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.

That was not the end of it. As a result of that story being printed, another more curious – and far more comic – figure entered my journalistic life by proxy. Fortunately, I never met him, although I believe poor Donald Trelford did have a bemused encounter with him. Shri Chandra Swamiji Maharaj (popularly known as ‘the Swami’) is a worldly, self-promoting Indian guru, who subsequently proved to be the source of a lot of Mr ‘Tiny’ Rowland’s more eccentric information about the Sultan/Al-Fayed connection – though hardly a particularly public-spirited one, since at least two million dollars eventually found their way into his pocket in exchange for some more or less incomprehensible alleged tapes of the Holy Man in conversation with Mohamed Al-Fayed.

A book that might throw some light on this bizarre episode – always strenuously denied by Mohamed Al-Fayed himself – has, as ill-luck would have it, recently been withdrawn by its second publishers: written by an American lawyer, Steven Martindale, and appropriately entitled By Hook or by Crook, it is said to be not without unconscious humour. But for a period, anyway, there was little inclination on Lonrho’s part to question the guru’s credentials; and, for twelve months or more (until Mr Rowland finally fell out with him and a luckless reporter was dispatched to India to expose him), the Observer was deep into the swamp of the Swami.

Even now, as I recall all that occurred, I find it hard to credit. Cruelly, however, the evidence is still before my eyes. The original stumer of a story, the one that appeared on 12 January 1986, was by lined ‘A Staff Reporter’: four months later, the ‘Staff Reporter’ struck again. This time – in one of the most limp newspaper ‘intros’ that I can recollect – the message was that ‘powerful new evidence has emerged’ re-forging the link between the Prime Minister’s son, Brunei and Harrods. The story which surfaced in the Observer of 18 May 1986 was, to be frank, a bit puzzling. It was decorated with a large photograph of the Swami in beard and beads, and he certainly could not complain of the way in which he was introduced to the British public:

A rich and mysterious Indian guru is emerging as another key figure in the Harrods deal. It was he, Shri Chandra Swaniji Maharaj, who arranged the introduction of Mohamed Fayed to the Sultan of Brunei in 1984. The Swami, a giant bearded figure in flowing white, claims to advise a number of political figures around the world, including King Hussein of Jordan, President Mobutu, Rajiv Gandhi and Richard Nixon. He is currently on his way to visit ex-President Marcos in Honolulu. He has met Mrs Thatcher several times.

Plainly a figure of some significance – and, no doubt, the Observer’s two million readers felt suitably chastened at never having heard of him. It was hardly their fault, however. The Swami had only been propelled onto centre-stage because he appeared to have some connection with a document which the Observer also proudly unveiled that day (he was, in fact, pictured alongside it). Purporting to be a record of a two-day visit made to Brunei by ‘Mr Mohamed Al-Fayed and Mr M. Thatcher’ in October 1984 – headed ‘To Whom It May Concern’ and rather sweetly signed ‘Yours sincerely’ – it looked distinctly fishy. The question of its authenticity was, according to Mr Bartholomew (the latter part of whose book gives a marvellously concise account of all these weird events), eventually to lead to a serious breach between Mr Rowland and ‘the giant bearded figure in flowing white’.

In what way does it matter and what is the point, except for laughs, of dredging it all up now? The answer, of course, is that Brunei – and in particular the role of its 42-year-old Sultan in relation to the Al-Fayeds – has always formed a central part of Lonrho’s case in its long, now apparently doomed fight with the Department of Trade and Industry over the 1985 House of Fraser takeover. Similarly – since the two are, alas, more or less indistinguishable – the Sultan has also been rather more than a bit-player in the Observer’s version of the same events.

It has always been the Observer’s contention that the £615 million which had allowed the Al-Fayeds to snatch the prize of Harrods from under ‘Tiny’ Rowland’s nose had been supplied by the Sultan. But that was always the one part of our case – now, it seems, being generally vindicated – about which I was marginally sceptical. Perhaps heretically, it had seemed to me that the money might well have come from somewhere else (conceivably even from the Gulf, the area in which I had originally, in my ignorance, been inclined to place Brunei – not perhaps so serious a mistake, after all, since the Sultan’s subjects barely outnumber the population of Croydon).

The Observer, however, from the moment its city editor took his own independent stand (in the absence of the editor, incidentally – a not wholly unusual occurrence), sternly refused to entertain any such doubts. Even when I went out of my way to deliver a warning to both the editor and the city editor to have a care on the Brunei point, they were not disposed to listen. My temerity was the result of a chance encounter with the Sultan’s stockbroker, an old Oxford chum. He had solemnly assured me that we were wrong in our identification of the source of the Al-Fayeds’ funds. Perhaps by then we were in no mood to accept ‘assurances’ from anyone (remember those about the Fayeds’ own wealth from Kleinwort Benson?) – or maybe we were already too deep in to withdraw. In any event, I have very little doubt that from that time on I was labelled a weak sister in the whole enterprise – and that that message did not take long to be conveyed to Lonrho’s headquarters in Cheapside.

