The Kingdom of Brunei
Peter and Margie Benziger
Wed 29 May 2013 04:12
Where in the World are Margie and Peter? The Kingdom of Brunei!
Our children usually sigh loudly, roll their eyes and offer very little sympathy when we express the fact that we sometimes get a bit overwhelmed and exhausted from the rigors of long-term cruising. Despite what we feel is a fairly balanced report of our passage covering not only the “highs” of experiencing travel to some of the most beautiful and remote places on earth but also the “lows” of replacing toilet hoses or refinishing teak decks when it’s 95 degrees in the shade, some people STILL think that we’re eating bonbons and, as Robin Leach on Lives of the Rich and Famous used to say, “Enjoying champagne wishes and caviar dreams.”
The truth is closer to “…wishing for a cold beer to wash down cream cheese on a Saltine Cracker!” And, as far as dreams go, we’re usually so tired at the end of the day, we hardly dream at all and certainly not about anything that involves caviar!
In fact, here’s a shot of one of our more glamorous day-to-day activities…
So, if we can’t live the life of the rich and famous, at least we could GO to where the rich and famous live for a little vicarious pleasure. It was time for a little R & R in the Kingdom of Brunei. The official name of the country is Negara Brunei Darussalam - which means Abode of Peace in Malay.
Peregrina anchored just off the Royal Brunei Yacht Club. Surprisingly, this little oasis was one of the most laid-back, unpretentious, super-friendly stopovers on our whole trip! We planned on staying 2-3 days. We ended up reluctantly pulling up anchor after two weeks!
I must admit I knew very little about Brunei. I knew that it was an oil-rich nation led by a Sultan who was very, Very, VERY wealthy but, frankly, before we arrived on the island of Borneo, I couldn’t have placed it on a map. If I did, I would have most likely put it up somewhere near the Red Sea among those Bedouin desert countries with tents and camels like Oman, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
I had no idea that Brunei was this tiny little (almost-1st world) country squeezed in-between Indonesia and Malaysia on the northwest coast of the island of Borneo with beautiful rainforests and nary a desert, nor a camel, to be found! So for any other geographically-challenged followers of these “Where in the World?” stories, let me provide you with a couple maps to help you get your bearings…
Here’s some background information so you can throw a few Brunei facts around and impress your friends…
Brunei covers an area of approximately 2,226 square miles on the island of Borneo. That’s about the size of the state of Delaware for our American readers.
It is bordered along the coast by the South China Sea and surrounded completely by the state of Sarawak, Malaysia. It is the only sovereign state completely on the island of Borneo. The rest of the island hosts parts of Malaysia (Sabah & Sarawak) and Indonesia (Kalimantan).
FYI – Borneo is the 3rd largest island in the world behind Greenland and New Guinea.
The population of Brunei is approximately 409,000, of which around 150,000 live in the capital Bandar Seri Begawan or, BSB as the locals call it.
GDP was a whopping $21,907,000,000 (That’s BILLIONS people!!!) in 2012 with per capita income set at $50,440. However, that individual figure is somewhat suspect as you will realize later when we talk about the lavish spending habits of the royal family whose accounting practices are sketchy at best. There does not appear to be a huge “trickle down” economic pattern in this country.
Don’t get me wrong! Bruneians live well. Forbes ranks Brunei as the fifth richest nation out of 182 nations due to its extensive petroleum and natural gas fields and the “perks” of these natural resources are numerous.
No taxes and a generous welfare system that provides subsidized housing, free medical care*, free education through university-level for all who qualify plus the infrastructure of a modern 1st world country make Brunei a pretty sweet place to live. Gas is dirt cheap and, with one private car for every 2.09 persons, Brunei has one of the highest car ownership rates in the world.
*For medical expertise not available in the country, citizens are sent overseas at the government's expense!
