The Sultan and I

Anthony Howard

  • By God’s Will: A Portrait of the Sultan of Brunei by Lord Chalfont
    Weidenfeld, 200 pp, £14.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 297 79628 3
  • The Richest Man in the World: The Sultan of Brunei by James Bartholomew
    Viking, 199 pp, £12.95, April 1989, ISBN 0 670 82152 7

The first time I became anything more than routinely conscious of the existence of that faintly ludicrous figure, the Sultan of Brunei, was in December 1985. Until around then – as Lord Chalfont obligingly mentions in the course of a work that can otherwise only be compared with The Lives of the Saints – the general view (endorsed not only by a public opinion poll but by me as well) was that the Sultan’s kingdom was ‘somewhere in the Middle East’, possibly even ‘one of the Gulf Emirates’. If nothing else, the simultaneous appearance of these two highly contrasting biographies serves to emphasise what a serious lapse of knowledge that had been on my part. James Bartholomew’s, it is true, qualifies as an almost satirical study, but it would hardly have much point if its subject was not already an identifiable character in the international cast of the rich and the super-rich.

The Sultan’s fortune, we are informed, weighs in at something like $25 bn, or three times that of the Queen; he runs a fleet of at least thirty motor-cars, including 11 Rolls-Royces and Bentleys, seven Mercedes and four Ferraris; he owns the (now being refurbished) Dorchester Hotel as well as a minimum of five other private residences in London, including a lavish stately home improbably sited on the borders of Southall; and – I almost forgot – his pride and joy used to be (until he got bored with it) a custom-built Boeing 727 complete with its own personal Jacuzzi from which, in the case of an emergency, the water could be pumped out into the skies in seven-and-a-half seconds. Clearly, in a materialist world, a person of consequence, and one of whose eminence and graciousness Lord Chalfont is quite right to remind us.

In fact, I had the chance to realise the error of my own ways well before either of these two books came out. Just before Christmas 1985 the editor of the Observer worriedly told me that he was under some pressure to publish a story that the paper’s proprietor, Mr ‘Tiny’ Rowland, the chief executive of Lonrho, was very interested in: it concerned, he added conspiratorially, ‘the richest man in the world’, the Prime Minister’s son and (inevitably) Mr Mohamed Al-Fayed, then the relatively new owner of Harrods. From that moment on, the Sultan of Brunei became a shadowy – if bewildering – presence hovering over the home life of the Observer.

After a rearguard action, mounted by myself and others, the Rowland-inspired story (‘Mark Thatcher’s mystery trip to see Sultan’) appeared on 12 January 1986, taking up most of the Observer’s front page and a good deal of page two. Its publication, since it was totally unsourced and had been through no normal journalist’s checks, was rigorously opposed by the paper’s then news supremo, Magnus Linklater, as well as by the two members of the Observer’s investigative unit, David Leigh and Paul Lashmar. I added my voice to theirs, urging vigilance and caution.

To no avail, however – and perhaps understandably. On Saturday, 11 January 1986, Donald Trelford, the editor of the Observer, had spent a lot of time closeted in the paper’s fourth-floor boardroom. Outside the Observer’s premises that afternoon stood a convoy of Rolls-Royces and other opulent vehicles. I am not suggesting the Sultan himself was present (it might have been better if he had been) – but I should not be totally astonished to hear that that day saw one of Mr Rowland’s rare visits to the office, perhaps even accompanied by that other great hero of our time (and former hanger-on of the Sultan’s), Mr Adnan Khashoggi.

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