Brunei Darussalam (“Abode of Peace”) is not, as many of my friends guessed, in the Middle East. This tiny constitutional sultanate is a Commonwealth nation located on the island of Borneo off the coast of Malaysia. It is ruled by the Sultan of Brunei, His Majesty Hassanal Bolkiah.
This face was everywhere: on buildings, on posters, on books, and on tv. My favourite broadcast was a karaoke video with a song wishing the Sultan a happy birthday that played on a loop, with a montage of clips from his reign that ranged from his coronation to him delivering a speech while wearing a tracksuit.
As Forbes magazine will tell you, the Sultan was the richest man in the world in 1997 with an estimated estate value of $38B. However, between his brother the Prince spending several billion dollars of the family fortune and the drops in oil prices, he is now only one of the richest monarchs at $16B or so.
I had the opportunity to tour one of the Prince’s less-than-successful business ventures, the infamous Empire Hotel and Country Club. This place was the most expensive hotel in the world to build, costing $1.1B.
The majority of the money was poured into the details, like the mother of pearl inlay on the mosaics on the staircase bannisters. I am sure the amenities like the indoor couture shopping mall and private movie cineplex cost a pretty penny as well.
The rooms rent from $200 -1400 USD per night, depending on the suite. The Prince had a vision of opening a grand luxury hotel that would be packed with high-end tourists in all seasons. When I was there, the hotel was nearly deserted. I might have seen 10 guests around the entire property.
The Sultan does have a lot of other expenses to cover with his fortune, beyond financing his brother’s projects. As I learned from my tour guide, the Sultan provides free education and health care for all 385,000 citizens of his country and does not charge them any taxes. He gives out 300 new houses to his subjects on his birthday every year. He pays child allowances and renovation costs on the 3-5 bedroom houses that Bruneians rent for $30-50/month. He also employs about 80% of the population (the majority working for the oil company, of course).
Before you pack your bags to move to Brunei, let me caution you that citizenship is difficult to obtain. You have to be a resident of Brunei for 20 years before you can apply to take the tests, which include in-depth knowledge of Bruneian history and the ability to speak high Malay (the equivalent of learning medieval English).
Furthermore, although the oil and gas reserves here generate about $6B per year in revenue for the country, these resources are depleting. Brunei also imports the majority of its food and current subsidizes rice to decrease the cost of living for its citizens. The future for the Sultan and his country may not be so rosy if Brunei does not diversify its economy and become less reliant on the oil and gas industry.
Expanding the tourism industry with an international promotional campaign would be a good start. Unfortunately, few people know about this country outside of the region. Most of the time I was there, I felt like the only tourist in town.
So let me do a quick pitch on Brunei’s behalf. Brunei is made up of Malay, Chinese, Indian, and indigenous peoples. The official religion is Islam and alcohol is forbidden, but foreigners are allowed to bring it in to the country for private consumption. The top three local pastimes are kite flying, top spinning, and grass sledding, but Brunei has a lot to offer beyond those activities: a safe, beautiful capital city; good infrastructure; national museums; seaside beaches; longboats and rainforests; mangroves; and friendly residents, many of whom speak English.
And of course, the Sultan’s birthday party.