Prince Jefri sounds alarm bells

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THE NORMALLY secretive world of infighting within the fabulously rich royal family of Brunei has been prised open this weekend by Prince Jefri Bolkiah, who has been stripped of all public offices. He lost his last major post last week when he was replaced as chairman of the Brunei Investment Agency (BIA).

The prince's spokesman said the appointment of the conservative education minister, Abdul Aziz Umar, as head of the BIA "should be of concern". He claimed changes at the top of the agency "represent the tightening grip of a group of Muslim conservatives, backed by shadowy foreign advisers with questionable motives, that have gained an unhealthy influence over the Sultan".

Prince Jefri believes the advisers are from Iran and Libya and are trying to propel Brunei into becoming a Muslim fundamentalist state. The spokesman said conservative forces are already pushing the tiny oil and gas-rich sultanate that way.

Prince Jefri has come under sustained attack in recent weeks after reports that his mini-conglomerate, Amedeo, had collapsed with debts of pounds 10bn. The reports followed embarrassing charges brought by the London-based Manoukian brothers in a debt dispute. They sought to discredit the prince with stories of sexual adventures and an extravagant lifestyle. The case was settled out of court.

In the US a former Miss USA tried to bring a lawsuit against him, claiming he held her as a sex slave in Brunei. The case did not proceed because it was not within the jurisdiction of the US court.

"The prince is sick of being beaten over the head by the conservatives," said his spokesman. He flatly denies that his company collapsed under a sea of debt. The spokesman said Amedeo carried no more than normal debt for a company of its size and that the government had expropriated its assets.

Among these are the luxury Belair Hotel in Los Angeles, the New York Palace Hotel, the Plaza Athenee Hotel in Paris and the British jewellers Asprey Garrard. In Brunei the company had extensive property, construction and telecommunications interests. The Prince's spokesman said his troubles stemmed from being the sole voice of liberal thought and western ideas within the royal family.

But there is little evidence that Brunei is turning into a fundamentalist state. The freedoms of women, the acceptance of other religions and the lack of Islamic Sharia law suggest Brunei is far from becoming an Iranian- style Islamic state.

Prince Jefri is currently believed to be in the US and is determined not to return to Brunei for the foreseeable future. Ironically, the Sultan owes his position to a palace coup in 1967, engineered with the help of the British, forcing his father, Sir Omar Ali Saifuddin, to abdicate because he was viewed as too reactionary for change.