But sort of seriously. Similar to Laos, I know essentially nothing about this ASEAN country except that you can apparently see the whole nation in one day if you visit. And that there is an alcohol ban.

Looking at Brunei at a glance (most data taken from CIA World Factbook):

  • Population = less than half a million (so smaller than Boston, which has 625,000 people– courtesy of a Google search which brought me to a cool US Census Bureau data feature. You can compare population, among other indicators, across the US. All on Google!)
  • Land area = 5,765 sq km, which is slightly smaller then Delaware.
  • Government = Absolute Monarchy. Islamic State (explains alcohol ban). Unitary State.
  • Religion = 67% Muslim, 13% Buddhist, 10% Christian, 10% “other” (including indigenous beliefs.)
  • Language = Malay, but English and Chinese also spoken.

Searching further, their history seems nothing too out of the ordinary: Peak was in the 15th and 17th centuries when control extended over some coastal areas. Internal strife led to decline and chaos within. Became a British protectorate in 1888 until 1984– meaning they gained formal independence a bit later than neighboring Malaysia.

Nonetheless, Brunei’s GDP per capita of US$44,000 in 2012 was the highest in developing Asia, after Singapore and Hong Kong. So how does this tiny nation, which many people could probably not place on a map, have such a high per capita GDP?  Simple. Brunei benefits from extensive petroleum and natural gas fields.

The government’s revenues in 2012 continued to be dominated by the hydrocarbons sector, accounting for 86.3% of earnings. The bulk of Brunei’s oil exports are channeled to countries in Asia. More so than just acquiring wealth through energy exports, Brunei is one of only three countries in “developing Asia”, alongside Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, predicted to still be energy-self-sufficient in 2035, according to a report published in April by the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

Because of this abundance in energy, most of Brunei’s visitor’s are in the oil and gas industry. However this year the number foreign visitors will increase due to this month’s (June) ASEAN regional forum, where US Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to attend, and October’s East Asia summit.

So what’s going to happen when all these foreigners arrive and want to have a drink? (Yes, the sale of alcohol is illegal in Brunei.) Turns out finding hideaway bars in Brunei is possible, as the Wall Street Journal’s Southeast Asia Real Time discovers. While patronizing one of these underground establishments, they find most of the attendees to be “foreigners connected to the oil and gas industry.”

Want to find one of these off-the-radar lounges yourself? Apparently hotels catering to foreign clientele can point one in the right direction. Keep in mind, though, that the alcohol selection will be minimal– a few liquor choices and perhaps one canned beer option. On the bright side, when entering the country non-Muslims are entitled to carry in up to two bottles of liquor and up to 12 cans of beer. Just make sure to let the customs authority know what you’re carrying! When weighing in on other sorts of recreational activities and whether or not they are also illegal, know that drug trafficking and illegally importing controlled substances are very serious offenses in Brunei. And carry a mandatory death penalty. So don’t even think of messing around.

US citizens, among other countries, can visit Brunei for up to 90 days without needing an actual tourist visa. All you must show when passing through customs is a valid passport and an onward ticket. And if no onward ticket, you must prove sufficient funds to support yourself while in the country. Nonetheless, I am not entirely sure what one would do in pint-sized Brunei for 90 days if just visiting… 

Looking into Brunei’s future, their role as an energy provider to the rest of the region will continue to grow with time. At the moment Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia are Southeast Asia’s only net energy exporters. However, large populations and rising energy demands have led experts to believe that Indonesia and Malaysia may need to begin importing hydrocarbons before 2020.

All and all, ASEAN has big plans to expand the energy sector. And Brunei’s Sultanate is well placed to play a greater role in those plans for developing the energy sector, which include “building gas pipelines to better connect member states, rolling out power grids across borders and laying a trans-ASEAN gas pipeline.”

In the end, I do not think I will find myself in Brunei anytime soon–unless I pick up a career in the oil or hydrocarbon industry. Still, it is important to acknowledge the vital role this tiny country plays, and will most likely continue to play, in providing energy to the rest of the Southeast Asian region.


Image – By ASDFGHJ (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons