Five Years Ago, We Protested the Sultan of Brunei’s International Hotels. It’s Time to Do It Again.

Five Years Ago, We Protested the Sultan of Brunei’s International Hotels. It’s Time to Do It Again.

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During the spring of 2014, the reputation of L.A. properties The Beverly Hills Hotel and Hotel Bel-Air went from luxe, stylish and packed with celebrities to reviled by Hollywood’s most elite. The about-face wasn’t due to a bug in the Polo Lounge’s famous tortilla soup or Cobb salad, but was a response to the cruel, human rights-violating sharia law that would see gay men and adulterers punished with death by stoning in the tiny island nation of Brunei.

The Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah — absolute monarch of the nation, located on the island of Borneo in the South China Sea — owns both properties through his Brunei Investment Agency. They are part of the Dorchester Collection of international hotels, which also includes London’s The Dorchester and Le Meurice in Paris, all of which line the pockets of a man hell-bent on ending the lives of LGBTQ people.

Homosexuality has long been illegal in the strictly Islamic nation of Brunei, but it was in 2013 that the most harsh, inhumane penalties for gay men and women and adulterers were announced, intended to be implemented the following year. That sparked a backlash that reverberated throughout Hollywood, which for years had lauded the sultan’s properties and held industry events on their grounds. In Los Angeles, The Beverly Hills Hotel and Hotel Bel-Air had just always been regarded as two of the city’s most swanky escapes, which made the public outcry against them all the more newsworthy.

Five years ago the world watched as California politicians, countless celebrities, LGBTQ activists, union members, nonprofit representatives and appalled citizens protested the L.A. hotels with a #StopTheSultan campaign. The boycott called for an abolishment of Brunei’s sharia law and the sultan’s divestment of his hotel properties.

Entertainment industry events fled the hotels, as did the ‘staycations’ of people in-the-know. Elton John, Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres and Virgin’s Richard Branson were some of the biggest names to shun hotels owned by the Sultan of Brunei. The Beverly Hills City Council even passed a resolution asking the monarch to sell The Beverly Hills Hotel. (A few Hollywood notables even stepped up to voice their interest in purchasing the property, including industry mogul Haim Saban.)

The Sultan of Brunei (photo by Rudolf Portillo / EPA)

The properties’ press teams responded to the backlash by highlighting their commitments to equality, pushing back against the notion that their policies are governed by the inhumane laws of Brunei. But it was a sentiment that rang hollow for many, as the hotels continued (and continue today) to make money for the Sultan of Brunei, in the same way Chick-fil-A franchise restaurants are punished for the sins of their corporate father, which has long supported anti-LGBTQ policy.

In May 2014, The New York Times reported that the escalated boycott of the Sultan of Brunei’s Dorchester Collection properties saw the company lose $2 million in revenue, with cancellations at The Beverly Hills Hotel accounting for “almost all of the dropoff.” The impact was also felt in London, the paper reported at the time.

Even better, the boycott worked. Kinda.

Due to the public outrage against the proposed Brunei law’s treatment of LGBTQ people, the nation put on hold the harshest, most inhumane of its provisions. The death of LGBTQ people would not be enshrined in law just yet. But because the penalties were not done away with entirely, the protests persisted. As late as October 2016, activists continued to gather in front of The Beverly Hills Hotel calling for a boycott of the property.

A 2014 protest outside the Sultan of Brunei-owned Beverly Hills Hotel (photo by Jonathan Alcorn / Reuters / Landov)

By 2018, though, those calls had all but faded. In January of last year, gossip site Page Six famously reported the protest had ended “with a whimper,” as Hollywood slowly trickled back to the Polo Lounge and poolside cocktails. Amy Astley, editor-in-chief of Architectural Digest — a magazine owned by Condé Nast, which had joined the boycott early — Instagram’d images of herself lounging poolside at The Beverly Hills Hotel with a “Wish you were here” caption.

The fire-filled movement to fight for change in the nation of Brunei seemed officially extinguished.

Now, come April 3, the Islamic nation is moving ahead with the death penalty for homosexuality, adultery and apostasy. According to an announcement by Brunei’s attorney general, people engaged in same-sex relationships and adulterers — regardless of age — will be stoned to death. Thieves will have a hand or foot amputated.

These new sections of the Brunei Darussalam Syariah Penal Code are all personally approved by the Sultan of Brunei, a man who gets richer every time someone stays at his Dorchester hotels. 

It’s time for Hollywood and the world to reinstate its boycott of any hotel properties owned by the Sultan of Brunei through his Brunei Investment Agency.  

Almost ironically, at the same time media outlets’ ears perked up at news of Brunei’s renewed criminalization of homosexuality, we also saw an announcement this week that Royal Brunei Airlines would be taking over all tourism promotion for the country. The state-owned airline wants to market Brunei as a destination for those tourists heading to other parts of the Southeast Asia region. (Brunei currently sees less than 300,000 annual visitors, which is what Singapore sees in one week, according to the airline’s CEO.)

Of course, murdering LGBTQ people within your borders is not the best way to market yourself to much of the world. Gay hate is often an insurmountable block to healthy tourism — as it should be.

Whether protests and boycotts of hotels owned by the Sultan of Brunei will actually affect change for the island nation’s LGBTQ citizens is uncertain. But the past work of activists and so many others with access to the eyes and ears of the global public was able to delay this horrid law’s implementation once before.

Five years ago we protested the Sultan of Brunei and his money-making ventures. It’s time to do it again.

Will you join us in a protest and vocal outcry against the Sultan of Brunei and his many international hotel properties?

The full list of Dorchester Collection properties includes The Beverly Hills Hotel (Beverly Hills), Hotel Bel-Air (Los Angeles), The Dorchester (London), 45 Park Lane (London), Coworth Park (Ascot, UK), Le Meurice (Paris), Hôtel Plaza Athénée (Paris), Hotel Eden (Rome), Hotel Principe di Savoia (Milan).

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