High Court battle: What's £9 billion between brothers?

The return home of Brunei's controversial Playboy Prince could signal an end to a decade-long family feud. Cahal Milmo reports

The princes sitting cross-legged at prayers in a Brunei mosque last week would have passed unremarked but for one unusual and highly significant addition to the line-up. Alongside Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, the dynastic billionaire who sits at the summit of the world's richest absolute monarchy, was his youngest brother, Prince Jefri.

Buried in the pages of the Borneo Bulletin newspaper, a photograph of the pious dignitaries was published alongside a 98-word description that listed the seven members of the Brunei royal family and carefully accorded "HRH Prince Jefri" his rank as the third most senior member of the Bolkiah dynasty.

To the uninitiated, it looked like a tedious court circular in an Asian sultanate whose oil wealth confers the fifth-highest GDP on the planet to a country the size of Norfolk.

In fact, it confirmed to Brunei's 375,000-strong population that the five-year exile of Prince Jefri from his homeland had ended – and that one of the most expensive and entertaining family feuds ever played out in London's High Court could be heading towards a resolution.

The presence of Prince Jefri, 55, in his brother's fabulously opulent palace is being interpreted as proof of a long-rumoured rapprochement between the two men after an 11-year legal battle over claims that the younger sibling misappropriated $14bn (£8.75bn) from Brunei's treasury while serving as finance minister and then failed to pay in full a £3bn settlement reached in 2000.

Largely fought out in the High Court at a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds, the dispute has laid bare toe-curling details of conspicuous consumption and questionable taste on the part of Prince Jefri, from a 50-metre yacht named Tits to a reputed penchant for jewelled watches that mark each passing hour with an image of a copulating couple.

Relations between the two royals reached their nadir last year when a High Court judge issued an arrest warrant against Jefri after he failed to appear at a hearing to explain how he had allegedly failed to disclose secret bank accounts and allowed funds to be taken out of other accounts previously frozen. Mr Justice Peter Smith warned it would take "an advocate of great skill" to persuade him not to remand the prince in custody.

But lawyers for Jefri this week signalled a thawing in relations with his brother, which could lead to a settlement to end a decade of rancour. David Sandy, of law firm Simmons & Simmons, said: "It's fair to say there's a much more constructive relationship between the parties. The discussions are continuing. I don't want to disrupt those by making any assumptions on the process other than that."

Having spent 12 months boltholed in Singapore, the arrival of Prince Jefri in Brunei, a former British colonial possession that sits on the northern coast of the Indonesian and Malaysian-administered island of Borneo, is all the remarkable given that he recently expressed concerns he would be charged with treason if he ever returned to his homeland.

The Bolkiah family can trace its status as Brunei's ruling family back to the 14th century. Despite some limited attempts at democratisation, Sultan Hassan, 63, retains control of an absolute monarchy he inherited when he took the throne in 1967. In a move that commentators suggested was linked to his dispute with Prince Jefri, the Sultan, who is also prime minister and defence minister, amended Brunei's constitution in 2006 to declare himself infallible, stating: "His Majesty the Sultan... can do no wrong in either his personal or any official capacity."

With a GDP of $20bn, half of which is earned through the country's oil and natural gas reserves, the Sultan has nonetheless been careful to ensure that his subjects receive a share of Brunei's wealth. The enclave offers each of its citizens free healthcare and education as well as subsidised food and housing. The government owns a ranch in Australia which is larger than Brunei itself and provides all the country's beef.

Prince Jefri, who had been close to his eldest brother, was placed in a position to cement this royal munificence when he was appointed minister of finance and head of the Brunei Investment Agency (BIA), the sovereign wealth fund set up to invest the country's oil earnings.

But the prince's sprawling programme of infrastructure projects and acquisitions abroad – from the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles to the Queen's jeweller Asprey & Garrard, made through an investment vehicle called Amedeo – came to an abrupt end in the late 1990s. A financial crisis in Asia exposed alleged holes in the BIA's accounts and gave rise to allegations that the royal had embezzled £8bn to fund a personal spending spree that would have made the Lydian king Croesus blush.

Prince Jefri has consistently denied any wrongdoing and insisted much of the money he was accused of pilfering was, in fact, sent in "special transfers" to the Sultan's personal bank accounts.

Court documents nonetheless revealed that Jefri, inevitably dubbed the Playboy Prince, had an eye-popping capacity for dispensing cash. Spending at a rate of £500,000 a day for a decade, Prince Jefri allegedly acquired 2,000 cars, including Ferraris, Rolls Royces and Aston Martins; 17 aircraft, including a Boeing 747 adapted to transport his polo ponies and a Comanche attack helicopter; a vast portfolio of international property from London and Paris to New York and Singapore; and two speedboat tenders named Nipple I and Nipple II.

The deeply religious Sultan is no slouch himself when it comes to acquiring the trappings of wealth. His £4bn car collection is estimated to contain between 3,000 and 6,000 vehicles, including a 500-strong fleet of Rolls Royces – the largest in the world. He hired Michael Jackson to sing at his 50th birthday and gave a daughter – one of 12 children – an Airbus for her 18th birthday.

The feud looked to have reached a settlement in 2000 when Prince Jefri reached an out-of-court agreement with the BIA to return £3bn in assets. As part of the deal, the prince held an auction of his chattels from Amedeo's Brunei base, which included unused Mercedes Benz fire engines, two flight simulators, several hundred Louis XIV chairs and 16,000 tons of Italian marble.

But the deal proved to be one in a series of peaks and troughs in the relationship, with both parties subsequently trading High Court accusations of failure to keep their side of the bargain, including a £200m "lifestyle agreement" thrashed out between the two sides to keep Jefri in the manner to which he was accustomed.

In 2007, the Privy Council, which acts as Brunei's highest court, rejected Prince Jefri's final appeal against the 2000 agreement to return nearly all of his assets to BIA, apparently leaving him with a dwindling number of options. He has distanced himself from the accounts of his fast-living lifestyle, pointing that he only visited Tits half a dozen times, and prefers to cast the image of a besuited and serious-minded businessman caught up in an unfortunate family tiff.

A tone of contrition has since entered into the prince's public stance, despite his continued insistence that he has been used as a sacrificial lamb to disguise the wider profligacy of Brunei's rulers. Speaking last year, he said he had made mistakes "for which I am truly sorry", before adding: "I am no angel, for sure, but I have been the fall guy."

If the return of Prince Jefri does turn out to be the precursor to a burying of hatchets, it is likely the only tears to be shed will come from the circle of top London legal firms who have represented each party through dozens of hearings in Britain and Brunei. So far, the case is estimated to have earned the capital's barristers and solicitors anywhere between £250m and £500m.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence