Profligate Prince Jefri

Life is no longer quite so cushy for the world's biggest spender. Prince Jefri Bolkiah of Brunei--the tiny, oil-rich sultanate on the island of Borneo--has had his passport confiscated, his planes grounded and his assets frozen. A court has ordered that he may spend only $300,000 per month.

That's peanuts for Prince Jefri. For years, the 46-year-old prince--he's the brother of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah--was responsible for managing the country's vast wealth. Now he's accused of mismanaging it, and documents supporting a court ruling indicate that his taste for the international high life cost at least $2.75 billion over the past 10 years, much of it going for cars, planes and jewelry. With four royal wives, 17 children and 18 adopted children to support, life for the prince obviously isn't cheap. "But Prince Jefri's costs seem to be extremely expensive, even for a member of the royal family," said Denys Roberts, Brunei's chief justice, last week.

All 330,000 Bruneians know that the royal family lives well. The sultan--who rules as an absolute monarch--keeps 350 Rolls-Royces in his palace-size garage. But his people remain loyal and deferential, thanks to generous benefits such as subsidized housing. Two years ago, though, it all started to unravel. At the height of the Asian financial crisis, the flagship Amedeo Development Corp. suddenly stopped paying its bills. Accountants discovered that Amedeo, controlled by Prince Jefri, was bankrupt. At the time Prince Jefri was also Finance minister and boss of the Brunei Investment Authority. First he was sacked. Now his brother is suing him, along with 71 others, for the return of $15 billion in state assets. Overall, Brunei's holdings have shrunk to $40 billion from a peak of $110 billion. Prince Jefri says Islamic conservatives are making him a scapegoat for the state's setbacks.

The prince's worst offense may have been his indiscretion in a secretive land that espouses Islamic piety. In 1998 Shannon Marketic, a former Miss USA, sued the prince in a U.S. court, claiming she had been lured to Brunei and pressured to become a sex slave. The case was dropped when he was ruled to have diplomatic immunity. The same year the prince went on a shopping spree, paying $390 million for Asprey's, jewelers to the Queen of England, and $500 million for a new yacht he named Tits. (Its two lifeboats were called Nipple 1 and Nipple 2.) Soon after, the prince faced a $288 million civil lawsuit in London brought by business partners who claimed he'd cheated them. His adversaries told the court that he held gambling parties at his $55 million London home and kept 40 prostitutes on standby at the Dorchester Hotel. "The scale of his wealth was only matched by his appetite for extravagance and self-indulgence," lawyer Christopher Carr testified. The prince countersued, then settled the case, leaving his publicist to deny the allegations involving prostitutes.

The prince's profligacy angered the more circumspect members of the family such as Jefri's older brother Mohamed. Now the government says it's moving to revamp the economy, promising more professional and open management.

The prince, meanwhile, is keeping a low profile, awaiting the next court hearing in late April. His biggest worry is that his angry brother might press corruption charges--with a jail sentence attached--if he wins the civil lawsuit. Excluded from public events, Jefri plays polo and does a little local shopping. A recent purchase: $1,000 worth of new bedsheets.

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