Brunei wants to punish gay sex with death by stoning – can boycotts stop it?

The sultan of Brunei has been on the throne for 52 years, making him the second-longest reigning monarch in the world, after Queen Elizabeth II.

In Brunei – a rather traditional, deeply Muslim Southeast Asian country – the sultan is known for leading a decadent life.

Vanity Fair once dubbed Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah and his brother, Prince Jefri Bolkiah, “constant companions in hedonism.” They spend lavishly on luxury cars, yachts and real estate, and according to the magazine, “allegedly sent emissaries to comb the globe for the sexiest women they could find in order to create a harem the likes of which the world had never known.”

Now, Brunei’s sultan appears to have found religion.

He has implemented a harsh interpretation of Sharia – Islamic law – in his country, taking aim at LGBT people, women and even children with some of the world’s harshest penalties for homosexual conduct.

Under Brunei’s new laws, gay sex and adultery can result in death by stoning, and having an abortion is punishable by public flogging. Dressing in clothing associated with a different sex may incur a fine and imprisonment up to three months. Younger children can be whipped for these offenses.

Diversion from economic woes

These laws represent serious breaches of international human rights law, my field of academic expertise.

Thirty-six countries – including the United States, United Kingdom, Argentina and Australia – recently issued a joint statement expressing “profound dismay” at Brunei’s penal code, which the United Nations has deemed “cruel and unusual.”

Why is Brunei’s sultan suddenly so keen to enforce Sharia across this island nation of 430,000?

One of the main reasons may be plunging global oil prices. For the first time, the oil-rich nation of Brunei is grappling with economic crisis.

Other countries have similarly whipped up hatred against LGBT people to distract the public’s attention from economic crisis or corruption allegations.

The sultan may also be seeking to rehabilitate his reputation as a “party boy.”

“This is obviously not coming from a place of religious devotion, since the sultan himself is in violation of every single rule of Sharia you could possibly imagine,” religious scholar Reza Aslan told the New York Post in 2014, when the sultan first flagged his intention to impose strict Islamic law in Brunei.

Perhaps the Sultan thinks that implementing Sharia will enable him to leave a religious legacy that outweighs his decades of very public excess and indulgence.

Do boycotts work?

As a way of trying to get the Sultan to change his mind about imposing these harsh penalties within Brunei, many celebrities and gay rights advocates are calling for boycotts of the sultan’s international hotels and of Royal Brunei Airlines.

But evidence suggests that boycotts are not the most effective way to influence foreign governments.

For one, they can cause the offending government to harden its position to show it will not give in to foreign pressure. That can make it harder to work collaboratively with leaders of that country to actually improve the situation.

That’s what happened in Uganda in 2014, when President Yoweri Museveni introduced some of the word’s toughest anti-gay laws.

“I advise friends from the West not to make this an issue, because if they make it an issue the more they will lose,” he said. “Outsiders cannot dictate to us. This is our country.”