By Maria Wilhelm
June 01, 1987 12:00 PM

He’d be perfect for an American Express commercial, except that he doesn’t need the residuals.

“Do you know me?” the boyish man in a Savile Row suit might ask. “I sent the Contras $10 million.” Pause. Click, click, click: “The Sultan of Brunei.”

On second thought, a man who can write a personal check for $18 million probably doesn’t care whether you know him or not. And that’s what the sultan did just last March when he bought a Boeing 727 from arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi. With an individual net worth estimated at $30 billion, Sultan Muda Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’lzzaddin Waddaulah, 40, is reputedly the richest man in the world. Yet his was hardly a household name before congressional investigators discovered he’d sent $10 million to a Swiss bank account operated by Oliver North for the Nicaraguan contras. Unfortunately the donation, which had been requested by Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams (perhaps at the suggestion of the Sultan’s longtime associate Khashoggi), was mistakenly credited to the account of a grateful Swiss businessman, from whom it must now be reclaimed.

Not that the Sultan was worried. A loss like that would be a mere “drop in the bucket where Brunei is concerned,” says Southeast Asia expert Donald Weatherbee, since Brunei’s bucket is brimming with oil. A Delaware-size country on Borneo’s northwest coast, Brunei’s annual per capita income is about $20,000, and its citizens enjoy free medical care, free education through university (any university, anywhere in the world) and, in some cases, free housing, free cars and free passage to Mecca. “Bruneians are supported from cradle to grave,” says one observer. “They’re happy.”

The life of this party is the sybaritic Sultan, known familiarly as “H.H.”—for “His Highness.” His gold-domed, 1,788-room palace is the largest private residence in the world. His stable of 200 polo ponies is rivaled by few, and his automobile collection, which includes a gold-upholstered Land Rover, sets the tone for a car-mad country with only 637 miles of road but 40,000 vehicles. Only in the matter of wives does the Sultan show much restraint. Allowed four by Koranic law, he has but two, with three sons and six daughters.

A dedicated Anglophile rumored to be the behind-the-scenes owner of London’s Dorchester hotel and Harrod’s department store, the Sultan spent a year at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst before ascending to the throne in 1967. He would have been happy to live out his reign as a subject of the British empire. For Britain, however, Brunei had become a colonial anachronism, and by 1983 the Brits had dragged their wards kicking and screaming into political independence. But British affiliates still pump Brunei’s oil, and a battalion of Gurkhas—rented for $12 million a year—aids in its national defense.

When Brunei was admitted to the United Nations in 1984, the Sultan gave New York Mayor Edward Koch $500,000 to feed the elderly and infirm. In return, he received a solid-brass key to the city. “It’s not gold,” said the mayor. He knew, of course, that Brunei wouldn’t need it.