Playboy Prince Loses Expensive Family Feud

Prince of Brunei must hand over assets including the New York Palace Hotel.

January 9, 2009, 11:37 AM

Nov. 11, 2007— -- The wealthiest royal in the world is a billion dollars richer this week after taking his little brother to court for embezzlement of state funds.

Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah of the tiny, oil-rich Southeast Asian nation Brunei will get back pricey toys from his playboy brother, Prince Jefri Bolkiah, including the famed New York Palace Hotel in Manhattan and the luxury Bel Air Hotel in Los Angeles.

Also included in the settlement are lavish homes in Paris and Singapore, artwork, and precious jewels.

It might be the most expensive family feud ever fought.

Thursday's ruling in a British court capped more than 20 years of sparring between the two brothers. In several court cases, Sultan Bolkiah, who took the throne in 1967, accused his younger sibling, once Brunei's Finance Minister, of stealing billions of dollars in federal funds during his time as chairman of the country's national investment agency.

Some $40 billion left Brunei's state coffers in "special transfers" during Prince Jefri's tenure with the agency in the 1980s and 90s, according to court documents. Of that, nearly $15 billion has been traced directly to the prince's accounts.

Another $13.5 billion is still missing.

The Sultanate of Brunei, slightly smaller than the state of Delaware and bordering on Malaysia, sits on vast oil reserves and is one of the richest states in Asia.

"They have huge amounts of money," said Mark Watson, a royalty expert from Britain, of Brunei's royal family. "Obviously that comes from the revenues of their natural resources. [They've got] oil and everything else. They're not doing too badly."

Prince Jefri never denied "he was the recipient of very substantial sums of money" while running Brunei's investment agency, according to court documents, but argued he was authorized to spend the money and did so only on his brother's orders.

But when Brunei authorities sued him in 2000, Prince Jefri, who lives in London and has 17 children, agreed to give back a substantial amount of the missing cash and some contested properties.

The Prince sold off most of his 2,000 luxury cars, several swanky yachts and a few airplanes to try to pay his brother back, according to a report in the New York Post.

He also put some other pricey luxuries up for auction, including brand-new fire engines, an Airbus A340 flight simulator, hundreds of tons of Italian marble, and gold-plated toilet paper holders.

But he never even got close to repaying the full amount.

According to Thursday's ruling, Prince Jefri told the court he had reached an "oral agreement" with his brother that allowed him to keep some of his prime possessions to "continue to fund a suitable lifestyle for himself and his family."

But five judges threw out the prince's claims, calling his argument that the Sultan had agreed to such an arrangement, "simply ridiculous."

Now Prince Jefri must not just hand over the contested properties but pay Brunei's legal fees as well.

The Sultan, meanwhile, is no stranger to big spending himself, topping the Forbes 2007 "Richest Royals List" with $22 billion to his name.

To illustrate the Sultan's financial power, Watson gave the example of the ruler's private jet – a Boeing 747, normally a 400-passenger plane, on permanent standby at a small airport in England.

"Its sole purpose is to fly members of the royal family [in Europe] out to wherever they want to go," Watson said of the double-decker craft, which he said comes with its own fulltime crew. "If you've got that kind of money, why would you want to book a regular flight?"

Brunei's royal palace is rumored to have 1,788 rooms, according to And when one of the Sultan's daughters got married in June, the party lasted a full two weeks.

But while his spending is lavish and his rule absolute, some might say Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah spreads the wealth.

In addition to receiving free health care and education, Brunei's population pays no taxes to the government.

"They infinitely better off than the rest of the continent," Watson said of Brunei's estimated 375,000 citizens. "What's to complain about?"

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