The all-powerful and fabulously wealthy sultan of Brunei marked 50 years on the throne in spectacular style Thursday, traveling in a gilded chariot through the streets and holding a tradition-filled ceremony at his golden-domed palace.
Tens of thousands of well-wishers waving the country’s flag lined the streets and cheered as Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, the world’s second-longest reigning monarch, passed by in a chariot pulled by dozens of his subjects.
However, behind the gilded facade, the Sultan rules the nation with an iron fist: the absolute monarchy lacks free elections and a free press, and homosexuality is punishable by death from stoning.
Royal jubilee: Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah and Queen Saleha wave from the royal chariot during a procession to mark his golden jubilee of accession to the throne in Bandar Seri Begawan
Iron fist: Brunei is an absolute monarchy and therefore has no elections, and there is no free press in the country
Criticized: In Brunei, homosexuality is a crime punishable by death, either through stoning or hanging
While seemingly adored by many of his subjects, the Sultan is often criticized by human rights campaigners over the country’s strict Islamic laws and lack of democracy.
Yesterday, festivities began with Hassanal, dressed in yellow and gold royal finery and accompanied by his wife Anak Hajah Saleha, inspecting a guard of honor on the grounds of his palace, before they performed a 21-gun salute for the royal couple.
The sultan then held the royal audience in the throne room of the palace, a vast complex of resplendent white buildings with golden domes and almost 1,800 rooms.
The ruler and his wife sat on golden thrones for a royal audience of several hundred that included the United Kingdom’s Prince Edward and Sophie Countess of Wessex.
Wave to the crowds: The Sultan and the queen were both wearing lavish outfits in gold as they sat on gilded thrones
Tens of thousands of well-wishers waving the country’s flag lined the streets and cheered as Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah passed by in a chariot pulled by dozens of his subjects
Loved by his people: Thousands of his subjects cheered and held smartphones aloft to celebrate the Sultan, who is often criticized by human rights campaigners
The Sultan and other members of the royal family then traveled through the streets in a convoy of Rolls-Royces before boarding the golden chariot, known as the Usongan Diraja, which has long been used for royal ceremonies in Brunei.
Marching bands took part in the colorful procession as it made its way through the streets, the highlight of about two weeks of celebrations to mark the golden jubilee of one of the world’s wealthiest men.
The festivities will continue Friday when Southeast Asian leaders and Middle Eastern royalty attend a banquet to mark the jubilee.
Guests include Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, according to organizers.
Brunei, with a population of about 400,000, is one of the world’s wealthiest nations thanks to abundant oil and gas reserves.
Royal greetings: Sophie Countess of Wessex meets with the Sultan of Brunei during an audience earlier on Thursday
Who needs elections: Prince Edward and Sophie Countess of Wessex attend an audience with the Sultan of Brunei (not pictured) in honor of his Golden Jubilee
Golden party: The Istana Nurul Iman throne room during a special audience with the Sultan of Brunei in honor of his Golden JubileeSultan of Brunei Golden Jubilee
Money in abundance: Thanks to oil and gas reserves, Brunei is one of the world’s wealthiest nations
The 71-year-old ascended to the throne of the Muslim country perched on the north of tropical Borneo island in October 1967.
He is the 29th sultan of Brunei from a royal family that has ruled the country continuously for over 600 years.
The sultan only comes behind one sovereign in terms of having the longest reign – Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, who ascended to the throne in 1952.
She became the world’s longest-serving monarch a year ago following the death of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, whose reign spanned seven decades.