Is Brunei instating harsh anti-LGBT laws to appease Saudi Arabia for economic favors?
Brunei's all-powerful Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah has brought harsh anti-LGBT laws into effect in the region by introducing a new penal code which includes death by stoning for gay sex and adultery. Brunei became the first country in East and Southeast Asia to introduce a sharia penal code on a national level on Wednesday, drawing outrage and condemnation from the international community.
At a time when the nation's economy is weakening, the controversial move brings in speculation as to whether the Sultan is taking these measures to appease other conservative supporting nations like Saudi Arabia in an attempt to curry economic favors.
Brunei, an oil-rich nation with a population of about 400,000, has plunged into recession over the past few years as oil prices have begun plummeting. Reduced oil and gas production has also hit the country's economy significantly. In such pressing circumstances, appealing to a conservative Islamic ideology of affluent Islamic nations could bode well for Brunei.
The nation's long-standing law of capital punishment expressly mentioned that any execution in the country should be carried out by hanging. However, the last known instance of a federal execution in the state was recorded in 1957.
Amnesty International, while condemning the new penal code, said the country was "abolitionist in practice” when it comes to the death penalty. However, the sudden shift in its norm to polish its religious credentials does suggest the nation's eagerness to be accepted by countries like Saudi Arabia.
"Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who has absolute authority in Brunei, has been encouraging the buildup of Islamization, or stricter Islam in recent years. Sharia law (Islamic law) is relatively new to Brunei. Brunei’s Sharia-based Penal Code was introduced in 2014, but lacked specificity.
"Early measures included the 2015 ban on the celebration of Christmas and jail terms for homosexuality. The most recent measures announced Wednesday put some teeth into Brunei’s penal code," Elizabeth Freund Larus, Professor of Political Science and International affairs at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia, told MEA Worldwide (MEAWW).
Brunei's latest move also highlights how the Muslim-majority nation is steadily drifting away from western countries, and instead, seeking to strengthen ties with nations closer to home like China, which refrains from condemning trading partners based on human rights violations. Multiple Chinese firms, over the past few years, have invested extravagantly in Brunei as a part of Beijing's infrastructure drive aimed at branching its economic and geopolitical influence.
Chinese President Xi Jinping also became the first leader in 13 years to visit the absolute monarchy in November 2017. Brunei’s biggest ever foreign investment project has also been initiated by China which entails a multi-billion-dollar oil refinery, a dam, and a highway.
Brunei has noted a "relative decline in U.S. influence in the region and China’s ascendance. The U.S. and the West have long championed human rights, and criticized human rights abuses in Asia. The U.S. is using more restraint in issuing those criticisms and the countries of the region are paying less attention to the U.S. and more to China, with whom they rely on for economic prosperity. So, one can say that Chinese economic power gives cover to autocratic governments like Brunei and those that have weak human rights records," Larus said.
The Professor of Political Science and International affairs also added that there is a possibility that Brunei is attempting to diversify its economy away from China. "China is Brunei’s top trading partner. China-Brunei trade hit $1 billion in 2017 and in 2018 signed $900 [billion] in deals to join China’s Belt and Road initiative. However, Brunei’s GDP has been shrinking due to the drop in oil prices, causing it to seek investments from countries other than China. That would include Saudi Arabia, which shares religion and ideology with Brunei. Some SE Asia watchers interpreted King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud’s 2017 visit to Brunei (among his sweep of SE Asia Muslim nations) as approval of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah’s 2014 introduction of sharia law," she added.