The art of boycotting seems unjust when protesting against an illiberal tyrant in Brunei

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The brutal regime of the Kingdom of Brunei has posed a consistent threat to the rights of LGBT people inhabiting the small country. The mega-billionaire and leader, the Sultan of Brunei, has presided over the nation’s martial law since 1967. The English-type law system it once upheld has now conceded to a robust Islamic sharia law that imposes rules for many of the country’s ironclad constitution, where a legitimate election hasn’t taken place since 1962.

The sultan is the owner of a luxurious group of international hotels run through the Dorchester Group. In a knee-jerk reaction to put pressure on Brunei’s severe anti-LGBT framework, a litany of celebrities and powerful voices have urged their peers to boycott the hotels run by the Dorchester. These include the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Hotel Bel-Air in California, and The Dorchester in central London. It’s of course the thought that counts when it comes to boycotting. But is it really such a good idea for so-called “left-wing” elites to do so to a hotel filled with low-paid workers?

I am a gay man and absolutely abhor the new Brunei law that would see homosexuality punished with death by stoning. I feel compelled to speak out on nation that endorses the most abject horror on its LGBT residents. In a 2011 poll, a gay culture that existed in Brunei was so utterly discreet that only 29 people who identified as LGBTQ+ responded. The effects of the sultan’s deplorable positions regarding gay issues has meant living conditions for the few who live inside Brunei’s borders are difficult to fathom. As a member and outspoken advocate for equality in the LGBT community, but also a staunch democratic socialist, I struggle to comprehend how the art of boycotting could dismantle a an already filthy rich and absolutist sultan.

Political activists and pundits have called for widespread protests against the Brunei regime. Left-wing commentator and writer, Owen Jones, remarked that those who stay in the enclave of hotels owned by the sultan are “investing in a regime that threatens gay people”. Meanwhile, influential figures in the U.S in Ellen DeGeneres and George Clooney, proponents of liberalism, asked guests of the hotels; “Are we really going to help pay for these human rights violations?”. This act of resistance is defiant but fruitless when the hotels in question are practically run on a day-to-day basis by cleaners, receptionists and kitchen and bar staff. The underpaid workers that cater to the rich and famous would be short of labour and left out of work if the boycott campaign was successful. Therefore, the sultan would stay just as rich and powerful whilst those at the bottom of the hierarchy struggle to make ends meet.

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The boycott idea is hierarchical and morally wrong when the ones who ponder it are supposedly fervent supporters of workers’ rights. It is arguable that the mega-rich of Hollywood have propped up establishment governments in the past, who have been guilty in trading arm deals with tyrannous leaders. This is not referenced by Clooney in his quest for equality. But there are much more effective ways he, and many others, could tackle a barbaric foreign government. A similar opinion was expressed by a small few in Hollywood when a previous boycott against Brunei-affiliated hotels took place in 2014. Kim Kardashian, Russell Crowe and Rose McGowan famously decried the boycott by arguing that “it doesn’t even make a dent in the Sultan’s fortunes” and so they refused to target the “hard-working” staff within the hotel chain.

I instead call for the protests to take to the streets. Demand that the Brunei regime dismantle their toxic laws through street marches. Furthermore, ask complicit governments to stop trade deals with Brunei and request sanctions for a country that does not fit the democratic order the western world adheres to. More importantly, do not pinpoint the blame on the employees at the bottom of the pecking order. The rich and powerful will stay that way whilst the diligent workers employed under them become worse off if the boycott plans went ahead. I have written a similar piece regarding the take down of an unctuous mogul in Philip Green and his Topshop franchise. Boycotting his famous brand would only have a direct impact on the young workers who endure tiresome shifts to maintain a smiling consumer. Philip Green and the sultan of Brunei are not perturbed by boycotts if it means they continue to sit on piles of cash.

Socialist commentator.

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