500 Rolls-Royces, $20,000 haircuts, and a 1,788-room palace: Everything we know about the lavish life of the Sultan of Brunei, who sparked outrage after introducing a law punishing homosexuality with death

  • The Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah is currently the subject of widespread condemnation for making homosexuality punishable with the death penalty.
  • The torrent of criticism got so loud Bolkiah backpedaled on Sunday, promising the law would never be enforced, but it still exists as legislation.
  • But he was once a young, liberal “playboy” who embraced hedonism and freedom, despite being the head of the Muslim faith in the small southeast Asian nation.
  • Spurred on by his profligate brother Prince Jefri, the sultan spent billions on yachts, cars, statues, casinos, and almost everything else money can buy.
  • Here’s an inside look at what his life is like.
  • Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.

The Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, was widely condemned in April for ushering in new laws to punish homosexuality with death by stoning as part of a move to align the country with Sharia law, a strict interpretation of Islam.

After a huge backlash from celebrities and Western governments alike, the sultan backpedaled this week, promising that the punishment will not be enforced. Brunei will, however, keep the law on its statute books, the Sultan added.

Before becoming an advocate for the strictest form of Islam, the 72-year-old sultan was once known for his lavish, liberal, and western lifestyle.

At one point the richest man on the planet, worth as much as $US40 billion, his exploits included reportedly racing Ferraris at midnight through Brunei’s capital, commissioning a 1,788 room palace, and spending $US20,000 to get his hair cut.

Here’s a look at the Sultan of Brunei’s extravagant, fabulous life.


Bolkiah was born on 15 July 1946, the son of Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien III.

Wikimedia CommonsSultan Omar Ali Saifuddien III.

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien had 10 children, six daughters and four sons, with several wives, but chose Bolkiah to succeed him from an early age.


The future sultan kept a low profile in his teens. He was home schooled and then sent to secondary school at The Victoria Institution, in Malaysia.

YouTube/Kamal IbrahimThe famous Victoria Institution school in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

1965: After leaving school, Bolkiah married his cousin Pengiran Anak Saleha in an arranged marriage. He was 19.

The couple have had two sons and four daughters together. Bolkiah has four other children shared between his two other wives.

Bolkiah is the 29th sultan to come from the same family, one which was famous for marrying internally.


In 1967, Bolkiah travelled to England to train at the UK’s Royal Military Academy, in Sandhurst. While he was there, his father abdicated making him the new sultan.

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien III stepped down in protest against encroaching communism and also demands from Britain for Brunei to be more democratic.


Bolkiah ascended to the throne upon on his return in August 1968.

YouTube/KL Media ChannelHassanal Bolkiah, being crowned Sultan in 1968.

Source: Dictionary of the Modern Politics of Southeast Asia


Despite becoming a married man and leader of the nation, Bolkiah did not let his nuptials get in the way of enjoying himself. He soon became famous the world over for spending his billion dollar fortune.

ABCIn 2016, ABC Australia aired a documentary called ‘The Playboy Sultan’ detailing his exploits.

With his brother Prince Jefri, Bolkiah spent big in London’s casinos and bought luxury cars, yachts, and hotels.

Jefri was notoriously bad with money, and said to be a bad influence on the newly appointed sultan.

Source: Vanity Fair


Bolkiah commissioned his own private zoo — which has 30 Bengal tigers. The sultan entertains world leaders who visit Brunei with shows at the zoo.

The zoo contains falcons, flamingos and cockatoos which can play basketball, ride bicycles, sing, talk, and imitate other animals, the sultan’s zoo keeper told The Bangkok Post.


He also got the world’s most successful ever golfer, Jack Nicklaus, to design a golf course for him at one of his hotels.

Empire Hotel and Country ClubThe golf course at the sultan’s Empire Hotel and Country Club in Brunei.

But as Bolkiah got older, and took the head of state role more seriously, he had to deal with Prince Jefri’s insatiable appetite for luxury.

Jefri – who was finance minister for much of 1980s and 1990s – spent tens of billions of dollars of the crown estate’s money funding an even more lavish lifestyle than his brother.

He was sacked as a minister by the sultan in 1997, who accused him of embezzling as much as $US16 billion.

Jefri’s 150-foot yacht, called “Tits,” was also seized by the the sultan.

The two small boats used to ferry people to and from it were called “Nipple 1” and “Nipple 2.”

Prince Jefri’s remaining assets were sold off by the crown in a 2001 auction. CNN reported it took six days to sell off over 10,000 items

The auction included, CNN said, one eight-foot bronze Trojan horse, several jacuzzi covered in gold plate, several statues of flamingos, a Comanche helicopter simulator, a plane, and an F1 race car.


In 1981, Bolkiah got married again to a non-royal flight attendant Mariam. The pair were married until 2003.

Source: Sydney Morning Herald


In 1984, Brunei gained formal independence from the UK, and Bolkiah wanted to mark the occasion like never before.

Source: Dictionary of the Modern Politics of Southeast Asia


To celebrate, he commissioned a $US600 million palace, known as “Istana Nurul Iman.” It included a garage with space for 800 cars.

The 1,778-room palace covers an estimated 2.2 million square feet (50 acres) and was designed by architect Leandro Locsin.

Source: The Associated Press


The palace was named as the “world’s largest residential palace” by Guinness World Records. It boasts 57 bathrooms and a huge, lavish throne room.

Source: Guinness World Records


Around the same time, Bolkiah paid $US70 million for this oil painting: “Young Girls at the Piano” by French Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

Art.comRenoir’s ‘Young Girls at the Piano.’

