Doing business with oil-rich despotisms carries significant reputational risks – a lesson which Western governments remain exceptionally anxious to ignore for fear of the implications.
The latest example of this simple truth involves the Sultan of Brunei who, in his advancing years, has introduced full Sharia law including the prospect of gay people being stoned to death.
Until a few years ago, the Sultan and his brother almost managed the impossible feat of jeopardising Brunei’s fabulous wealth through their incredibly vulgar spending habits. Eventually, the brother had to be ditched.
Vanity Fair magazine, which chronicled these excesses, noted that “when they partied, they indulged in just about everything forbidden in a Muslim country” while “combing the globe for the sexiest women they could find”.
Governments have to set a high bar when deciding who to deal with on ethical grounds – or else we would cut ourselves off from half the world. Even then, I would have thought a diplomatic blackball on the Sultan of Brunei should not be too much to expect.
What struck me in my own days of dealing with some of these regimes was their arrogance. They proceeded on the assumption of untouchability. No matter what rules they broke, their Western clients would always need their money (particularly for arms dealing) more than they needed anyone’s approval. That dog/lamp-post relationship is long overdue for revisiting. While all this is tricky for governments, one does wonder on what basis the Sultan of Brunei was ever made an Honorary Doctor of Aberdeen University. As with many of these absurd honorary degrees, the risk factor is overlooked in greedy pursuit of wealth.
It is not only governments which need to square their consciences with their intellects about whose money they take.