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An uneasy crown passes to prince

THE SULTAN of Brunei yesterday invested his eldest son as his successor in a glittering ceremony that was intended to underline the stability of the oil-rich but troubled monarchy.

Amid the boom of cannon and before a crowd of about 4,000 spectators gathered in the grounds of the royal palace, 24-year-old Prince Al-Muhtadee Billah, dressed in gold tunic and crown, received an ancient sword in a golden sheath from his father before kissing his hand.

The ceremony lasted an hour-and-a-quarter and ended with the prince climbing into a chariot and being drawn through flag-waving crowds in the streets of the capital.

The spectacle illustrated the determination of the sultan, now 52, to ensure that his dynasty continues amid troubles caused by Asia's economic crisis, which have dented the enormous fortunes of the sultanate and exposed rifts between the sultan and his younger brother, Prince Jefri.

The prince was removed recently from influence in the Brunei Investment Agency, the body which handles the sultanate's vast overseas investments, after the Amedeo conglomerate he controlled was reported to have run up billions of dollars of debts.

Last week, the prince, whose playboy lifestyle has attracted both amused and hostile attention, accused religious conservatives of tightening their grip over the kingdom's affairs.

The prince yesterday congratulated his nephew on his proclamation ceremony from exile in the US, adding that "disturbing events" in Brunei made it impossible for him to attend the event in person.

The citizens of Brunei are unlikely to experience a momentous change of course if and when the crown prince finally ascends the throne.

The royal family are conventionally pious Muslims and the prince himself has accompanied his family on pilgrimage to Mecca.

But the family also maintain strong ties to the West, and to Britain in particular.

The Crown Prince attended Oxford and, like his fallen uncle, is a keen sportsman and snooker player. Next month he will confirm the royal family's continuing attachment to Britain when, along with his father, he welcomes the Queen on her forthcoming visit to the sultanate.

The potential challenge to the prince is more likely to come from social discontent than from Islamic militants.

Since the result of the elections held after independence from Britain in 1962 was annulled, the sultanate's 300,000 citizens have exchanged their political freedoms for a lavishly provided welfare state.

As time runs out for the oil and gas reserves that have sustained this expense, the question is whether such a delicate arrangement can survive the present sultan. Some estimate that Brunei's oil reserves will start to run out within 20 years. Even the one tame party that is allowed to operate in Brunei admits there is pressure for change.

The president of the Brunei Solidarity National Party (PPKB), Mohammed Hatta, told reporters at the ceremony that he hoped the crown prince would usher in reforms. "He will bring liberal changes towards a democratic society in line with the aspirations of the people," he said.