The tiny country of Brunei Darussalam (short form Brunei) inhabits two strips of land on the coast of the Southeast Asian island of Borneo, separated from one another by the Malaysian district of Limbang. Fossil fuel revenues have given this nation the world’s fifth highest GDP PPP per capita, and turned it into a major regional commercial center.
The origins of Brunei are shrouded in mystery. Chinese and Indian records refer to states named Po-ni and Vijayapura, respectively, existing on northwestern Borneo as early as the 7th century, both of which are possible predecessors of modern Brunei. The country’s history begins in earnest in the 15th century, with the rise to power of its current Islamic dynasty. In this era Brunei built a mighty trade empire along northern Borneo and in the Philippines. The country’s wealth and power became such that it defeated Spain in the Castille War of 1578; however, competition with the European powers gradually took its toll on the country over the ensuing centuries. In 1841 the Bruneian Sultan, in return for military support against a popular uprising, granted the Bornean territory of Sarawak to Englishman James Brooke, who famously became the first of a dynasty of “White Rajahs”. Brooke and his successors steadily chipped away at Brunei’s holdings, until it was reduced to its present borders. The country was forced to seek British protection in 1888, and remained a protectorate until its independence 96 years later.
Today Brunei is a very rich nation, and one of the world’s few true absolute monarchies. Its Sultan, Hassanal Bolkiah, is regularly cited as one of the world’s richest individuals, with personal assets totaling over USD$40 billion. The current wave of prosperity comes primarily from oil and natural gas, of which Brunei possesses large reserves. The government has invested effort into diversifying the economy, with particular focus on developing the banking and tourism industries; interesting sites in Brunei range from the ancient Islamic architecture and cultural mélange of its capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, to the primeval jungles of the eastern Temburong district, where an indigenous lifestyle prevails amidst untamed nature.
As one might expect, Brunei’s small but vibrant economy attracts many expatriates, who make up about a quarter of the population. These include migrant laborers, usually from surrounding countries, as well as high-paid professionals. The oil-producing town of Seria is the home of most foreigners in the country. Many international corporations are able to transfer employees to Brunei; if this isn’t possible, qualified individuals should have no trouble securing a job on their own, especially in the oil or education industries. The British military facilities in the Belait district may provide additional employment options for British citizens.
Malay is the country’s official language; note that Brunei primarily uses a variant of the Arabic script called Jawi to write Malay. As in many multicultural societies, English is quite common, and used frequently in business. There is also a significant community of ethnic Chinese, who may speak either the Mandarin or Teochew dialects.