Brunei can trace its beginnings to the 7th century. It became a Sultanate in the 14th century and was pretty much a sleepy little jungle nation for 600 years where all the royals married their cousins. (I can’t say that’s really true and it’s not very nice but I DID read it somewhere!)
The current Sultan, Hassanal Bolkiah, is the 29th Sultan of the House of Bolkiah and has been on the throne since 1967. He hit the jackpot when he led his country into independence from Britain in 1984 and, by 1987, he was personally worth an estimated $40 BILLION dollars.
He is the Supreme Head of State and, according to a little addendum he inserted in the constitution, “…he can do no wrong in either his personal or any official capacity.” Now there’s a broad mandate for absolute power!
Once the richest man in the world, His Majesty’s fortunes have suffered somewhat in the past few years. Today, it’s estimated that he’s worth a paltry $20-25 billion dollars! Good thing he doesn’t have to pay taxes on his $400 million dollar home! See below one little section of the Istana Nural Iman Palace. It’s the biggest residence in the world and it’s impossible to capture the entire complex in one image but you get the idea…
Now, the Sultan is a stand-up guy! Whom else do you know that would invite 100,000 strangers to lunch? In fact, every year at the end of Ramadan, the Sultan opens his 1,788 room palace with 257 bathrooms (Yes, you read that right!) to the public for three days of feasting and more than 30,000 show up for a gourmet meal each day. We’re not talking hamburgers and weenies here! It’s a full spread with a gift for everyone and even a traditional packet of small bills - with the Sultan’s picture on each one - for the children.
What’s the tally for this chow-down to end the month-long fast of Ramadan with 100,000 of his “peeps” you ask? No figures given out but it’s got to be hundreds and hundreds of thousands….$$$$$$$$.....maybe even a million. Who knows?
But don’t cry for he, Hassanal Bolkiah….The truth is it’s just lunch in the gold-leafed, marbled halls of a wing in the palace that he probably only sees once a year! Chump change really…
Some of the serious money is tied up in the garages (actually five HUGE aircraft hangars) which house a portion of his collection of more than 7000 high-performance, custom-designed cars including 600 Rolls Royces, 500 Mercedes-Benz, 360 Ferraris, 175 Jaguars and 160 Porches as well as private jets and two 747’s with gold-plated furniture.
Here’s a 24-karat gold trimmed Rolls Royce that is in the Sultan’s fleet. Now, that’s how to say, “Pimp my ride!”
Yes, it’s good to be Sultan and may I remind you again how this all came to pass?
Oil that is…Black gold...Texas tea…Bubbling crude…
The first offshore oil well was drilled in 1957. Not long after, a gas field was discovered in 1963 making Liquified Natural Gas (LPG …same as we use in our barbecue’s) an important segment of the economic pie. As of 2012, crude oil and natural gas production account for about 90% of Brunei’s GDP. About 167,000 barrels of oil are produced every day, making Brunei the fourth largest producer of oil in South-east Asia. It also produces approximately 895,000,000 cubic feet of liquified natural gas per day, making Brunei the ninth-largest exporter of the substance in the world.
So the Sultan quickly became the “man about town” in the 80's and 90's buying up real estate in London, Paris, New York and Los Angeles, losing big in the gambling clubs, investing in a treasure trove of art masterpieces including a Renoir for a record $70 million; and accumulating what was called “a Smithsonian” of major jewels and a herd of over 200 polo ponies. He began transforming men into moguls: bankrolling the early exploits of the Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi and, allegedly, financing the purchase of Harrods department store in London for the Egyptian entrepreneur Mohamed Al Fayed.
Back home, the Sultan celebrated his 50th birthday with a concert by Michael Jackson in a stadium built for the occasion. Jackson was reportedly paid $17 million. Whitney Houston also performed for the royal family and was given a blank check and instructed to fill it in for what she thought she was worth which she, modestly, determined was more than $7 million.
