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"Playboy prince" to give up his property

He has been called the “Playboy prince” for his ability to buy everything from luxury planes to gold toilet roll holders.

Brunei's disgraced Prince Jefri Bolkiah may have to adopt a more modest lifestyle following a British court's ruling last week: The court ordered him to surrender ownership of prestigious U.S. hotels and European homes to the Brunei government's investment arm as payback for allegedly helping himself to billions of dollars from state coffers.

The verdict is the latest chapter in one of Asia 's most sensational royal scandals, which has shone the spotlight on the opulent life of this oil-rich sultanate's ruling family.

The scandal became public in 2000 when the government accused Jefri, the youngest brother of Brunei's supreme ruler Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, of embezzling nearly US$16 billion ( EUR 11 billion) from state coffers while Jefri was finance minister between 1986 and 1998.

The losses nearly bankrupted the country, located in a corner of Borneo island, coming at a time when revenues were stretched by low oil prices and the Asian economic crisis.

Jefri's shenanigans estranged him from Hassanal, one of the richest men in the world, who lives in a gold-decked 1,788-room palace and whose own lavish lifestyle is legendary.

Jefri reached an out-of-court settlement with the government in 2000, agreeing to pay back Brunei's investment arm the money he allegedly used to buy hotels and other expensive assets.

But the Brunei Investment Agency, which used to be headed by Jefri, launched court proceedings in 2004, saying the prince had not transferred ownership of five U.S. and European properties and a trust fund as required by the settlement.

Jefri, 53, left Brunei in 2004 and has mainly lived in London since then.

He has four wives, 17 children and 18 adopted wards, according to Brunei media. He has denied any wrongdoing, saying he had the authority to use state funds.

According to Britain's Privy Council, the final court of appeal for many British territories and former colonies, Jefri said the disputed assets "enable him to continue to fund a suitable lifestyle for himself and his family."

The Privy Council, however, was unmoved. It ruled last Thursday that Jefri must transfer ownership of the New York Palace Hotel, the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles, three residences in London and Paris and a trust fund to the Brunei agency.

Jefri contended he had an oral agreement with Hassanal entitling him to keep those "six very valuable assets," the Privy Council said in a ruling seen on its Web site.

"It appears ... that the Sultan had some sympathy with Prince Jefri's lifestyle concerns," the council said. "But nothing in the documentary records suggests that a firm agreement had been reached or ... that the Sultan had ever agreed to Prince Jefri retaining the six assets."

A legal expert close to the Brunei Investment Agency said Jefri has not responded to the verdict, but the agency's lawyers hope to meet Jefri's representatives in London soon. Discussions about Jefri's finances might be held separately, but Jefri would continue to receive a regular, undisclosed entitlement accorded to all Brunei royalty, the expert said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Jefri has "no other legitimate source of income," the expert said. An official close to the Brunei agency, also speaking on condition of anonymity citing protocol, said Jefri won't be compensated for revenue loss once he surrenders the assets.

Jefri's representatives could not immediately be contacted.

The British court said Hassanal apparently indicated on a number of occasions that once Jefri hands over the assets, "arrangements to meet these (lifestyle) concerns would be made."

But the court struck out Jefri's contention that he agreed to the 2000 settlement because of Hassanal's "position as the ruler with ultimate power and authority in Brunei ."

"Prince Jefri was not just any subject," it said. "The picture sought to be painted of Prince Jefri as a victim whose will was overridden by a dominant monarch seems ... to be obviously false."

The council described Jefri's various other contentions as "simply ridiculous," "devoid of weight" and "factually implausible."

"The complications are introduced by Prince Jefri's search for a means of extricating himself from the obligations he has accepted under the settlement agreement," it said. "After careful examination of all the evidence, these complications fall away."

Brunei has vast oil and gas reserves that have fueled the royal family's fortunes.

Hassanal, 61, had an estimated net worth of nearly US$40 billion in 1997, the most recent figures available. He too has a reputation for extravagance. While playing polo with Britain's Prince Charles, Hassanal once had his polo shoes delivered by helicopter to the palace field.