Is it Right to Boycott the Sultan of Brunei’s Hotels? Our Hotel Experts Weigh In

by Jane Mulkerrins, US destination expert and hotel reviewer, The Telegraph, April 2, 2019

Luxury hotels have, historically, been known as hotbeds of hedonism, discreet spaces for indulging in excess and debauchery, and letting someone else clean up afterwards. From leaving towels on the bathroom floor to throwing televisions out of windows and, of course, heady romantic rendezvous, half the point of staying at deluxe hotels is to behave in a way that most of us wouldn’t dare to at home.

Now, however, George Clooney is demanding the global elite who hole up at some of the world’s most prestigious hotels behave with a new sense of responsibility. The Hollywood actor – and increasingly vocal political activist – has called for a boycott of The Dorchester Collection, nine luxury hotels owned by the Sultan of Brunei, who, this week, is introducing laws in his kingdom to punish homosexuality with death by stoning. "Let that sink in," wrote Clooney in a guest editorial piece last week. "In the onslaught of news where we see the world backsliding into authoritarianism this stands alone."

Officially owned by the Sultan’s government wealth fund, the Brunei Investment Agency, the nine properties include the storied Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles – a favourite amongst the A-list – and the Plaza Athénée in Paris, along with London’s Dorchester, 45 Park Lane, and Coworth Park Hotel in Berkshire. Elton John has now publicly backed Clooney’s call for a boycott, and I’m behind them both (even if, admittedly, I’m also less likely to be checking into five-star spots than both of those prominent millionaires anyway).

Where we pay to stay, what we buy, and what regimes we inadvertently support is important; my family would often forgo Granny Smiths in the 1980s, as my mother refused to buy produce from apartheid-era South Africa. And such boycotts – be they of apples or luxury hotel suites – do successfully raise the profile of human rights abuses; until Clooney’s call to arms last week, how many of us were aware that the adulterous trysts that one might find taking place in a high-end hotel would, in Brunei, now also be punishable by whipping or stoning to death?  

Hollywood has attempted to put pressure on The Dorchester Collection before; in 2014, when the Sultan first began practicing Sharia law, many industry figures and organisations boycotted the group’s two LA hotels, the Bel-Air and the Beverly Hills Hotel, for a time. "It was effective to a point," Clooney said, but the outrage died down and the world moved on. Not before, however, other Hollywood notables criticised the boycott; Russell Crowe and Kim Kardashian both argued that the hotels’ employees, who shoulder no blame for the Brunei regime, would be adversely affected by a downturn in trade – the Dorchester Collection employs 3,500 staff across its nine hotels.

But the Sultan, Hassanal Bolkiah, who has been in power since 1967, could easily absorb any drop in bookings. One of the world’s richest men, with a personal fortune of around $20 billion, thanks largely to lucrative oil and gas exports, he lives in an 1800-room palace and owns a 24-carat gold-covered Rolls Royce.

So, will a boycott have any impact on a man so insulated by extreme wealth? Will it encourage him to reconsider the increasingly draconian laws he has introduced over the past five years? Probably not. Even Clooney concedes that, "over years of dealing with murderous regimes", he has learnt that "you can’t shame them." But, he added, "you can shame the banks, the financiers and the institutions that do business with them and choose to look the other way."

And, if we want to be responsible travellers, then we cannot look the other way either; we must vote with our wallets, and with our consciences. There is no shortage of other top-end deluxe hotels offering incredible service in London, Paris and Rome, so why would you choose to stay at one that props up a vicious, violent regime? And however plush a presidential suite at the Plaza Athénée might be, could you ever sleep soundly in it, knowing what your $20,000 a night was funding?

‘Anyone with human decency should support a boycott’

Mark C O’Flaherty, Telegraph Travel hotel reviewer

Like Clooney, we all pick our battles. Dig below the surface of many hospitality corporations, and you’ll find nefarious politics. But how far do you dig before you decide? My own criteria for a boycott is in flux and hypocritical. The Dorchester Collection has a celebrated pro-diversity employment policy, and I can say with some certainty that what goes on in those hotel rooms would be cause for a prodigious stoning back in Brunei.

And yet… while a boycott of the Sultan’s western interests changes nothing, anyone with human decency must support it. When something is so overt, it has to be a hard “no”. Going forward, I’m going to be warier all round. I was in a swanky hotel in Antigua a few years back with my husband, and a homophobic member of staff smeared their faeces all over a towel in the bathroom of our suite. That’s unlikely to happen at the Beverly Hills Hotel. But then California, unlike Antigua, doesn’t want to offer 15 years in prison for “buggery”.

So, what was I doing in Antigua? Basking in luxury and hypocrisy, clearly. Likewise, turn on a gay dating app in the Maldives, and you are warned that “same sex sexual conduct” is a criminal activity punishable under Sharia Law. And yet, I went there too. And loved it. But my memories are still tainted with guilt. Like many places that profit organisations who aren’t on board with my human rights, I won’t be going again.

‘This is burn-hot, fade-fast celebrity retroactive condemnation’

Benjamin Parker, Telegraph Travel assistant content editor and hotel reviewer

Make no mistake, what is happening in Brunei is atrocious, and cannot be ignored. However, Clooney’s intervention can also be seen as an example of burn-hot, fade-fast celebrity retroactive condemnation, backed by online bullies. When I tweeted pictures last month of a Sunday roast I’d eaten at The Dorchester – in the line of duty as a travel writer – I received only likes, retweets and a few “yums”. Now that Clooney has elevated the issue, this weekend saw me painted online as somehow being complicit in Brunei’s appalling laws.

But hang on: the Hollywood star himself admits “recently” staying in Dorchester Collection hotels, saying he was unaware of their ownership. And life in general is rarely as simple as he is making out. Which of your covetable hi-tech gadgets is created using sweatshops in Asia? Instead of galvanising my support, Clooney’s campaign leaves me concerned as to the wellbeing of the hotel group's employees. In my opinion, what is most real is the staff of his hotels – the vast majority with no love for Brunei, who vehemently disagree with the country’s laws – having to be assured that these hotels remain a safe place to work.

One former employee of The Dorchester told me that, “It hurts to be dragged into this. We don’t hold these views and we are just doing our job.” The simple truth is that one cannot flee a place of work every time your feelings don’t align with those of your paymasters (who are, in this case, distant and disconnected to daily life).

By all means march to Belgravia and picket the Brunei embassy. Lobby for political sanctions. Reach out or donate to an LGBTQ+ charity driving change. You can also choose to stay in other five-star hotels around the world. However, even Clooney has admitted that a boycott is unlikely to alter the Sultan’s policy. And if you do find yourself in a Dorchester Collection hotel, do remember to tip the doorman or housekeeping staff – some of whom were working in these properties long before their current employer’s reprehensible views came to light.


This article was written by Jane Mulkerrins, US destination expert and hotel reviewer from The Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].

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