Steeped in the history and traditions of South-east Asia and of the island of Borneo, the Sultanate of Brunei Darussalam is an ancient nation. Strategically located in a fast-growing and fast-changing region, it has also long been a haven of stability and continuity. Indeed, the current ruler, His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah, is the most recent in a line of rulers stretching back to the 14th century.

YOUTHFUL PRESENT: Yet for all its legacies and traditions, Brunei Darussalam is also a young country in terms of its population. Around 54% of Bruneians are under 30 years old. Incomes are also high for the region, with the per capita GDP in 2012 hitting just over $48,000. This ranks Brunei second only to Singapore within the 10-nation ASEAN bloc. Much of this wealth is being invested in the country’s future. Given its current high dependence on finite oil and gas reserves, diversification is a top strategic goal of government policy. This foresight is evident from the Sultanate’s globally significant sovereign wealth fund as well as the investments made in education and health, which Bruneians enjoy free of charge.

Guiding all this is the Sultan, whose international stature and profile is also about to undergo a boost, as Brunei Darussalam becomes chair of ASEAN in 2013. His Majesty will host the first ever ASEAN-US summit in 2013, a major diplomatic coup that will see US President Barack Obama visit the country’s capital, Bandar Seri Begawan. As chair, His Majesty will also have to help ASEAN negotiate its way through some tough issues, such as the dispute over the South China Sea and progress towards a regional economic community in 2015 (see analyses). In 2013 Brunei Darussalam will be in the global spotlight, giving the Sultanate a chance to demonstrate why it has for so long been known as “the abode of peace”.

CENTURIES OF RULE: The first recorded sultan of Brunei Darussalam was Sultan Muhammad Shah, who ruled over an Islamic kingdom from 1363-1402. Prior to that, there are accounts of a kingdom known to the Chinese Ming Dynasty as Po-ni, with the tomb of one if its rulers, Ma-na-jih-chia-na, recently discovered in Nanjing. The historical record blurs with the mythical, exemplified by the national epic Syair Awang Semaun, or Tales of Awang Semaun. Prior to mass conversions to Islam by the majority of the population, the region was heavily influenced by Hinduism as practised in nearby Java and Sumatra. Shah is credited with introducing Islam to the Sultanate after his own conversion in 1363 following his marriage to a princess from Johor.

By the mid-15th century, Brunei Darussalam was closer to the Malay kingdom of Malacca. When the Portuguese occupied Malacca, a key trading post, in 1511, many refugees fled to the Sultanate, which by then was a powerful regional state. Indeed, the period of Sultan Bolkiah’s rule, from 1485-1521, is often seen as the country’s Golden Age. Brunei Darussalam had colonies in Manila Bay, the Philippines, and ruled over present-day Sabah, Sarawak and the Sulu archipelago. Its power and wealth were based on maritime trade, with the Sultanate acting as an entrepot for goods in the region and north to China.

TIES TO EUROPE: The year 1521 marked the first visit to Brunei Darussalam by Europeans aboard the vessels of Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan’s epic expedition of discovery. Antonio Pigafetta, a Venetian scholar travelling on board of one of Magellan’s ships, recorded the visit. Pigafetta’s accounts provide us with a glimpse of early 16th-century Brunei Darussalam, with the traveller writing of a capital with 25,000 families built on stilts in the river, its royalty enrobed in gold-embroidered silks and its nobles using elephants for transport.

Relations with Portugal generally remained on good terms; however, the rising power of Spain in the Philippines was more challenging and led to a number of clashes. Years of conflict over Luzon and Manila ended with Spanish control, although Spanish attacks on Brunei Darussalam and Sulu resulted in failure.

The next centuries saw growing European power – and rivalry – in the region. This altered local trade patterns, further undermining Brunei Darussalam’s economic strength. British, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese traders were followed by navies and armies. By the 19th century, while the Sultanate still controlled much of the island of Borneo, its power was highly restricted and internal conflicts were then open to foreign exploitation. One master of this was James Brooke, the English adventurer who succeeded in establishing control over what is now Sarawak for himself and his dynasty of “White Rajahs”. The British then used this foothold to gain control of Labuan Island and what is now Sabah, which became British North Borneo, while the Spanish took Sulu. In 1847 Brunei Darussalam signed a Treaty of Friendship and Commerce with the British Empire which led to the Sultanate becoming a British protectorate in 1888.

Into the 20th century, Brunei Darussalam was occupied by the Japanese along with the rest of Borneo during the Second World War, and then taken back by Australian forces in 1945. Post-war the Sultanate was originally part of plans to form a federation of Malaysia, including Sarawak, Sabah, Singapore and the peninsular Malay states. It opted out of this arrangement.

Since Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah succeeded to the throne in 1967, Brunei Darussalam has been at peace with its neighbours and itself. In 1984 Brunei Darussalam became full independent from the UK.

A STABLE MONARCHY: The sultan’s position combines the roles of head of state, head of the government and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The current sultan is the 29th ruler. Born in 1946, he succeeded his father, Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien III, after the former sultan abdicated in October 1967. Sultan ‘Ali Saifuddien III passed away in 1986.

Succession is determined by male primogeniture, as laid down in the constitution, with heirs limited to those who have legitimate descent from Sultan Hashim Jalilul Alam Aqamaddin. Sons by royal wives also take precedence over sons of commoner wives. In the case of disputes, the Council of Succession determines who inherits the throne and if there is a need for a regent. Its members are appointed by the sultan. The current heir apparent is Crown Prince Al Muhtadee Billah, born in 1974, who married Pengiran Anak Isteri Pengiran Anak Sarah in 2004. They have two children.

A NATIONAL IDEAL: At independence in 1984 the sultan declared that the Bruneian government would adopt a national philosophy, known as the Melayu Islam Beraja, or the Malay Muslim Monarchy (MIB).

MIB values security, harmony and stability, based on solidarity amongst Malays, Muslims and the monarchy. In an era of rapid modernisation and globalisation, the MIB philosophy is intended to serve as a bedrock of belief and practice that Bruneians can rely on, amidst ongoing global change and uncertainty.

ROYAL GOVERNMENT: As head of government and supreme executive, the sultan presides over four councils, in addition to the Council of Succession mentioned above. Each of these has a series of different responsibilities. First, there is the Council of Ministers, or Cabinet, of Brunei Darussalam. This is the chief executive body that sits at the head of government ministries and includes the attorney general and the state mufti. Members of the council are appointed by the sultan, who is also prime minister, minister of finance and minister of defence.

The crown prince is also a member of the Cabinet, as senior minister at the Prime Minister’s Office; senior minister of the Royal Court; a general in the Royal Bruneian Armed Forces; deputy inspector general of the Royal Bruneian Police Force; and the head of the National Disaster Management Centre.

The sultan’s younger brother, Prince Mohamed Bolkiah, also sits on the Cabinet as the minister of foreign affairs and trade. Other ministers in the Cabinet include those in charge of education, religion affairs, industry and primary resources, communications, home affairs, health, development, and culture, youth and sports. The post of second minister also exists for finance and foreign affairs and trade, while deputy ministers take on responsibilities in defence as well as in some other areas.

The second key council is the Privy Council, which exists to advise the sultan in a number of important areas. These include advice on constitutional matters, along with Malay customs and the conferring of titles and awards. Membership is by the appointment of the Sultan and includes members of the royal family as well as serving and former senior cabinet ministers. The Privy Council may also advise the sultan in the exercise of official pardons and amendments to the constitution.

Then there is the Brunei Islamic Religious Council (BIRC), which advises the sultan on religious matters and also sets policy for the Sultanate’s Ministry of Religious Affairs. The members of BIRC include government ministers, the state mufti, sharia law judges and other top advisors, appointed by His Majesty.

ADVISING THE SULTAN: The role of advisor to the sultan includes a variety of different ranks and titles. In a tradition stretching back to the earliest days of the Sultanate, four wazirs have been important figures in the sultan’s court, with these led by the kepala wazir, or chief vizier.

The wazirs are usually aristocrats who have much political experience and have distinguished themselves in some way, and they are ranked as the most noble, after the sultan. After the wazirs, in terms of rank, come the cheterias.

EVOLVING ROLE: The fourth major body is the Legislative Council (LegCo). Established under the 1959 constitution, which stipulated the Sultanate’s selfgovernment, LegCo took over from the Brunei State Council and has had a somewhat chequered history. The council held its first and only election in 1962, for 16 of its 33 members. However, shortly thereafter the LegCo was reorganised with fewer members. In 1984, when Brunei Darussalam gained its independence, the sultan suspended the council, which did not reconvene until 2004.

In 2004 the LegCo met with 21 members, all appointed by His Majesty. In 2005 the LegCo was expanded to include 29 members and has met annually every March since 2006. The LegCo moved to a new building in 2008. In 2011 the sultan announced that some new members of the LegCo would be elected in the future, so there has been some expectation that an election may one day be held again, though no definite date has been set.

At present though, LegCo members are appointed under several different categories. There are ex-officio members, such as the prime minister and government ministers, titled persons, persons who have achieved some sort of distinction and district representatives. The latter represent the Sultanate’s four local daerah, or districts – Temburong, Tutong, Belait and Brunei Muara – as well as a representative from the mukim, or sub-district, in Brunei-Muara.

Brunei-Muara is the most populous daerah in the country, home to approximately 380,000 people, or around 69% of the overall population, and it also includes the country’s capital. The Sultanate comprises a total of 38 mukims, and each is headed by a penghulu, or headman, who is elected from amongst the various kampungs, or villages, of the sub-district.

JUDICIAL SERVICE: As a Muslim country that was for many years a British protectorate, Brunei Darussalam has a dual legal system based both on Islamic sharia law and English common law.

Under the former, a system of sharia courts exists, both at the local level and in the form of a Court of Appeal, which is the highest appellate body; however, no intermediate courts exist under the country’s Islamic legal system. The sharia courts deal mainly with marriage and family issues pertaining to the local Muslim community.

The English common law system is used in local magistrates’ courts, intermediate courts and the High Court, with a Court of Appeals now the last stop in criminal cases, although appeals to the Privy Council may be made in some civil cases. Brunei Darussalam does not have a jury system, with judges and magistrates sitting alone, except for crimes that may result in capital punishment, in which case two High Court judges preside. The Court of Appeals also had three judges presiding over the case.

Magistrates and judges are appointed by the state to serve on both the sharia and English common law courts, and all thus far have been appointed from among the ranks of civil servants rather than lawyers in private practice.

OUTLOOK: After many years of political stability and economic growth, the year ahead promises more of the same for the prosperous South-east Asian nation. At the same time, the Sultanate’s international profile will be heightened by its role as the chair of the ASEAN bloc, and Bandar Seri Begawan will host a variety of international leaders and delegations. The country’s diplomacy will also be tested as it heads discussions to resolve a number of regional disputes that require leadership from ASEAN. Meanwhile, as the bloc pushes forward towards the introduction of its economic community in 2015, the Sultanate is making efforts to harness its resources to diversify the economy to compete in a more open ASEAN market.