Brunei: oil-rich sultanate in the tropics

11 Jan 2024 03:04pm
Brunei's Prince Abdul Mateen waves from his car as he leaves following his solemnization as part of the royal wedding at Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque in Bandar Seri Begawan in Brunei on Jan 11, 2024. (Photo by Mohd RASFAN / AFP)
Brunei's Prince Abdul Mateen waves from his car as he leaves following his solemnization as part of the royal wedding at Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque in Bandar Seri Begawan in Brunei on Jan 11, 2024. (Photo by Mohd RASFAN / AFP)
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SINAGPORE- Lavish celebrations for the wedding of Brunei's popular Prince Abdul Mateen and his commoner fiancee have shone a spotlight on the oil-rich sultanate in Southeast Asia.

A tiny tropical nation on the northern edge of Borneo island, Brunei is one of the wealthiest countries in the world due to its abundant energy reserves.

It is an absolute monarchy ruled by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, the father of the groom and world's longest reigning monarch, who was once the richest man on the planet. Here are some facts about the country:

- Long history -

The history of the coastal sultanate, which is surrounded by Malaysia, stretches back centuries. It was at its peak in the 15th century when it had an empire controlling large swathes of Borneo, but declined as European powers extended their colonial rule across Asia.

In 1888, it became a British protectorate.

However, it was not subsumed into the new states that were formed during the colonial era and after World War II -- as many sultanates in the region were.

The country gained full independence from Britain in 1984 and saw its economy grow at a rapid pace as it reaped the benefits of its enormous oil and gas reserves.

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- Rich economy -

Brunei's per capita GDP remains among the highest in the world due to its rich energy reserves. The government and government-linked institutions provide most jobs.

Its more than 450,000 citizens enjoy a relatively higher standard of living as they do not pay taxes while still receiving generous state benefits.

The country's heavy dependence on oil, however, makes it vulnerable to volatile oil prices, geopolitical tensions and production disruptions.

Brunei was plunged into a lengthy recession in 2021 and 2022 after domestic production slumped due to maintenance issues with its ageing oil wells.

The government has said it plans to diversify the economy, but analysts say no other industry has emerged so far and some estimate the reserves could run out by around 2050.

- Royal excess -

The sultan is one of the world's richest men, and tales of the royal family's extravagant lifestyles are the stuff of legend.

He is reported to have a vast collection of luxury vehicles, and his official residence is one of the world's largest palaces, with 1,788 rooms. The monarchy was deeply embarrassed by a family feud with his brother Jefri Bolkiah over the latter's alleged embezzlement of $15 billion during his tenure as finance minister in the 1990s.

Court battles and investigations revealed salacious details of Jefri's un-Islamic jetset lifestyle, including claims of gold toilet paper holders, harems of foreign women and pornographic statues at a property he owned in the United States.

- Hardline Islam -

Brunei was the first country in East or Southeast Asia to introduce sharia law at a national level in 2019 after years of delays.

The harsh laws included death by stoning for adultery and gay sex and the amputation of a hand or foot for theft, which rights campaigners branded as "barbaric".

Those punishments, however, have not been actively enforced following international backlash.

Analysts say the new code may be partly symbolic, as Hassanal is seeking to burnish his Islamic credentials among conservatives and win more support amid concerns about the economy.

While there has been some criticism of the laws on social media in Brunei, many people are believed to back them.

"I'm not bothered at all by the sharia law," a woman told AFP on Wednesday on the condition of anonymity.

"No one has been stoned and no hands have been chopped off so far. It's not as if we in Brunei are living in fear." - AFP