Sultan of Brunei’s Beverly Hills Hotel boycotted over rights issues

Jay Leno joins a demonstration Monday calling for a boycott of the Beverly Hills Hotel over the human-rights record of the government of Brunei, which owns the hotel.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
<i>This post has been updated, as indicated below.</i>

Looming penalties for homosexuality, adultery and other sharia-law crimes in the oil-rich nation of Brunei sparked a protest Monday in front of the iconic Beverly Hills Hotel and are expected to draw formal condemnation from the City Council.

The Beverly Hills Hotel and the Hotel Bel-Air are part of the Dorchester Collection of properties owned by the Brunei Investment Agency, an arm of the Brunei government, which has come under widespread criticism since Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah last week announced the new criminal code based on sharia law.

Under the first phase of the new legal code introduced last week, fines and jail terms can be imposed for failing to attend Friday prayers, indecent behavior and pregnancies outside of marriage. A second phase later this year prescribes the severing of limbs and flogging for property crimes.

The third phase set for late 2015 will allow for death by stoning for crimes including adultery and gay sex.


Several groups and prominent public figures have since pledged to boycott the hotels until the Malaysia-adjacent country changes its laws or relinquishes its ownership.

On Twitter, TV star Ellen DeGeneres said she would not visit the hotels “until this is resolved.” Jay Leno, who recently left his longtime gig as “Tonight Show” host, appeared at Monday’s protest along with his wife, Mavis, who is on the board of the Feminist Majority. The organization has since pulled its annual event from the hotel.

“This is 2014, not 1814,” he said as he cracked a joke about people wondering “what I’m doing in my retirement.”

With its move to Islamic religious law, Brunei is set to implement punishments such as flogging, dismemberment and death by stoning for crimes such as rape, adultery and sodomy.

The Beverly Hills City Council is expected to pass a resolution Tuesday condemning the start of the revised laws set to go into effect Thursday. The resolution also calls for the Brunei government to sell the hotel.

“Unfortunately, there are many offensive human rights situations around the globe,” said Beverly Hills Mayor Lili Bosse, who proposed the resolution. “However, these new Brunei laws are so barbaric that the city felt compelled to add to the growing international outrage.”


Outside the hotel Monday, security guards lined Sunset Boulevard in preparation for the protest, which began about noon. Representatives of the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center, a local workers union and others were among the attendees.

In an interview with The Times, Christopher Cowdray, chief executive of the Dorchester Collection, said a boycott “won’t stop the implementation” of the new laws, but rather would “only hurt the employees.” He added that the hotels would not be sold.

“We are obviously very disappointed by the approach that has been taken,” he said of the boycott and protest. “This is an iconic property that relies on international business.”

Hotel staff members carried boxes of cookies and cases of water bottles to give to protesters.

The Beverly Hills Hotel employs about 600 people, the Hotel Bel-Air roughly 400. He added that the Beverly Hills Hotel pays about $7 million in bed taxes and $4 million in city taxes each year.

In a report, city officials said that any loss in business for the hotel could result in less tax revenue for the city.


Former Beverly Hills Mayor Jimmy Delshad said the resolution was “overdue” and added that “we need to get our message across … that human rights trump the local economy and local employees.”

In an interview, Bosse said the city had often taken stands in favor of human rights. It has protested apartheid and stoning in Iran and has come out for gay rights.

Dave Garcia, the director of policy at the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center, said the organization had not formally decided to boycott the hotel but would discuss “next steps” at a town hall meeting on Wednesday.

[Updated, 6:25 p.m. PDT, Monday, May 5, 2014: In her remarks at the rally Monday, L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center Chief Executive Lorri L. Jean called for a boycott, urging people to not support any of the sultan’s properties.]

Like the city’s leaders, Garcia was careful to differentiate between the hotel and its workers and hotel ownership. Officials and group leaders were generally careful to support the hotel, while discouraging patrons from pouring money into its owners’ pockets.

“The Beverly Hills Hotel is like the Clippers; the Sultan of Brunei is like Donald Sterling,” Leno said. “Does that make it clear?”


Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, was banned for life last week from the NBA and fined $2.5 million for recorded comments he made about African Americans that were then made public.

At the protest Monday, former state Assemblywoman Betsy Butler echoed that “even though the sultan is really far away, we need to speak with our dollars.”

But it remains to be seen how the harsh laws in a faraway land will affect travelers seeking a luxury stay at a historic hotel such as the Beverly Hills.

“That’s a tough one,” said Christopher O’Neill, a visitor from Vancouver waiting for his car in the portico.

“They’re horrible,” he said of the new sharia laws. “But my stay here was fantastic.”