Controversy

05.05.14

Hollywood Turns Against the Famed Beverly Hills Hotel Over the Sultan of Brunei’s Anti-Gay Stance

After the owner of The Beverly Hills Hotel, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, announced the implementation of strict Sharia Law in the Southeast Asia state—including stoning homosexuals to death—celebrities and prominent organizations have decided to boycott the establishment.

Before Beverly Hills, there was The Beverly Hills Hotel.

A deluge of palm trees, exquisite flowering bushes brimming with camellias, and other assorted exotic shrubbery, as well as a pronounced flagpole with Old Glory flying high, signals your arrival. As you drive down a narrow street, the iconic logo comes into view: “The Beverly Hills.” It’s written in a ‘50s script, like the title card to I Love Lucy, evoking Old Hollywood. The building’s Mediterranean Revival style, along with its pink and green color scheme and banana leaf design motif, augments the nostalgic feel.

The Beverly Hills Hotel was the first major building project in what would eventually become the tony city of Beverly Hills, California. It opened its doors in 1912—two years before the city of Beverly Hills was incorporated—and is steeped in Hollywood lore, having hosted everyone from John Wayne to Bill Clinton. Howard Hughes lived in the hotel off-and-on for thirty years, reserving several of their bungalow-style suites at a time. Joan Crawford learned how to swim in the hotel pool—years before The Beatles had it opened after-hours for some revelry during their U.S. invasion. A photo of “The Pink Palace” graced the cover of The Eagles’ 1976 album Hotel California. And in 2002, Elton John held his 55th birthday party at the hotel’s famed Polo Lounge restaurant, which was attended by the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Gere, and Jon Bon Jovi.

But that was then.

Maybe Hollywood isn’t quite over accepting the Sultan’s money after all.

In recent weeks, the Hollywood establishment has given a collective middle finger to The Beverly Hills Hotel, along with the other hotel interests in the Dorchester Collection—including London’s Dorchester, Paris’ Hotel Plaza Athénée, and the Hotel Bel-Air. The Dorchester Collection, a subsidiary of The Dorchester Group, is owned by Brunei Investment Agency (BIA), an arm of the Ministry of Finance of Brunei— which is controlled by the Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah. Last October, the 67-year-old dictator announced his plans to introduce Sharia law in Brunei—a strict Islamic penal code calling for penalties including flogging, the severing of limbs, and death by stoning for acts like abortion, adultery, and homosexuality. The enforcement will be introduced in three phases, from least severe (phase one: fines) to most severe (phase three: death by stoning), with the initial phase taking effect May 1. 

“Today... I place my faith in and am grateful to Allah the almighty to announce that tomorrow, Thursday 1 May 2014, will see the enforcement of Sharia law phase one, to be followed by the other phases,” the Sultan proclaimed, according to AFP. He also called Sharia law “part of the great history of our nation” that sees “special guidance from God.”  

The United Nations reacted with indignation, calling the matter one of “deep concern,” and Hollywood has decided to follow suit. On April 22, four days after LGBT organization The Gill Action Fund decided to move a planned conference from the hotel, Oscar host Ellen DeGeneres took to Twitter to announce her boycott of The Beverly Hills Hotel and the Hotel Bel-Air over the Sultan of Brunei’s anti-gay stance, tweeting a link to a story on The Daily Beast.

On May 3, Virgin CEO Richard Branson echoed Degeneres’s boycott, and issued his own:

Other celebrities have also issued their own boycotts against The Dorchester Collection:

And on May 5, The Hollywood Reporter discovered that the Oscars’ celebrated “Night Before” charity ball, which has been thrown every year since 2003 at The Beverly Hills Hotel by the Motion Picture & Television Fund, would be switching locations because of the Sultan of Brunei’s institution of Sharia Law. The host committee for the 2014 edition of “Night Before,” which was started by Dreamworks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, included Will Smith, Ben Affleck, Sandra Bullock, Matthew McConaughey, and other A-listers. 

The MPTF issued a statement to THR expressing their “deep concern about the recent enactment of laws in Brunei that call for violent punishment, including amputation and death by stoning, against those engaging in same-sex activity and extramarital sexual relations and those committing adultery. We expressed very clearly that we cannot condone or tolerate these harsh and repressive laws and as a result support a business owned by the Sultan of Brunei or a Brunei sovereign fund associated with the government of Brunei.”

Christopher Cowdray, CEO of The Dorchester Collection released a statement to The Daily Beast that reads:

“While we recognise people’s concerns, we believe this boycott should not be directed to our hotels and dedicated employees. The economic impact of this not only affects our loyal team members but extends to the local community, our valued partners and suppliers.

Today’s global economy needs to be placed in a broader perspective. Most of us are not aware of the investors behind the brands that have become an integral part of our everyday life, from the gas we put in our cars, to the clothes we wear, to the way we use social media, and to the hotels we frequent. American companies across the board are funded by foreign investment, including Sovereign Wealth Funds.

During this challenging time, we have been deeply touched by the tremendous support received from our loyal guests and long standing business partners who recognise that Dorchester Collection hotels are part of the fabric of their local communities. We will continue to honour their iconic heritage and remain committed to our core values of integrity, equality and diversity.”

Brunei, a sovereign state located in Southeast Asia, is ranked fifth in the world in per capita GDP—one spot ahead the U.S.—but is an autocracy that’s been tightly controlled by Sultan Hassanal since 1967, who rules with absolute authority from his 1,800-room palace. The Sultan is worth a reported $20 billion and his eldest son, Prince Azim, is a Hollywood playboy who’s notorious for throwing wildly lavish parties. Breaking Bad star Aaron Paul recalled being a guest of a guest at one of the bashes at a castle outside London six years ago, which included chasing sheep with the prince, breaking one of his hovercrafts, and taking shots with the late Michael Jackson. He reportedly paid Mariah Carey $1.5 million to perform at a private London event this past New Year’s Eve, and is the producer of two films scheduled for release in 2014: You’re Not You, starring Emmy Rossum and Hilary Swank, and Dark Places, featuring Charlize Theron, Christina Hendricks, and Nicholas Hoult.

Maybe Hollywood isn’t quite over accepting the Sultan’s money after all.