Speaking of oil-rich countries, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE usually come to mind, but there is one more that is equal in output per barrel and if not more so in its ostentatious display of wealth. Sitting south to the South China Sea, Brunei seldom steps into the global spotlight, nor does it play the role of a ‘key minority’ as Qatar does. It was not until recent years that the country started to raise a few eyebrows with its political-economic undercurrents.
Sharia Law in the land of luxury
Since its independence from the British, Brunei has always presented itself as a moderating presence in the Islamic community. However, in 2014, the Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah announced that Brunei would adopt Sharia law, one that would be imposed on his non-Muslims subject (which takes up 1/3 of Brunei’s population). For starters, consumption of alcohol and preaching of heathen faiths are banned. And although the country had temporarily abolished the death penalty in 1957, more archaic items from the Sharia Law, such as stoning and chopping one’s hands, were also reintroduced to its legal system, much to the dismay of non-Muslims and foreign observers. Being the first East Asian country that adopts the Sharia Law, this move signaled a Brunei tilting towards ‘Islamization’ and was greeted by unanimous condemnations from the United Nations, Amnesty International and a multitude of LGBTQ rights organizations.
This legal reform is implemented in three phases according to crime severity. The first phase covers slaps of the wrists from small fines to a couple weeks in jail against ‘un-Islamic practices’. The second covers punishment of theft and robbery: flogging and chopping one’s hand off, while the third phase imposes stoning and hanging on adultery and murder. Put in place on May 2014, the first phase banned any open display of Christmas celebration citing concerns of ‘leading its Muslim population astray‘. The second phase was scheduled to follow at the end of 2014 but was then postponed due to ‘legal complications’, while phase three was pushed further back from 2016 to 2018. At the time of writing, Brunei’s religious affairs ministry has yet to finish rewriting the country’s legal code, with His Majesty publically expressing his disappointment of repeated delays.
However, out in the streets, these ‘reforms’ seem to carry very little weight. Take the alcohol prohibition as an example, beer is still offered by most eateries, with Chinese restaurants filling their teapots with frosty pints. Furthermore, Brunei’s religious police hold little to no power and authority over civilians, making them more bark than bite. As for the country’s international standing, even though its Islamization was initially frowned upon, these murmurs quickly died down as visiting journalists discovered its minuscule social impact.
Dispelling Brunei’s resource curse
From the nation’s lukewarm reception, it is obvious that Brunei’s sudden piety is more than an aging monarch’s bid to retain power, but also a roundabout solution of its resource curse. Like the Gulf states, Brunei’s economy relies heavily on its oil export, with fossil fuel contributing 93% of the government income, 60% of its GDP and 98% of its total exports. As Brunei’s oil supplies and refinement companies are mostly nationalized, 60-70% of its total population is under the government’s (or its subsidiaries) employment. As public and government expenditures are well-covered by petrodollars, taxation is almost unheard of among the local populace. Although its absolute monarchy has been lambasted for its inefficient and opacity, Brunei’s low unemployment rate and excellent welfare meant that its government was seldom challenged. However, threatened by renewable energy and falling oil price, Brunei’s income has plummeted by 70% in the last three years. Cash-strapped as a single-product economy, the government can only turn towards austerity and welfare-cuts.
This paradox of plenty was shared by all oil-producing countries, Saudi Arabia, for instance, has been diversifying its economy by developing local tourism, finance, and construction for years. This idea naturally hasn’t escaped Brunei’s ruling class: back in 2008, there was the Wawasan 2035, a strategic plan to boost the nation’s education, tourism, information technology sectors and put a stop to its petroleum addiction. A decade has passed. Nothing of note was brooded from Wawasan, yet the country’s dependence on oil export has grown steeper by the year. Islamic finance would have been an option, but Brunei is already sandwiched by Malaysia and Indonesia, both of them bustling hubs of Islamic finance in South East Asia, and overtaken by Singapore in international connectivity. The government was keen for expert opinions, but murky politics that underlines its absolute monarchy meant that their suggestion seldom reaches the Sultan.
With conservative Islam on the rise in Southeast Asia, Brunei found it convenient to consolidate power by appealing the Islamic community. The Sultan’s reinstatement of ‘Mufti’ granted local religious leaders legal influences through their interpretation of scriptures. By affirming the centrality of Islam in Brunei’s society, a helpful division was forged among the populace: a dominant Muslim majority with a vested interest in the monarchy and a fading non-Muslim minority that is coincidentally less loyal to the throne.
So what’s behind the Sultan’s quest for power? As with all absolute monarchies, Brunei’s biggest problem ahead is that of succession, and as with all successions, it is a process that demands stability and legitimacy. In other words, all these machinations and legal reforms are laid as a foundation for the reign of Brunei’s next Sultan. Facing economic crisis, His Majesty’s only option would be to cut back on social welfares instead of paying the people that keep the throne secure, guaranteeing waves of protest and unrest. Thus, a strong monarchy is needed to brave the storm, but Brunei’s resource curse will always be its sword of Damocles. Without any more carrots for his subjects, the stick that is Brunei’s royal court will find itself in the dustbin of history.