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Brunei sultan sends Lear jet to fetch Arroyo

Asian Journal

2004-09-09 00:19:00(LA) / 2004-09-09 16:19:00(Manila)

OFF to the royal wedding they go — in style. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and First Gentleman Jose Miguel “Mike” Arroyo are being flown to Brunei, for the wedding of the oil-rich kingdom’s crown prince this morning, in a Lear Jet 60 sent by their host, the fabulously wealthy Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. That’s according to a Palace official, who also said the First Couple would be flown back in the same aircraft after the two-day event, tagged Asia’s wedding of the year.

They are scheduled to depart from the Villamor Air Base in Pasay City at 7 a.m. The rest of her delegation will take off an hour earlier, since a Lear Jet 60 has a limited number of seats — seven to eight — to allow for generous space and comfort, and room for baggage that is described as “exceptional.” It is the world’s most popular midsize jet.

Ms Arroyo is one of the heads of state and royals personally invited by Sultan Hassanal to witness his son, Crown Prince Al-Muhtadee Billah Bolkiah, wed half-Swiss commoner Sarah Pengiran Salleh Ab Rahaman.

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye could not say how big the President’s official party would be, or who would be spending for the trip.

Bunye said Interior Secretary Angelo Reyes, a personal friend of the sultan, was invited but could not make it due to a conflict in schedule.

But the First Couple should go, Bunye said. “First of all the Sultan of Brunei is a very valued friend of the Philippines and it’s not often that you get invited to such an event where the guest list is so limited.”

The Associated Press said 6,000 VIPs from around the world were invited to the royal banquet tomorrow night. They were described by Agence France-Presse as “wealthy and powerful friends of the groom’s father.”

Palace sources said Ms Arroyo would be accompanied by Philippine Consul General to Los Angeles Marciano Paynor Jr., presidential adviser on foreign visits, a handful of security men, and her personal hair stylist Gener Miranda.

A top secret was the presidential wardrobe for the social event. The sources said she might wear the Inno Sotto terno that she wore for her inauguration on June 30 to either the wedding rites or to the banquet. They said she tried on the outfit recently.

“There will be very fashionable guests there, like the Queen of Jordan,” one Palace source noted. But Ms Arroyo looked regal in the green and blue terno that she wore during her inaugural on June 30, the source said.

The aircraft bearing the First Couple is expected to touch down at the Brunei International Airport at 8:50 a.m. They will proceed immediately to the palatial Empire Hotel, where they are billeted.

At around 10 a.m. they will be at the riverside Istana Nurul Imam — the 1,788-room main palace — for the bersanding, or royal wedding rites, a half hour later.

Blue bloods

In Brunei’s capital Bandar Seri Begawan, dignitaries and blue bloods from around the world began arriving yesterday for the lavish nuptials.

“The airport hasn’t been this busy in a while,” said Amin Subehi, a worker at the international airport.

Huge billboards of the wedding couple lined the streets of the usually sleepy capital, where a parade was scheduled after the wedding. Businesses prominently displayed their well-wishes, although some said they were pressured to do so. They would not elaborate, Bruneians being generally reluctant to speak ill of the sultan and his family, who have ruled behind a veil of secrecy for more than 600 years.

The Duke of Gloucester Prince Richard, representing Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, was the first foreign guest to arrive. He is the only European royal on the VIP list. He came down a staircase from a commercial flight and walked on a red carpet to a limousine on the tarmac.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, making his international debut since taking office last month, was also among the earliest arrivals, followed by Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri and Japan’s Crown Prince Naruhito.

The future Japanese emperor jetted in without his wife, Princess Masako. The Imperial Household Agency said in July that Masako, 40, was undergoing treatment after experiencing bouts of depression and anxiety.

Scheduled to arrive later in the day were Saudi Arabia’s Prince Bandar-Riyadh’s ambassador to Washington — and Prince Saud.

Also on the impressive roster are Bahrain’s King Hamad, Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia and most of Malaysia’s royalty.

The other invited Asian leaders are Prime Ministers Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand and Abdullah Ahmad Badawi of Malaysia.

Elder statesmen Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia, and Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong of Singapore were invited as well.

Although there was no representative from the Thai royal family, they sent a message of congratulations and a gift via the ambassador to Brunei, according to officials in Bangkok.

Malaysian King Syed Sirajuddin, whose five-year term expires in 2007 under the rotating leadership of his country’s largely ceremonial monarchy, is scheduled to arrive tomorrow in time for the royal banquet.

Gracious, intelligent

The 30-year-old Prince Al-Muhtadee Billah is in line to become the 30th sultan in his country’s unbroken chain of succession of rulers. A billiards and snooker enthusiast, he was educated at Oxford, where he took up Islamic studies and a diplomatic course.

His bride, a 17-year-old university student, is “known among her teachers and friends for her grace, intelligence, and positive attitude,” according to the official wedding booklet.

She was born to a Bruneian father and a Swiss nurse, Suzanne Aeby, who met while they were studying in London in the 1970s, officials said.

Although the Muslim nuptials will showcase the Southeast Asian kingdom’s ancient origins, Brunei is one of the region’s smallest countries, and shares Borneo island with Malaysia and Indonesia.

After the wedding rites, which will reportedly take only 15 minutes, the couple will be paraded across the capital in a carriage, accompanied by 105 limousines carrying royal family members.

Fireworks will light up the sky for three nights. The local unit of oil giant Royal Dutch Shell has donated 500,000 Brunei dollars (US$292,400; euro 243,700) for the display, and for cultural events to be hosted by popular performers from Malaysia.

Absolute ruler

Sultan Hassanal, 58, is the absolute ruler of his 350,000 subjects.

He was the world’s richest man before the advent of the high-tech era and the rise of mogul Bill Gates and other self-made billionaires — and before a series of financial blunders blamed on his younger brother, Prince Jefri — in the 1990s.

The monarch is also his country’s prime minister, and heads the military and ministries of defense and finance. His Cabinet includes royal family members who stay in several palaces. He lives in the main palace, and is reported to have a private collection of more than 150 Rolls-Royces.

Brunei draws its wealth from oil and gas revenues, and the ruling family’s extravagance is legendary.

This is evident in the pampering of the wedding guests. At the Empire Hotel where many of them — including the Duke of Gloucester, Japan’s Naruhito, Bahrain’s King Hamad, Ms Arroyo and the other Southeast Asian leaders — are booked, the massive columns in the atrium, and the toilet brushes, are gold-plated.

The other guests are staying in equally opulent villas built in 2000 for then US President Bill Clinton and other world leaders when Brunei hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.

A source familiar with the arrangements said each guest would have his or her own butler. (INQ7)

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