Until this week, the principal claim to fame of the Sultan of Brunei was his enormous personal wealth. Since April 3rd he’s become better known as the man who not only thinks homosexuals ought to be stoned to death, but has the power to make it happen; the new interpretation of Shariah law which Brunei has implemented not only potentially subjects members of the LBGT community to the death penalty, but does so using a form of execution whose place in the modern world can best be understood through a shortlist of countries where it is still legally practiced: Iran and Somalia.
To clarify, that list would in fact be a little longer if we include countries where stoning is legal but hasn’t officially been used recently, such as Qatar, the UAE, Pakistan, Mauritania, Sudan, Yemen, and the ever-admirable Saudi Arabia. Then there are those countries where stoning is not legal but the government lacks the wherewithal to dissuade the locals from doing it anyway, such as Iraq, Mali, and Afghanistan. While no executions of any kind have taken place in Brunei since 1957, the nations listed above are now the company the country is seen to keep.
The problem for Brunei is that while appalling things happen in many parts of the world, there is a certain perception that Brunei ought to know better – that while the other countries on the list of stoners have always been seen as backward, Brunei was a part of the civilized world which respected human rights, only to make an alarming U-turn. And while it can be argued that sovereign states have the right to implement whatever laws they choose, the fact that Brunei’s actions have drawn condemnation from the UN, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the US State Department, and Elton John makes it clear that the country has let itself down in the eyes of much of the world.
International opprobrium may ultimately amount to little more than statements of disapproval on the diplomatic level, but this particular cause seems to be attracting the attention of the global public, or at least its western members. People who would normally be hard-pressed to tell Brunei from Bahrain have expressed an interest in boycotting the country, and in particular the hotels owned by the Brunei Investment Agency – largely thanks to the efforts of a number of celebrities who have taken the trouble to publicize the names of the properties people definitely shouldn’t be staying at. I won’t list them here as my contribution is to avoid giving them any further publicity. I won’t be staying at any of them either, although I think George Clooney might be more effective in his boycott than I will on the grounds that he otherwise might have done.
The wave of negative publicity has quickly proved potent, as the public reaction on social media has caused an enforced break from the usual strategy of engagement. This causes something of a dilemma, since it would appear unreasonable and unfair that hotel representatives should be exposed to the level of vitriol and abuse that has ultimately resulted in the suspension of the hotels’ social media channels, especially when those staff members themselves are neither responsible for the implementation of the offensive laws, nor in all likelihood support them. On the other hand, an abusive public has quickly disabled an important avenue of communication used by the hotels, thereby achieving perhaps all the damage that any collection of individuals could hope for.
Even more effective, however, might be the backlash against Royal Brunei Airlines, as STA Travel has ceased to sell seats on the national carrier, and Virgin Australia has withdrawn from an agreement which allows employees to use Royal Brunei for leisure purposes. Meanwhile, the government of Queensland has reconsidered the use of tax revenues to support the airline as it opens up a new route to Brisbane, and an online petition has called for the airline to lose its rights to fly to Australia. A corporate response, backed up by public opinion, may yet be sufficient to make a lasting impression, as long as those organizations doing business with Brunei are prepared to accept the financial costs of their moral principles.
For Brunei itself, the country has been striving to develop its tourist industry and was targeting 278,000 arrivals for 2018, with the Chinese accounting for more than a third of those visitors. With the country now making headlines around the world, however, the Ministry of Primary Resources and Tourism may no longer face the challenge of promoting a relatively unknown destination to potential travelers. Perhaps a re-branding will be in order: Visit Brunei – the Mogadishu of the East.