The world's largest divorce settlement

FOR more than 20 years, she was known as the humble flight attendants who became the wife of the richest man in the world.

But now the woman who wed the Sultan of Brunei seems destined to become known by a different sobriquet - that of the wealthiest divorcee history has known.

In a move that has confirmed rumours that all is not well behind the palace gates - and perhaps proved the old adage that money cannot buy love - the sultan has announced that he is divorcing his second wife, Mariam.

The sultan’s brother, Prince Sufri, delivered the news - that he has declared a divorce under Brunei’s Sharia Islamic law - on state television on Sunday.

No explanation was given as to why the sultan is divorcing his second wife, but Prince Sufri said she would be stripped of her official title, Pengiram Isteri Hajjah Mariam.

To the woman who has mothered two sons and two daughters to the head of the royal family of Brunei, this might be something of a blow. But it may be cushioned by the size of the settlement she can expect.

True, the sultan has seen his fortunes dwindle in recent years, amid embarrassing financial scandal.

Deemed the richest man on Earth in 1990, with a fortune of 65 billion, his assets were last year estimated at a paltry 7.1 billion, making him only the 25th richest man in the world, according to the Sunday Times Rich List.

Although this leaves the sultan more than capable of providing handsomely for his ex-wife, one can’t help wondering if the financial shenanigans such a fortune affords has strained the royal marriage to breaking point after 21 years.

Born Mariam Bell, she was working as a flight attendant with Royal Brunei Airlines when the richest man in the world fell in love with her.

Half Bruneian, a quarter Japanese and a quarter English, she captivated him with her exotic looks and slender figure.

The sultan was already married to his first cousin, Anak Hajjah Saleha, whom he wed at the age of 19. But over the years, that bride - described as "a sweet, bedimpled, soulful-eyed lass of 16" in a privately-published biography of the sultan - had turned into a rather plump wife and mother.

So the sultan took advantage of his Sunni Muslim faith and made Mariam his second wife - under Bruneian Islamic law men are allowed four wives. Mariam now sat alongside him at the head of the tiny Asian sultanate on the island of Borneo.

Around the size of Norfolk, Brunei has just 230,000 subjects, plus oceans of oil and huge gas revenues. Around two billion barrels of the black gold have been extracted from Brunei in recent decades, turning the Bolkiah dynasty, which has ruled the area for centuries, into billionaires

Although an absolute monarch, with no apparent plans to introduce democracy to his nation, the Sultan has won the adulation of his people. He walks freely around the streets of Brunei and does not employ bodyguards. This love has been won with the billions of oil dollars spent on free health care, education and housing for the people of Brunei, and a policy of zero income tax.

But that only accounts for part of his family’s spending. The sultan and his family are renowned for their profligacy.

At last count, the sultan was the proud owner of 165 Rolls-Royces, 300 sports cars - including a Ferrari F40 covered in gold leaf - and a fleet of private jets.

In the 1980s, he built the biggest palace in the world, with 546 chandeliers and a banquet hall which can seat 4,000. When his friends confessed they did not like it, he built another one.

But that is nothing compared to the spendthrift nature of his younger brother, Prince Jefri. He did nothing to dispel his playboy image when it emerged that his ocean-going yacht was named SS Tits, and its two speedboats Nipples I and Nipples II.

In 1997, he resigned as minister of finance in the wake of allegations that he behaved "improperly" to a group of women, including a former Miss USA, at drink-fuelled parties in the strictly Islamic sultanate. He was identified as a key figure in a financial scandal which found tens of billions of dollars were unaccounted for in the Brunei Investment Agency which managed the country’s reserves. He also headed the Amedeo construction company which collapsed with billions of dollars of debts.

Now it looks as if the sultan is forced to incur another cost - that of an ex-wife, who might well become the wealthiest divorcee in the world. Time will tell. Under Bruneian law, a husband can revoke the divorce within three months and ten days without requiring new marriage vows.

Once he has considered the cost, it is an option he might choose to take.

Breaking up the millionaires' way

THE former air hostess Mariam Bell could soon be the wealthiest divorcee in history. But she will find that she is not alone in owning a gold-plated membership card to the former wives club of the rich and famous:

Jane Welch: The wife of former General Electric chairman Jack Welch turned down a 90 million divorce settlement last year, claiming she deserved half of her husband’s 300 million fortune after their 13-year marriage ended when Mr Welch began an affair with Suzy Wetlaufer, editor of the Harvard Business Review.

Diana, Princess of Wales: The former wife of the Prince of Wales walked out of the royal marriage with a 15 million settlement, which was to provide her with around 500,000 a year. The 1996 settlement also granted her a home at Kensington Palace for herself and her two sons, Prince William and Prince Harry, as well as other assets such as jewellery she was given as the Princess of Wales. But she was later stripped of her title Her Royal Highness.

Diane McGeoch: The former wife of Scots clothing tycoon Lennie McGeoch won the biggest divorce settlement in Scottish legal history when their marriage broke up in 1997.

The man who made his fortune with the Mackays chain of stores paid out a lump sum of 8 million with the promise of 11,500 every month. Mr McGeoch also agreed to pay out 93,600 a year on their youngest daughter’s equestrian hobby. Ms McGeoch, who lives in America, claimed she needed 4,800 a year for beauty treatment, 9,000 a year for clothes, and 7,000 for eating out.

A judge said the couple’s lifestyle was "characterised by self-indulgence".

Ivana Trump: The former wife of property tycoon Donald Trump won a reputed 8 million divorce settlement when their marriage ended. She also walked away with a home in Greenwich, Connecticut, which she was rumoured to have sold later for a similar amount.