In the small Asian nation of Brunei, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah is a one-man show.

He's not only Brunei's absolute monarch and supreme leader of the Islamic faith, but also the country's prime minister, finance minister, foreign affairs and trade minister, superintendent of police, defence minister and commander of the armed forces, and even chancellor of the national university.

A personal wealth estimated at $27.7 billion has earned him a place among the world's richest rulers — and this week, the all-powerful Sultan became one of its most controversial.

The Sultan, 72, has introduced a brutal new criminal code in his tiny country, which is the first in East Asia to elevate sharia law to the national level, reports.


The laws, among other things, permit death by stoning for gay sex and adultery, amputation for theft and public flogging for abortion, and have been decried as "cruel and inhuman" by the United Nations.

While the Sultan has taken an ultraconservative, hard line approach to law enforcement in his kingdom, behind the scenes, his life is a whirlwind of extreme wealth and decadence, from his fleet of private passenger jets to having Michael Jackson sing at his birthday party.

The second longest-reigning monarch in the world, behind Elizabeth II, the sultan has been on Brunei's throne for 52 years, after inheriting it from his father.

Elaborate gold place settings for the Prince and Princess at the Persantapan Pengantin Diraja (Royal Banquet) following the wedding. Photo / Getty Images
Elaborate gold place settings for the Prince and Princess at the Persantapan Pengantin Diraja (Royal Banquet) following the wedding. Photo / Getty Images

The small nation on Borneo island, home to around 430,000 people, draws its wealth from exports of oil and natural gas, although much of the population lives in poverty.

The sultan, however, does not. His immense fortune is said to increase by $147 every second, thanks to those valuable oil assets.

And he's found no end of ways to spend it.


The sultan lives in the largest royal residence in the world: the Instana Nurul Iman Palace, a sprawling 1800-room residence on the bank of the Brunei River that's worth $1.8 billion.

As if the five swimming pools, massive mosque, airconditioned pony stable and banquet hall to fit 5000 guests aren't enough, the palace is decorated with fixtures made from gold and diamonds.


He is a known car fanatic and his luxury car collection is worth $9 billion, comprising Rolls Royces, Ferraris, Bentleys, Lamborghinis, Aston Martins and Jaguars.

He has a fleet of private planes, including a $138 million Airbus, a $251 million Boeing 767 and a customised Boeing 747 worth $431 million and decorated with gold.

His badminton coach earns a $2 million wage and he spends about the same on acupuncture and massages. When he wants a haircut he flies in his favourite stylist by private jet. When he he's co-ordinating outfits, matching shoes are flown in by helicopter.

The royal family loved the British jeweller Asprey & Garrard so much they bought it (until it was sold five years later).

To really get a sense of how wealthy this guy is, look no further than his extravagant 50th birthday back in 1996.

Sultan Hassanal splashed out $36.9 million on two weeks of celebrations for himself that included a polo match and an extravagant gala dinner with caviar. He paid Michael Jackson $25.8 million to perform at three concerts to mark the occasion.

He's also spent millions on his three weddings.

The sultan married his cousin, Raja Isteri Pengiran Anak Hajah Saleha, in 1965 and because polygamy is legal in Brunei, she remains his wife and Queen Consort despite him marrying and divorcing two other women.

He has 12 children — and footed the bill for five of their weddings.

The sultan and his new wife the Queen Azina at Istana Palace in Brunei Darussalam on July 15, 2006. Photo / Getty Images
The sultan and his new wife the Queen Azina at Istana Palace in Brunei Darussalam on July 15, 2006. Photo / Getty Images

When his oldest son and heir, Crown Prince Al-Muhtadee Billah married in 2004, Whitney Houston was paid $10.1 million to sing at the reception.

The international response to Brunei's new laws have cast a dark spotlight on the sultan's overseas investments, especially luxury hotels that are now facing boycotts such as London's The Dorchester and the Beverly Hills Hotel in LA.

His playboy brother Prince Jefri Bolkiah has a London residence at St John's Lodge in swanky Regent's Park. It's the most expensive private house in the UK and said to be worth $203 million.

Prince Jefri's own spending habits landed him in trouble with the sultan, who sued him for misspending billions of dollars during a financial crisis in Asia in the 1990s.


Despite the sultan's flippant spending, under his absolute rule Brunei has been a socially conservative state — and it has just become even more so.

Under the Islamic criminal code enforced this week, gay sex, adultery and rape are punishable by death by stoning, and amputation is a punishment for theft. Pregnancy out of wedlock and failing to pray on Friday may also incur massive fines or jail time.

Women who have sex with women will also be punished, not with death but by whipping and jail of up to 10 years.

The law applies to Muslims, which comprise about two-thirds of Brunei's population, and non-Muslims.

Brunei's government has defended the laws, saying the sharia penal code aimed to "educate, respect and protect the legitimate rights of all individuals, society or nationality of any faiths and race".

In a speech broadcast nationwide this week the sultan called for "stronger" Islamic teachings in Brunei.

The sultan instituted the penal code in 2014 but implementation had been delayed amid opposition by rights groups.

Homosexuality had already been illegal in Brunei and punishable by imprisonment, but with the law changes enforced this week, it joins a small group of countries where homosexuality is punishable by death.

Experts have said the sultan's shift towards an even more hard line brand of Islam may be due to the country's recent recession, which was caused by plunging oil prices.

"Brunei is becoming Southeast Asia's Saudi Arabia," Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert from Rome's John Cabot University, told AFP.

"The regime has increasingly been relying on religious legitimacy, appealing to a conservative Islamic ideology. The weakening economy in Brunei as well as concerns about possible erosion of support underscore this increasing reliance on religion."

Francisco Bencosme, the Asia-Pacific advocacy manager for Amnesty International, told The New York Times international condemnation was unlikely to sway the sultan.

"The more international outcry there is, it makes the sultan look more like he's the defender of conservative Islam," he said.

Amid calls for his hotels to be boycotted and Brunei's national airline to be banned from Australian airports, members of Brunei's tiny, underground LGBT community are reeling as the tough penal code introduced in 2014 is now finally and brutally enforced.

"Living in Brunei, we already knew that our sexual identity is taboo and should not be expressed. We already felt belittled before the law came to place," a 23-year-old member of the LGBTQ community, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Associated Press.

"Now with it, we feel even smaller and the ones who could potentially oppress us have more opportunity to harass us to say and do what they want."