a decrease in tourism. Furthermore, the sultan’s honorary degree in law from Oxford University was revoked to his great disappointment.

For some, it might come as a surprise that specifically Brunei would implement such strict sharia laws. The sultanate is – as a matter of fact – a welfare state with no income tax and free education. The 450,000 Bruneians also have access to cheap home loans and social housing. Extensive labouring is generally seen as optional. With the population being used to enjoy these generous welfare benefits, a stricter legislation can help the state to maintain control. After all, unemployment will turn into a royal headache when their last drop of oil has been sold.

Apart from the generous benefits, the country systematically oppresses free speech and neglects basic rights to some non-citizens, according to Amnesty. Furthermore, the sultanate is characterised as not being free, ranking just below Iraq in the Freedom House Index.

Bazaar vendor in Bandar Seri Begawan. Photo: Bernard Spragg / Pxhere.

Brunei’s quiet posture on Borneo’s northern coast has been exposed. Its reputation has been damaged even though it is unclear whether any of the sharia sentences will be realised. Even though a moratorium was extended, it does not guarantee a complete abolishment. If it is a strict attitude the royal family wants to demonstrate through the postponed legislation, the outcome is rather contradictory.

Imagine a South East Asian welfare state where adultery, alcohol and theft are prohibited and severely punished. In this very country, the prince is partying with prostitutes on a yacht with the name ‘Tits’ painted on its side. Meanwhile, the yacht is paid with money from a state fund. This – ladies and gentlemen – is Brunei Darussalam.

Markus Barnevik Olsson

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