The History of Brunei's Royal Family

Brunei's Sultan 50-year procession
Brunei's Sultan 50-year procession | © james wk / Shutterstock
Photo of Sam Bedford
27 July 2018

The name Brunei conjures images of unimaginable wealth, oil and a young royal heartthrob. But few know anything else about this tiny sultanate on Borneo Island and their 600-year-old dynasty. Here’s a quick run-down on Brunei’s Royal Family from their origins to today’s second longest reigning monarch.

House of Bolkiah: A 600-year-old dynasty

Brunei’s Royal Family can trace their lineage back to the 14th century (1368 to be exact). According to some, a Western Bornean Prince became the first sultan. The Bolkiah elders say their lineage traces to Yemen. Since official records began several hundred years later, Brunei’s early history is unknown and exact details are lost to time. What we do know is that Muhammad Shah became the first Sultan of Brunei. This gave birth to a 600-year-old Malay dynasty which saw Brunei grow into an Empire and then lose most of it to colonial powers.

Brunei's Sultan marked 50 years on the throne with a procession | © james wk / Shutterstock

An empire that became a colony

Piracy and rebellions plagued Brunei in the 19th century when most residents lived in Kampong Ayer, a stilted-metropolis above the Brunei River that still exists today. Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin II ceded parts of Sarawak to James Brooke in return for providing military support. Brooke became the First White Rajah and his descendants ruled Sarawak for more than a century. The next Sultan, Abdul Momin, gave most of the modern day Sabah to the British. Within the space of a few dozen years, the Bruneian Empire changed forever.

Sultan Brunei celebrates his 72th Birthday at the SOAS Garden | © james wk / Shutterstock

Today’s Sultan: Hassanal Bolkiah

Hassanal Bolkiah became the 29th and current Sultan of Brunei in 1967. Building on his father’s development (who commissioned the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque) he transformed Brunei for the second time in just over a century. Flash forward to today and Hassanal Bolkiah features among the world’s wealthiest men. And doesn’t he like to flaunt it! He owns over 7,000 cars, including 600 Rolls Royce’s worth an estimated $4 billion. Not to mention his gold-plated private Boeing 747 (the type of plane we share with 200 other passengers) and the 1,800-room palace in Bandar Seri Begawan. Despite this show of wealth, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah nurtured Brunei’s oil and gas industry, creating an enviably high standard of living. Residents have access to both free education and healthcare while living in a tax-free society. And when the Sultan feels particularly benevolent, he gives Bruneian citizens a cash bonus straight into their bank accounts.

Hassanal Bolkiah | © imagemaker / Shutterstock

Brunei’s version of Prince Harry

Most people know little about Brunei’s Royal Family, but playboy Prince Abdul Mateen is the exception. Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah’s fourth son, the 26-year-old Royal bachelor, holds a special place in the heart of his 950,000 Instagram followers. The sport-loving, polo-playing and helicopter-flying Prince has the singles around the world swooning!

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