Beverly Hills Hotel boycott fails to move Sultan of Brunei

Imagine seeing stonings on the fabulous 12-acre Beverly Hills Hotel site.
July 7, 2014

Op-ed by Ryan Gierach, West Hollywood, California

The celebrity-driven boycott of the Sultan of Brunei’s hotel group – the Dorchester Collection – which include the Beverly Hills hotel and the Hotel Bel-Air locally and eight others around the world, has cost the business millions of dollars, but gained no ground in Brunei.

Reports from inside the Beverly Hills Hotel speak of empty hallways, reduced shifts, servers without diners and maids with no sheets to change.

It seems that every aspiring actor see this as part of their future. This hotel has hosted a vast number of celebrities. Courtesy Beverly Hills Hotel.

It seems that every aspiring actor see this as part of their future. This hotel has hosted a vast number of celebrities. Courtesy Beverly Hills Hotel.

For now the Beverly Hills Hotel has been the focus of the protests, with another happening last week, but in Great Britain, where the Dorchester Collection is based, business superstars and opinion-makers Richard Branson (founder of the Virgin Group), actor Stephen Fry and online cruise agency Cruise.co.uk jumped aboard.

It is reported that on the continent, where three Dorchester hotels exist  (in Paris and Milan), fashion heavyweights — including François-Henri Pinault, chief executive of Kering, and Yves Saint Laurent creative director Hedi Slimane — have chosen other quarters or halls.

The hotel group’s chief executive, Christopher Cowdray, released a statement pleading for the public to place the issue “in a broader perspective.”

In a statement, he wrote: “Most of us are not aware of the investors behind the brands that have become an integral part of our everyday life, from the gas we put in our cars, to the clothes we wear, to the way we use social media, and to the hotels we frequent. American companies across the board are funded by foreign investment, including Sovereign Wealth Funds.”

The famed hotel comes in for scrutiny because of its relationship with the Sultan of Brunei, but has been able to avoid a real firestorm until now. Courtesy Beverly Hills Hotel.

The famed hotel comes in for scrutiny because of its relationship with the Sultan of Brunei, but has been able to avoid a real firestorm until now. Courtesy Beverly Hills Hotel.

That may be so, say activists, but, “Our campaign is to make these hotels nuclear-radioactive and they will quickly become shadows of their former selves,” says Fred Saintz, a representative for Human Rights Campaign. “Sooner or later, the Brunei investment agency will look at their balance sheet and make the determination, this is not a going concern.”

And the 650 workers are not, apparently, affected by the slowdown. Dorchester has promised to cover the lost wages of its employees for an indefinite period. It doesn’t seem to me a very convincing argument when the company mucky-mucks appeal for us to take into account the workers when they are already doing so.

Whether I or Angelina Jolie and her three dozen children encamp there, Dorchester says they will make up the difference. Making it all the more important that I do not meet her and Brad’s  rugrats there.

Industry experts, however, say past hotel protests, which are usually labor-related and don’t tend to rivet public attention, provide few clues as to the staying power of this boycott.

“For a boycott to work, first consumers have to change their behavior, then management has to change its behavior,” said Roland Rust, marketing professor in the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland and international research fellow at Oxford University Center for Corporate Reputation.

A suite in the Beverly Hills Hotel. An empty suite. Courtesy Beverly Hills Hotel.

A suite in the Beverly Hills Hotel. An empty suite. Courtesy Beverly Hills Hotel.

“In this particular case it looks as though some consumers may change their behavior at the hotel out in Beverly Hills, but the odds the sultan of Brunei will be put off by a slight change of business are not very large. You don’t have much leverage when a guy has zillions and zillions of dollars.”

The Hollywood Reporter had some interesting advice:

With the boycott now in its eighth week, Beverly Hills Hotel regulars are worried there’s no endgame in sight. How much the Beverly Hills Hotel has been impacted is unclear.

1. Industry leaders could urge the Obama administration to withdraw visas for the sultan, his family and staff, just as it has done with Russian president Vladimir Putin (to little effect).

The Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah, who also acts as his tiny country’s prime minister, enshrined Sharia law, including death by stoning, for many sexual acts.

The Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah, who also acts as his tiny country’s prime minister, enshrined Sharia law, including death by stoning, for many sexual acts.

2. Boycotters should divert their energies to other anti-Sultan actions — for instance, pushing the Obama administration to not fast-track Brunei toward full membership of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

(More than 100 members of Congress have signed a letter asking Secretary of State John Kerry and the U.S. trade rep to insist that the Southeast Asian country repeal the anti-gay laws or face expulsion from trade talks.)

3. Boycotters could switch to a “revolving” boycott that targets different hotels at different times, including the less-affected Bel-Air Hotel, also part of the Sultan’s Dorchester Collection.

The Islamic criminal law that set off the protests and boycott includes punishments such as flogging, dismemberment and death by stoning for crimes such as rape, adultery and sodomy. The religious laws will operate alongside the existing civil penal code. Brunei is the first East Asian country to adopt Sharia law.

Maybe protesters should conduct mock stonings on the sidewalk. Cameras would show up for that.

Recently a fellow in the district next door without enough support to get on the ballot but who is running for congress anyway harangued the city and boycotters for hurting the hotel workers and upsetting quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy that gay leaders in Brunei had hoped to use to overturn the return to full Sharia law.

Yeah, well, in his defense he’s Republican and worked for Condoleezza Rice. Diplomacy as that famously-closeted lesbian conducts it, huh? Very, very quietly. In secret and after rendition?

Brunei is around 8,000 miles away from here, but making waves nonetheless.

Brunei is around 8,000 miles away from here, but making waves nonetheless.

Yes, it might hurt the Sultan only as much as a flea bite does you and me, but the bean counters (is that what they count in South East Asia?) just might see a way to make a little more money with a less controversial investment and take advantage of it.

After all, accountants see no rainbows, they see the black and white and green of the balance sheet.

In the meantime, we should keep the pressure on the Sultan, because as gay pioneer Morris Kight said for as long as he advocated for homosexuals and transgenders, “The movement requires a good villain.”

He knew the importance of good theater, and the present day activists (mostly union connected – the hotel workers union would love to return to the hotel that rousted them after a remodel in the 1950s) seem bent on keeping up that pressure.

Imagine seeing stonings on the fabulous 12-acre Beverly Hills Hotel site.

Imagine seeing stonings on the fabulous 12-acre Beverly Hills Hotel site.