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Hollywood protest at Sultan has heart in right place

It is easy to dismiss this as leftie Hollywood posturing that amounts to nothing other than a photo op for the publicity-hungry on a millionaire picket line

The Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel is, according to its own publicity, “the favourite breakfast spot and watering hole for generations of stars and Hollywood deal-makers”. It’s where show business conducts its business over a freshly squeezed carrot, apple and ginger juice or a Caesar salad. The pink hotel, built in 1912 and which appeared on the cover of the Eagles’ album Hotel California, was named the first historic landmark in Beverly Hills on its centenary, and every major movie star has crossed its threshold. It is, you may think, a rather unlikely backdrop for a political protest movement.

The Beverly Hills Hotel is owned by the Dorchester Collection, which is an arm of the sovereign wealth fund of the Sultan of Brunei. The oil-rich state of Brunei has recently introduced Sharia law, a penal code applicable to the Muslims who make up two-thirds of Brunei’s population and which sanctions the stoning to death of homosexuals and adulterers.

The more politically engaged members of the elite of Hollywood, where homosexuality and adultery are popular pursuits, have urged a boycott of the hotel, and other establishments owned by the Sultan of Brunei. At the forefront are the chat show hosts, Jay Leno and Ellen DeGeneres, Richard Branson has supported them, and tweeted last weekend that no member of Virgin staff would be allowed to stay in a Brunei-owned hotel “until the Sultan abides by basic human rights”. Stephen Fry, likewise, has joined the protest, and you know it’s serious because Kim Kardashian has cancelled her bridal shower due for the Beverly Hills Hotel.

It is easy to dismiss this as leftie Hollywood posturing that amounts to nothing other than a photo op for the publicity-hungry on a millionaire picket line. After all, the movie industry has plenty of previous when it comes to stamping its collective feet. For George Bush read the Sultan of Brunei, for Republicans read religious conservatives, for environmental degradation read Shariah Law. What’s more, this particular protest doesn’t bear too much scrutiny.

Saudi Arabia is not exactly a beacon of human rights, and yet Hollywood players still seem happy to patronise the many hotels owned by Saudi’s Prince Alwaleed. The United Arab Emirates have laws that would surely be anathema to the liberal majority in Hollywood, and yet major film companies and individual movie stars are happy to do business there. The politics of global business and religious tradition is a murky and complicated affair that isn’t served by being reduced to a slogan.

On the other hand, we must believe that a single, individual act can have an effect on the wider world. It’s one of the fundaments, in fact, of democracy. The boycott of the Beverly Hills Hotel, according to reports, has had a dramatic effect: the Polo Lounge is remarkably quiet, and weekly receipts at the hotel have dropped by $2m. This may be small change for the Sultan, but the negative publicity he’s had in recent days must have discomfited him. He’s not going to repeal Sharia law because the former host of The Tonight Show would like him to, but you can’t really blame Jay Leno for trying.