Interestingly, however, this is the one area in which the still-suppressed DTI Report (the subject of the Observer’s notorious mid-week issue in March) is said to give no firm support to Mr Rowland’s case. (It is not, apparently, that it rules against it but that it concerns itself with no more than the balance of probabilities.) So far at least, the final verdict on the Sultan as the man who bank-rolled the Fayeds’ bid remains non-proven.

That, I suppose, should severely detract from the topical value of these two books. Oddly, though, it doesn’t – or at least not from one of them. Until I came to his book, I knew nothing at all about Mr James Bartholomew. He has, however, written a thoroughly entertaining account of the Sultan’s life and times, containing quite enough touching detail as to the Sultan’s role as an innocent abroad to vindicate the cruel title of Mr Rowland’s vicious pamphlet about him, ‘A Fool and his Money ...’ Would a man who took months to find out that the $10 million of ‘humanitarian’ assistance he had contributed to the cause of the Contras had gone into the wrong Swiss bank account, necessarily have noticed if the misuse of a power of attorney had deprived him of £615 million – on Mr Bartholomew’s evidence of his riches, even that might well have seemed a mere bagatelle. The Sultan of Brunei hardly strikes me as the kind of king who sits in his counting-house counting out his money.

Here, indeed, Lord Chalfont – for an instant rising from his knees – is not unilluminating. He naturally emphasises the Sultan’s generosity (‘At school he would offer to pay, in a way that would not cause embarrassment, for the lunches of those who could not afford their own’): but he does more than that by deciding to meet head-on any false legends that may have got around. ‘It is,’ he thunders towards the end of his book, ‘a matter of some importance that the Government and people of Britain should not be misled into believing that the Sultan is a polygamous, profligate oriental potentate buying hotels as other people buy video cassettes, and engaging with dubious associates in erratic financial transactions.’ To which the only answer would seem to be, ‘My Lord, you said it, not me’ (and woe betide any TV producer who presumed to take a different line on the political paradise that is Brunei from that of the deputy chairman of, if you please, the Independent Broadcasting Authority).

Mr Bartholomew, as one might expect, is much more forthright about the political conditions pertaining in Brunei (‘Corruption is abundant, cronyism is pervasive’). Yet by the end he makes it difficult for his reader not to feel sorry for the Sultan – if only as a poor little rich boy who has been fleeced by a succession of rogues who have conned him to kingdom-come and back. Still, there is no doubt of the protection wealth affords, not least to human vanity. Its obsession with the Sultan (to say nothing of its promotion of ‘the Swami’) may not provide the most glorious chapter in the Observer’s history: but one of its rivals, the Sunday Telegraph, hardly emerges with much credit from its exploits on the other side of the case.

From the start of the battle, the Sunday Telgraph (hotly pursued by the Sunday Times) has tended to act as a mouthpiece for the Fayeds – it was in its columns, on 4 August 1985, that the Sultan first officially denied any financial connection with the takeover of the House of Fraser, or, indeed, with any of the Al-Fayeds’ businesses. Mr Bartholomew dutifully records this (‘the statement certainly was a body-blow to Rowland’s campaign’), but fails entirely to notice the sequel three years later. In May 1988, the paper’s then editor, Peregrine Worsthorne, was persuaded to make a pilgrimage to the Sultan’s palace in Brunei. It was a journey he really should not have undertaken. Of course, his eventual report was spiced with his own idiosyncratic brand of irreverence: the palace, he found, ‘is a spectacularly vulgar edifice’; and he expressed modest surprise at being greeted by its owner in ‘what appeared to be black silk pyjamas’. None of that, however, deterred his colleagues on the paper’s city pages. There his whole visitation was summed up under the rubric ‘Sultan backs Al-Fayeds.’ Mr Worsthorne’s own piece carried the rather more accurate heading, ‘Harrods, the Al-Fayeds and me – by the Sultan’.

I well recall the Saturday evening almost exactly a year ago on which that first edition of the Sunday Telegraph reached the editor’s office in the Observer. The two stories were rapidly read and, in a flash, the editor was on the phone to the proprietor. Soon the old ‘Staff Reporter’ was at it again – the careworn fingers none-too-nimbly picking out the keys on his new SII terminal. The story in the next morning’s Observer (front-page, natch) had a slightly defiant ring to it – ‘Challenge to Sultan on Harrods’ was the heading – and consisted largely of quotes from Mr Rowland taken down at dictation speed. It was then, I fancy, that I decided that the time had come for the Sultan and me to part. I had nothing against him personally: it was just that, so far as I was concerned, he had been an unwitting agent in the downfall of the reputation of a once-proud independent national newspaper.