Sultan of Brunei’s hotels in Los Angeles targeted over sharia law

Celebrities urge boycott as campaigners lay siege to LA landmarks over Islamic law in Brunei

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 May, 2014, 9:52pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 May, 2014, 8:22am

Two landmark Los Angeles hotels have become the target of angry protests from celebrities and gay rights activists because of harsh new laws in the Southeast Asian sultanate of Brunei.

The luxury Beverly Hills Hotel and Hotel Bel-Air are both part of the Dorchester Collection, a group owned by the government of the tiny, oil-rich nation.

It’s about the ownership and its lack of concern for … justice

Brunei last week imposed new criminal codes, based on Islamic law, with brutal penalties for homosexuality and adultery, including death by stoning.

Organisers have abruptly cancelled several events planned for the Beverly Hills Hotel and big name celebrities have vowed on social media to stay away - urging others to do the same.

On Monday, former US chat show host Jay Leno joined the chorus of condemnation at a demonstration along Sunset Boulevard across from the Beverly Hills Hotel. "This is 2014, not 1814," Leno, the former star of the Tonight Show, told dozens of placard-waving protesters.

The uproar has put Beverly Hills civic and business leaders in a delicate position, trying to balance opposition to the laws with support for a local cultural monument and economic engine.

The Beverly Hills City Council was yesterday due to consider a resolution condemning the Brunei laws.

But Beverly Hills Mayor Lili Bosse said the resolution "is not in any way a statement against the Beverly Hills Hotel ... which is a pillar of our community".

She added: "It's about the ownership and its lack of concern for justice and human rights."

Christopher Cowdray, the hotel group's chief executive, said the boycotts and protests were misguided and potentially harmful to Beverly Hills.

"They won't stop the implementation of the new laws," he said, but rather would "only hurt the [hotel's] employees". He added there were no plans to sell the hotels. The Beverly Hills Hotel employs about 600 people, and the Hotel Bel-Air, roughly 400.

Cowdray added that the Beverly Hills Hotel pays about US$7 million in bed taxes and US$4 million in city taxes every year. Hotel representatives on Monday greeted the protesters cordially and offered them cookies and bottles of water.

But the Feminist Majority Foundation decided not to hold its annual Global Women's Rights Awards, co-chaired by Leno and his wife Mavis, at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

The event, scheduled for Monday, was instead held at the Hammer Museum in the Westwood section of Los Angeles.

Other organisations quickly jumped aboard the bandwagon. The Hollywood Reporter said it would not hold its annual Women in Entertainment breakfast at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

The Motion Picture & Television Fund, which runs the star-studded Night Before the Oscars, said it would not hold its charity event at the hotel next year. In a statement, representatives said they met hotel executives and "expressed very clearly that we cannot condone or tolerate these harsh and repressive laws".

Teen Line - a confidential helpline - also recently decided to move its annual fundraising luncheon from the hotel to the Sony Pictures Studios lot in nearby Culver City.

Some of the celebrities calling for the hotel boycott include Ellen DeGeneres, Richard Branson and Sharon Osbourne.

A British protectorate that gained its independence in 1984, Brunei is ranked as the fifth-richest nation in the world by Forbes magazine. The sultan bought the Beverly Hills Hotel in 1987 and it became part of the Dorchester Collection in 1996. The group also owns luxury hotels in Europe.

Under the first phase of the new legal code introduced in Brunei last week, fines and jail terms can be imposed for failing to attend Friday prayers, indecent behaviour 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 to go into effect next year, will allow for death by stoning for crimes including adultery and gay sex.

It remains to be seen how laws in a faraway land will affect travellers seeking a luxury stay at a historic hotel such as the century-old Beverly Hills, with its famed bungalows, pool and Polo Lounge.

"That's a tough one," said Christopher O'Neill, a visitor from Vancouver, British Columbia, waiting for his car in the portico. "They're horrible," he said of the new sharia laws. "But my stay here was fabulous."