Brunei: tropical sultanate with oil wealth and sharia law

3 min

Bandar Seri Begawan (Brunei) (AFP)

Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, the world's second-longest reigning monarch, celebrated his golden jubilee Thursday with lavish celebrations, including a glittering procession and 21-gun salute.

The tiny country has some of the world's highest living standards because of its energy reserves but faces major challenges due to the collapse of oil prices, and has been criticised in recent years because of a shift towards hardline Islam.

Here are some facts about the sultanate:

- Long history -

The history of the tiny, coastal sultanate on tropical Borneo island, 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 it declined as European powers extended their colonial rule across Asia, and in 1888 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 abundant oil and gas reserves.

- Economic woes -

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 employment, and its approximately 400,000 citizens enjoy generous state benefits.

But as the oil price collapsed a few years ago, energy-dependent Brunei was plunged into a lengthy recession.

The government has announced plans to diversify the economy but analysts warn they have still not done enough and there is a risk they may not be able to provide the same sort of secure employment for young people as for previous generations.

- Vast wealth and excesses -

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 -- a vast pile that sits on a riverbank -- is one of the world's largest palaces, with about 1,800 rooms.

His playboy younger brother Prince Jefri Bolkiah has however attracted the most attention. He had a spectacular falling-out with Hassanal over allegations he embezzled billions during his time as finance minister in the 1990s.

Ensuing court battles and investigations shone an unwanted spotlight on the family's vast wealth and excesses. The prince's lavish lifestyle has been reported to included everything from gold toilet paper holders, to harems of Western women and pornographic statues he used to keep at a property he owned in the US.

Still, there are signs the siblings have settled their feud, with Prince Jefri attending Thursday's golden jubilee celebrations.

- Christmas banned in hardline shift -

Brunei, where about 80 percent of the population are Muslim, has been shifting towards hardline Islam in recent years. In 2014 the first phase of a controversial new Islamic sharia penal code came into effect despite rare domestic criticism and condemnation from the United Nations.

Fines or jail terms were introduced for offences including indecent behaviour, failure to attend Friday prayers and out-of-wedlock pregnancies.

Punishments such as death by stoning for offences including sodomy and adultery are expected to be introduced later.

As part of the hardline shift, Christmas celebrations were banned in 2015 with religious leaders warning that putting up festive trees and singing carols ran counter to Islam.