Brunei: The Richest Country You’ve Never Heard Of


The Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque in Bandar Seri Begawan

Negara Brunei Darussalam (Nation of Brunei, Abode of Peace), or more commonly known simply as Brunei, is a tiny country on the northern part of the island of Borneo. It is split into two different sections, each one bordered completely by the semi-autonomous Malaysian state of Sawarak. As small and obscure as it is wealthy, Brunei is an interesting little nation that most people have never heard of, and even fewer have seen.

The Stats

Brunei’s land mass is split into two small stretches which combine for a total of 5,265 sq. km of land, smaller than the state of Delaware. Despite its small amount of land, Brunei has access to great oil resources and holds the status of being one of the richest countries per capita in the world.

According to the CIA Factbook, Brunei boasts a GDP Per Capita (PPP) of $76,700 and a Gross National Savings of 48.8% of the GDP in 2017. Compare that to the United States’ GDP Per Capita (PPP) of $59,500 and Gross National Savings of just 17.5% of the GDP, and you can see why the almost half-million Bruneians in the country aren’t always worried about money.


The History

Brunei is now, and has traditionally been, a Sultanate; it is ruled by a Sultan. The same family has actually been ruling Brunei for about the last 600 years, but the size of the kingdom has changed drastically over that time.

At its peak, Brunei held claim to much of Borneo including almost all of the North. That would change when the Spanish moved into the Philippines. The Spanish considered the Islamic nation of Brunei a threat to their Christianization of the region, and launched the Castilian War in the late 1500’s to take the kingdom.

Militarily superior, and with the help of Bruneian traitors, the Spanish should have won the war. However, disease and harsh conditions pushed the Spanish off of the island and gave power back to the Bruneian Sultan.

Despite the apparent win over the Spanish, the Sultan would continue to lose this power over time. This eventually led to a civil war in the 1800’s which was ended with the help of a British explorer, James Brooke. In exchange for his help, the Sultan granted Brooke what would today be Sarawak, naming Brooke as the White Rajah of Sarawak.

Over time, Brunei would continue to give more and more land to the White Rajah and his family until the outbreak of WWII and the invasion of the Japanese. Like much of Southeastern Asia, the Japanese occupied the country and would not be driven out until the Japanese surrender to the US at the end of the war.

Brunei would return to UK control before finally writing its own constitution and gaining independence. In 1984 it entered the UN as a member state.

The Culture

Today, Brunei is a prosperous nation with lush jungles, developed infrastructure, and Bandar Seri Begawan as the capital. Brunei places great importance on two distinct parts of its culture, Malay culture and Islam, so much so that it is a special constitutional duty of the Sultan to preserve this culture.

The language of Brunei is the best highlight of Bruneian culture. As a Malay people, Bruneians speak a dialect of Malay. However, in keeping with their Islamic culture, Brunei has also adopted Jawi; using the Arabic alphabet to write the Malay language.


Jawi on top; Latin letters in the middle; English on the bottom

While speakers of Arabic can read the letters, the words will usually not be words found in Arab vocabularies. Instead, these are Malay words which just use Arabic letters. This is similar to pinyin, which uses Latin letters to write Mandarin Chinese words.

The End

Brunei Darussalam is an interesting little country with a big economic and geographic status. Given its location and resources, Brunei may play a role in international affairs in the future. Its location puts it near the issues in the South China sea and the pirates in the southern Philippines, while its foreign policy and history makes it a potential ally for US and other NATO forces. The UK already has a long-standing defense agreement with the small nation, and with US forces eyeing the Pacific, the United States may be taking a closer look at Brunei in the near future.


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