But, the Sultan’s biggest extravagance and, what led to what was described as a huge “scandal” for the man who could “do no wrong” was his indulgence of his younger brother, Jefri, who he made Minister of Finance despite the fact that Jefri had left school at the tender age of 14 – long before he might have signed up for Economics 101 or Introduction to Accounting.
The two brothers enjoyed nearly two decades of hedonism together - racing Ferraris down the streets of BSB at midnight, wining and dining the most beautiful women all over the world and sailing the oceans on their fleet of mega-yachts.
Of course, we all know “money can’t buy good taste.” Jefri named the mega-yacht below, Tits along with her tenders, Nipple 1 and Nipple 2. My, this story is getting racy - Parental Guidance Advised!
Jefri snapped up real estate like Monopoly pieces—hundreds of far-flung properties, a collection of five-star hotels (the Dorchester, in London, the Hôtel Plaza Athénée, in Paris, the New York Palace, and Hotel Bel-Air and the Beverly Hills Hotel, in Los Angeles), and an array of international companies.
The brothers routinely emptied entire inventories of stores such as Armani and Versace, buying 100 suits at a time. When they partied overseas, they indulged in just about everything forbidden to observant Muslims. Afforded four wives by Islamic law, they left their multiple spouses and scores of children back home while they sent emissaries to comb the world for the sexiest women they could find in order to create a harem that made Hugh Hefner’s little warren look like chopped liver!
But, it was always Jefri who had the insatiable need to shop ‘til he dropped. After all, the Sultan had to run the country! All Jefri had to do was “party on!”
Vanity Fair once described Jefri as “Brunei’s notorious royal playboy, who has probably gone through more cash than any other human being on earth.” It is said his personal expenses totaled over $50 million a month! On top of what he and his brother managed to fritter away just for fun, he was charged in 1997 with stealing $14.8 billion from Brunei while serving as Finance Minister. He appeared to do so with blank checks from the Brunei Investment Agency which was also under his jurisdiction. In fact, Prince Jefri – high school dropout - was the person in charge with handling all of Brunei’s foreign investments! He basically had a carte blanche for siphoning billions to finance a personal lifestyle of extravagance. This might have gone on forever - his brother casting a blind eye to the dwindling assets of the Brunei Investment Agency. But, a rising tide of public criticism and legal actions threatened the monarchy. His brother finally woke up and set out to recover the fortune Jefri had supposedly hidden and, most likely, squandered.
After court proceedings in Brunei, the UK and the United States, Prince Jefri was forced to liquidate his assets to repay hundreds of millions of dollars to the Brunei government and various civil suits against him. He was banished from the Kingdom and lived in Europe quite comfortably on $10 million a month for several years before the two brothers reconciled and Jefri returned to Brunei quietly in 2009.
So, all’s well that ends well and, as they say…“Living well’s the best revenge!”
I suppose, Prince Jefri, just like Prince Harry and all the other little “Royal Brothers” that will NOT grow up to be King simply because they popped out second in line, felt the need to sow a few wild oats at the people’s expense.
It sure makes for a great story and considering that there doesn’t appear to be an end to the supply of oil and gas bubbling up from underneath Brunei’s territorial waters, under-writing the royal family’s decadent lifestyle seems like a drop in the bucket!
It’s just a shame they couldn’t fork over a few million to cure cancer or something like that…
But, anyway, so ends our story. For a couple weeks, we peeked into the lives of the rich and famous and we decided that we’d be lost in 1788 rooms and we can only drive one car at a time so we’ll pass on the fleet of Ferraris. We like our little sailboat with 700 square feet and a spacious 6’4” of headroom. We’re grateful for our family and our health and the good fortune to travel around this beautiful world making true friends along the way.
We’re happiest when we have an opportunity to hang out with the locals like this group below that we found relaxing by the beach near the Royal Brunei Yacht Club one day.
The Sultan of Brunei and Prince Jefri may feel that money can buy you happiness but we subscribe to the theory that…
“If you want to feel rich, just count the things you have that money can't buy.”