Rising number of businesses cut ties with Brunei over gay sex death penalty

Rachel Savage, Thomson Reuters Foundation

Posted at Apr 06 2019 05:28 AM

Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah attends the retreat session during the APEC Summit in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, November 18, 2018. David Gray, Reuters

LONDON - Travel agents, London's transport network, and finance houses were among a rising number of companies on Friday to cut ties with businesses owned by Brunei to protest over the Sultanate's introduction of the death penalty for gay sex and adultery.

The small Muslim-majority former British protectorate on April 3 rolled out further Islamic Sharia laws, which punish sodomy, adultery, and rape with death, including by stoning, and theft with amputation, sparking a global outcry.

The move prompted a corporate backlash after actor George Clooney and singer Elton John called for a boycott of hotels owned by the Southeast Asian country, including the Dorchester in London and the Beverley Hills Hotel in Los Angeles.

STA Travel, a global travel agency owned by privately-held Swiss conglomerate Diethelm Keller Group, said it would no longer sell flights on national carrier Royal Brunei Airlines.

"We've taken this stance to add our voice to the calls on Brunei to reverse this change in the law and in support of LGBTQI people everywhere," the company said in a statement.

Virgin Australia Airlines, the second biggest airline in Australia after Qantas, ended an agreement that offered discounted tickets on Royal Brunei Airlines for staff.

Royal Brunei did not respond to requests for comment.

Transport For London (TfL), which is responsible for London's transport system, said it was removing adverts promoting Brunei as a tourism destination from the city's public transport network due to "great public sensitivity."

Deutsche Bank banned its staff from staying in the 9 luxury hotels of the Dorchester Collection, which is owned by Brunei's state-owned Brunei Investment Agency (BIA).

BIA did not respond to a request for comment. The UK-based Sovereign Wealth Center estimates the BIA has US$39 billion of assets under management.

The Dorchester Collection made a public appeal, saying its values were "far removed from the politics of ownership".

"We understand people's anger and frustration but this is a political and religious issue that we don't believe should be played out in our hotels and amongst our 3,630 employees," the Dorchester Collection said in a statement on its website.

But this did not prevent numerous organizations moving their events elsewhere.

British estate agent Knight Frank, property industry networking group Movers and Shakers, which has about 300 corporate members, and property investment company Landsec said they would not use Dorchester Collection hotels.

As well as owning the hotel group, the BIA holds about 4 percent of London-listed digital tech venture capital firm Draper Esprit PLC which it acquired in 2018.

Draper Esprit's CEO Simon Cook said the company "naturally abhor" the moves in Brunei but added the BIA bought shares on the open market and has no "influence either on our company culture or our investment decisions".

The backlash also spread to universities.

More than 50,000 people signed a petition calling on Oxford University to rescind an honorary degree awarded to Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, 72, the world's second-longest reigning monarch and prime minister of the oil-rich country.

The university's information office said they shared the international condemnation of Brunei's new penal code and backed the United Nations' call to stop this entering into force.

"At present, the University has not taken any decision on rescinding the Sultan of Brunei's 1993 Honorary Degree of Civil Law by Diploma," the university said in a statement.