Like an aftershock from last week's earthquake, the Sultan of Brunei sent tremors throughout Los Angeles Wednesday with his reported purchase of the legendary Beverly Hills Hotel from tycoon Marvin Davis.
The sale, announced Tuesday, was the latest display of nearly unlimited wealth by a mysterious Pacific potentate who, at age 41, may well be the richest man in the world. The $185 million he is reportedly paying for the pink, 260-room hotel--or about $50 million more than oilman Davis paid when he bought the Hollywood landmark just last December--could be pocket change for a man whose personal assets were recently estimated by Fortune magazine to be $25 billion.
Palace Surprised at News
News of the hotel purchase caught Haji Ampuan Saptu, minister counsellor and director of information at the sultan's palace, by surprise. "You will have to ask the Sultan," he said late Wednesday. When asked how to reach the young monarch, he said, 'Oh my goodness no, that would not be possible."
Lack of knowledge about the man who apparently wants to be a Hollywood mogul caused some apprehension among those who frequent the hotel and its famed Polo Lounge, where Davis habitually seated himself at Table 3 and where a modest "power breakfast" can cost $50.
"I just hope the sultan doesn't turn it into another Caesars Palace," said Jane Nathanson, a real estate broker who lives two blocks from the hotel, referring to the gaudy Las Vegas hotel. It was a sentiment generally echoed by others who live near or patronize the hotel.
Elaine Young, also a real estate broker who said she has had lunch at the hotel every day of the week for 30 years and frequently goes there for drinks, fretted, "I just hope they keep my table for me."
Although the young ruler of Brunei first gained widespread notice in this country when it was reported last year that he had donated $10 million to help the contras in Nicaragua, he remains a shadowy figure. Even in his own country--a small, oil-rich kingdom on the north coast of Borneo--what happens behind palace walls is largely unknown, according to various reports.
What is well-known is that those walls surround a $400-million, 1,800-room mansion--larger by far than the hotel he just bought. And that his personal possessions also include a large collection of cars, private jets and polo ponies.
Rich in Another Way
And the sultan is rich in yet another way. His full name is Kebawah Duli Yang Maha Mulia Paduka Seri Baginda Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Muizzaddin Waddaulah, or, more commonly, Hassanal Bolkiah. Nothing is known about his family except that he has a teen-age son who navigates the nation's 500 miles of roads in a Ferrari.
Personal glimpses of the man and his life style come from a select group of Americans--expert polo players who have been invited to test themselves and their ponies against the sultan's team.
Dallas entrepreneur Norman Brinker, who went to Brunei in 1981, remembers the sultan as "a very unassuming, very quiet, extremely hospitable man." He is also a devout Muslim who does not drink, he added. (However, some Brunei Muslims reportedly have been dissatisfied with religious practice in their country and have called for stricter observance of Islamic law than that practiced by the sultan.)
"The sultan leads a very quiet life," Brinker said, partly "because it's a small island and there's not a lot to do on it."
Brinker estimated that a banquet hall he saw in the sultan's palace could easily hold 6,000 people.
The sultan is a "very aggressive polo player who is a good club player but not world-class," Brinker said, adding, "but he can get in the game and be very avid about it.
Bob Moore, a Cadillac dealer in Oklahoma City who went to Brunei with other polo players last year, remembers being "very impressed."
'Fantastic' Life Style
The sultan's life style is "fantastic," he said. When the sultan flies to Singapore for a polo match, he takes the seats out of the rear of his Boeing 727 to accommodate his polo ponies.
Moore recalled, however, that although the "sultan loved to hang around the polo field with his guests" he was always watched closely by armed guards and never traveled around the island without an armed escort.
Brunei, a former British protectorate spread over about 2,250-square-miles, is modeled after a Middle Eastern sheikdom with political power in the nation of 220,000 resting solely in the hands of the sultan. Its citizens receive free medical treatment and education and enjoy a generally high standard of living protected from fluctuations in oil prices by the sultan's shrewd investments in other financial markets.
The Beverly Hills Hotel is not his first venture in that field. In 1985, he bought London's elegant 56-year-old Dorchester Hotel and has reportedly invested in its restoration, not its modernization.
"He understands the history of the structure and the style in which it was originally conceived," reported Dorchester manager Seamus McManus.