The Sultan was often drawn into controversies surrounding his brother’s excessive lifestyle. During the 1980s and 1990s Prince Jefri reportedly oversaw a harem of 40 young women.

ABC AustraliaJillian Lauren, who wrote a book about her time in the harem, and said she slept with the Sultan hundreds of times.

In the book “Some Girls: My Life in a Harem,” American woman Jillian Lauren said Prince Jefri recruited her for his harem when she was 18 and living in New York.

She alleged that the Sultan, a married man, slept with women from the harem.

In 2014, Lauren told CNN: “I am a witness to the fact that the sultan was drinking, was committing adultery, was not exactly living on the straight and narrow.”

The Brunei government have dismissed Lauren’s claims, saying in a statement to CNN: “We vehemently deny the allegations.”


In 1998, former Miss USA Shannon Marketic attempted to sue Bolkiah and Prince Jefri.

YouTube/Shannon MarketicShannon Marketic at the Miss California competition in 1992.

Marketic alleged she was forced to spend a month in the harem in dehumanising conditions.

According to CNN, both brothers denied the allegations, with Bolkiah claiming he had never even met Marketic.

The case was dropped when courts “granted the brothers immunity from legal action, owing to their joint status as a foreign head of state,” CNN said.


The Sultan is perhaps most famous for his love of lavish automobiles.


Bolkiah has 500 Rolls-Royces, and shares a collection of over 5,000 cars with Prince Jefri. When they were younger, the pair reportedly raced Ferrari super cars through Brunei’s capital Bandar Seri Begawan in the middle of the night.

World of Diamonds GroupRolls Royce Phantom.

During the 1990s, the Sultan’s family reportedly accounted for almost half of all Rolls-Royce purchases in the world.

He was awarded the Guinness World Record for the largest Rolls Royce collection in 2011.

Bolkiah owns many more cars with a combined worth of $US4 billion, including the 500 Rolls-Royces.

The collection includes a Lamborghini Murcielago LP640, Bentley Continental R, Ferrari Mythos concept car, both of the Ferrari 456 GT Sedans, the only right-hand drive Mercedes-Benz CLK-GTR in the world, and five McLaren F1s.

Source: Gizmodo, Vanity Fair


The Sultan’s gold royal wedding Rolls-Royce is one of a kind, with an open top and platform for an umbrella bearer.


In February of 1997 Bolkiah became Brunei’s finance minister, after he sacked Prince Jefri for allegedly embezzling state funds.

YouTube/SparkyHassanal Bolkiah at his birthday party in 1983.

Source: Dictionary of the Modern Politics of Southeast Asia


Thanks to Brunei’s huge oil reserves, Bolkiah was the richest man in the world from the mid 1980s until the 1990s. He lost his crown to Microsoft founder Bill Gates late in the 90s.

Source: The Independent


Bolkiah divorced his second wife in 2003, and became furious and humiliated when reports emerged she had been tricked out of $US2.7 million by a fortune teller.

Source: The Times


In 2005, the Sultan married his third wife, Malaysian TV anchor Azrinaz Mazhar Hakim. She was 33 years his junior. They divorced in 2010.


Bolkiah did not lose his penchant for excess even as he aged. He still often spends $US20,000 for a single haircut.

The Times reported that Bolkiah flies out his favourite barber from London, where he works at the Dorchester hotel in Mayfair.

“He goes regularly, sometimes every three or four weeks. The sultan flies him first-class at a cost of about $US12,000.”

“Everything is paid for. Hotel, luxury food. It’s a case of ‘just keep signing, that’s all’.”

The barber is then given an envelope with thousands of dollars in, the Times said.


The Sultan also bought himself his own Boeing 747.

It cost at least $US400 million, and was kitted out with $US120 million worth of accessories, like solid gold wash basins.

He reportedly gave his daughter an Airbus A340 for her birthday.

Source: Daily Mail


A 1999 FORTUNE profile of the Sultan documented this stay in a US hotel …

Richard Behar wrote for FORTUNE magazine:

“Records from one North American hotel in 1995 show the Sultan’s party using more than 100 rooms in four days, racking up a bill that topped $US1 million.”

“Generally, the royals rent entire floors of hotels and don’t venture downstairs until checkout day.”


Bolkiah hit the headlines in April 2019, when Brunei announced that it would now punish homosexuality with death by stoning as part of a new penal code based on Shariah law first proposed in 2014.

Source: INSIDER


But, the news went viral. And a boycott on nine luxury hotels owned by Brunei was endorsed by celebrities and politicians in the west.

Twitter/Ellen DeGeneresGay US TV show host Ellen DeGeneres tweeted about the hotel boycott.

Source: Business Insider


In response, Brunei asked people to respect its decision, and said the law was just meant as a deterrent.

Brunei hit back – calling for “respect” from the international community.

The tiny Muslim nation said the new laws are meant to prevent rather than punish, and to safeguard family values, and admitted they will be very hard to enforce.

Source: INSIDER


But on May 5 under immense international pressure, Bolkiah announced the punishment would never be enforced.

In a televised speech, the sultan said Allah would never hand down laws meant to inflict cruelty on others.

George Clooney, probably the most vocal celebrity voice against the law, said people need to keep up the boycott despite the assurances.

“This is a huge step forward after a giant leap backwards,” he said. “As soon as the pressure dies down they could simply start the process of carrying out executions.”

“So in reference to the boycott everyone should do what they feel is correct. For my family and me we simply can’t walk away until this draconian law is no longer on the books.”

Source: Reuters, Deadline

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