Brunei’s all-powerful and fabulously wealthy sultan marked 50 years on the throne in lavish style Thursday, traveling in a gilded chariot through the streets and holding a tradition-filled ceremony at his golden-domed palace. Tens of thousands of well-wishers waving the country’s flag lined the streets and cheered as Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, the world’s second-longest reigning monarch, passed by in a chariot pulled by dozens of his subjects.
Marching bands took part in the colorful procession as it made its way through the streets, the highlight of about two weeks of celebrations to mark the golden jubilee of one of the world’s richest men.
An absolute monarchy with strict Islamic laws, Brunei is one of the world’s wealthiest nations thanks to abundant oil and gas reserves, although analysts warn it faces serious challenges to diversify the economy as oil prices fall and its reserves dwindle.
Among the crowds was Melissa Ibrahim, an airline employee, who sang Hassanal’s praises. “His majesty cares about the people, their welfare, education and health,” she said in an interview. “Everything is subsidized by the government, so for that we are very, very thankful.”
Thursday’s festivities began with Hassanal, dressed in yellow and gold royal finery and accompanied by his wife Anak Hajah Saleha, inspecting a guard of honor in the grounds of his palace, before an honor guard performed a 21-gun salute.
The couple then held the royal audience in the throne room of the palace, a vast complex of resplendent white buildings with golden domes and almost 1,800 rooms, before heading to take part in the procession. The 71-year-old ascended to the throne of the Muslim country perched on the north of tropical Borneo island in October 1967, and comes from a royal family that has ruled the country for over 600 years.
His decades ruling Brunei have seen the country gain full independence from Britain and living standards soar to among the highest in the world. But his reign of Brunei, which has a population of about 400,000, has also been marked by controversies.
The festivities will continue Friday when Southeast Asian leaders, from countries including Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, and Middle Eastern royalty attend a banquet to mark the jubilee.
The sultan only comes behind one sovereign in terms of having the longest reign Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, who ascended to the throne in 1952. She became the world’s longest serving monarch a year ago following the death of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, whose reign spanned seven decades.