Oil-rich Brunei must diversify, Sultan says in birthday speech

BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN - Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah used his birthday speech on Saturday to call for economic diversification to ensure continued prosperity in the tiny oil-rich nation.

By (AFP)

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Published: Sat 15 Jul 2006, 7:16 PM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 3:10 PM

More than 2,000 foreign and local guests gathered at a 1,700-room palace for the speech by the sultan, once rated as the world’s richest man.

“Among the most important things is to ensure that the sources of oil and gas can continue to be enjoyed by the people,” the sultan said.

“Along with that, economic diversification is also important for strengthening the country’s survival, including an increase in foreign investment and a more eco-friendly policy.”

The sultan, one of the world’s longest-reigning monarchs who is also prime minister, defence minister, finance minister and head of Islam, spoke without a microphone in front of a golden canopy where his two wives sat.

Hassanal last year married Malaysian television news presenter Azrinaz Mazhar Hakim, 26. She bore him a son, his 11th child, last month.

Brunei, which occupies a sliver of Borneo island, is Southeast Asia’s third-largest oil producer. It is also the world’s fourth-largest producer of liquefied natural gas.

Official figures say the country had a population of about 341,000 in 2002, and the mineral wealth has brought the citizens one of the highest per capita incomes in Asia.

There is no personal income tax, and education and healthcare are free. Houses, cars and even pilgrimages to Mecca are subsidized.

Hassanal’s Malay Muslim absolute monarchy dates back to the 14th century when his ancestors nominally controlled all of Borneo island and some parts of the Philippines’ Sulu islands, according to official history.

Thousands of people, including school children waving flags, lined the streets to watch the sultan’s cavalcade as he arrived at a city stadium for a ceremony earlier on Saturday.

“In Brunei, all men like the Sultan,” Mohammad Akram Hossain, 34, said smiling beside the roadside earlier Saturday while he waited for the monarch’s Rolls-Royce.

“Every year I come,” said Hossain, a Bangladeshi and 10-year Brunei resident who said he runs a construction firm. He is one of tens of thousands of foreigners working in the country.

“I’m very happy,” he said.

Hassanal was welcomed with a 21-gun cannon salute at the stadium, watched over by his goateed image displayed on surrounding buildings as tourists and locals not invited to the ceremony peered through the stadium gates.

Wearing a pillbox hat and military dress tunic bearing several medals, he walked onto the field under a parasol to inspect a military honour guard to the sound of bagpipes.

A fly-past of military turboprop aircraft and attack helicopters ended the ceremony.

The sultan’s celebration was to continue into the evening with a state banquet attended by the leaders of the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Cambodia -- and about 10,000 other guests, a government spokesman said.

The sultan was crowned on August 1, 1968 and Brunei achieved full independence from Britain on January 1, 1984.

In its report on human rights practices in Brunei released in March, the US State Department said the sultan “governed under emergency powers that place few limits on his power.”

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