I have never been a big fan of housekeeping, but now in the countryside with two dogs, there’s a constant battle with dust and dog hairs, but just imagine being housekeeper to the Sultan of Brunei, in the largest private residence in the world, Istana Nurul Imam Palace. Although I am sure he has a whole army of people constantly employed to clean up after him and his family, it must be like painting the Forth Bridge – no sooner than you finish it is time to start again.

It has an area of 2.15 million square feet, and I just can’t visualise an area that big. It’s bigger than the Palace of Versailles and Buckingham Palace – which gives me some idea of the size. The name translates to The Light of Faith Palace, and it has 1788 rooms, 257 bathrooms (imagine how many loo rolls are needed), a banqueting hall to seat 5,000, and a mosque to accommodate 1,500 people. Trivial facts fascinate me - 17 floors, 5 swimming pools, 564 chandeliers (maybe more), at least 51,000 light bulbs, 44 marble stairwells and 18 elevators. No expense was spared – 38 different types of Italian marble, granite from Shanghai, English glass and the best Chinese silk, with lashings of gold being the main decoration material. Yes, you would need a whole host of specialists too.

It is the only sovereign state entirely on Borneo, the remainder of the island being divided up between Malaysia and Indonesia, and is surrounded by the South China Sea. It’s well known for its beaches and biodiverse rainforest, much of it protected within reserves. And of course, its wealth comes from oil and natural gas. Much of Shell's oil comes from offshore drilling platforms in Brunei.

Official residence

The Palace is the official residence of the Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, and is also the seat of the Brunei government. Located on a leafy, riverside sprawl of hills on the banks of the Brunei River, this massive estate cost more than $1.4 billion to build back in the 80’s when money went a lot further and was built in an amazing two years, finishing in time for Brunei’s independence from Britain on January 1st, 1984.

As the eldest son of Sultan Omar III who abdicated on October 5, 1967, he became the Sultan of Brunei in 1967. Hassanal Bolkiah a seriously rich man, making his money from oil and natural gas. Who wouldn’t mind living such a lavish lifestyle, being wealthy enough to appear on the world’s richest people list - but although he may not now be the richest, the real meaning of richness is if it is spent with both hands. Such people are very few, and he is one of them.

The Sultan once had one of the largest private car collections in the world with about 2,500 cars which his brother Jefri Bolkiah bought for himself, the Sultan, and members of their royal family. The car collection and Prince Jefri's other indulgences cost billions of US dollars, and ultimately landed him in trouble and the royal family in financial crisis. The car collection was abandoned; most of the non-garaged cars were beyond saving, and the rest were auctioned.

Credits: PA; Author: PA;

Hassanal Bolkiah has had three wives, number one being his first cousin, and has at least 12 children, and a stack of grandkids. Only the first wife has remained, the other two he divorced and were removed from all royal statuses.

Hit with scandals

And like the British Royal Family, nothing has run smoothly, and the family has been hit with scandals. Tales of Prince Jefri are numerous — including salacious stories of his ‘harem’, and embezzlement from the Brunei Investment Agency, which reached a settlement where he turned over 600 properties, over 2,000 cars, 100 paintings, and 9 aircraft.

On an even lower note, The Sultan introduced the final elements of Sharia law in 2019, which included imposing seriously archaic punishments for things that shouldn’t even be crimes, and poses grave threats to fundamental human rights - although experts say the harsh punishments are unlikely to be implemented.

I still can’t get over the loo rolls.


Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man. 

Marilyn Sheridan