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Hotel Brunei: Hollywood morality consumes itself

Hotel Brunei: Hollywood morality consumes itself
Hollywood stars are all in a tizzy about the owner of the Beverly Hills Hotel. The Sultan of Brunei’s introduction of sharia law in his homeland has seen calls for a boycott of the hotel growing daily.

The City of Beverly Hills has passed a resolution condemning Brunei’s laws and calling for divestment of its Beverly Hills properties, and PEN has withdrawn its contract to hold its annual benefit at the legendary hotel.

Ironically the last time I was at the hotel, it was for a Ms. magazine gala, featuring Gloria Steinem, Mavis Leno (wife of Jay, who is leading the boycott brigade along with Ellen DeGeneres) and a young Afghan woman who played poster child for the “triumph of American feminism” (Afghan feminist Malalai Joya would have quite a bit to say about this) over the evil Taliban.

But before you can say slippery slope…there’s more. Jillian Lauren, author and former mistress of the Sultan’s brother Jefri,who penned the bestselling memoir "Some Girls: My Life in a Harem," wrote in the Daily Beast of the new sharia laws governing alcohol, adultery and homosexuality, "one drunken evening in the early ’90s, the Sultan and I committed at least two of the aforementioned offenses as we looked down on the lights of Kuala Lumpur from a penthouse suite."

And the new law against Muslims consuming alcohol would be difficult to enforce in the Sultan’s international Dorchester Collection, as it would likely result in the arrest of a large percentage of the clientele. The Royal Family of Brunei, well known for their decadence, are likely using sharia law as a way to appease the growing power of their own domestic fundamentalist opponents.

So agreed. No one has the monopoly on hypocrisy, but the Hollywood elite do seem to suffer from an appalling myopia when it comes to the burning moral issues of our time. While the Boko Haram inspired “bring back our girls” campaign – so wholeheartedly embraced by Hollywood stars – was countered by rapidly circulating Facebook memes showing Michelle Obama holding a sign saying “Nothing will bring back the children murdered by my husband’s drone strikes,” so far the response to the boycott the Beverly Hills Hotel campaign has been limited to the likes of Russell Crowe, who has called it unfair on hotel staff (a defense somewhat diluted by his own infamous alleged assault on a New York hotel employee in 2005.) But Crowe has a point. While technically it’s not the Sultan himself who owns the Dorchester Collection, but the Brunei Investment Agency, an arm of the Brunei government, which does, it would take a long time before a boycott of the now nearly deserted hotel would make a dent in the Sultan’s estimated $20 billion fortune, but only a few weeks before it will cost local employees their jobs.

Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah (Reuters / Ahim Rani)

Intriguingly, the hotel is one of the last in Beverly Hills to remain non-union and UNITE HERE Local 11, the city’s hospitality union, has been trying to unionize the Beverly Hills Hotel since the ’90s. After a failed attempt last year to connect the hotel to Brunei’s less than stellar record on LGBT rights, they struck gold this year with a new Hollywood cause célèbre – namely “down with sharia law.”

But what about all the hotels in Beverly Hills and elsewhere owned by Saudi or Dubai interests - hardly shining champions of human rights for anyone. And speaking of boycotts, can we soon expect a full on ban in Beverly Hills on SodaStream and products made in illegal Israeli settlements? An embrace of the international BDS movement gaining ground in Europe....perhaps when pigs fly?

Of course one doesn't have to dig very deep to find lots of dirty money in the hotel industry - in Beverly Hills or elsewhere. Have a watch of Stephen Frears 2002 film Dirty Pretty Things about organ trafficking and exploitation of illegal immigrants at a London hotel, or read up on hotels and the global human trafficking industry, not to mention rampant prostitution and drug trading. If the moral higher ground prevails it seems, soon there will be nowhere left to quaff a cocktail or attend an awards ceremony.

If the boycott is about the death penalty for perceived offenses, the US is right up there with China and Iran in terms of numbers of executions every year while remaining the top global exporter of conventional arms. Can we soon expect that Americans will start to boycott themselves? And where will they seek refuge from their oppressive regime? Perhaps at a hotel somewhere in Iceland (you know - that place where they jailed all the bankers who stole their money).

If the boycott of the Beverly Hills Hotel is indeed about LGBT rights, while some Hollywood stars have rightly condemned the exporting of homophobic views to Africa by American evangelicals (see: God Loves Uganda), they have been silent on other key issues.

There’s some quite damning cosiness in the relationship between the US government, the CIA and Brunei –where Royal Dutch Shell holds a virtual monopoly on oil production, and from where Contra funds were allegedly supplied to Oliver North. But as Saddam Hussein, Noriega and the Shah of Iran discovered, the only thing worse than being an enemy of the US is being a former ally.

So where was Ellen DeGeneres when LGBT brethren were being executed by US empowered death squads in the wake of the illegal US invasion of Iraq?

Activist Adam Raisch holds a heart-shaped pillow while staging a "love-in" to announce the boycott of the Brunei-owned Beverly Hills Hotel in Beverly Hills, California February 15, 2013. (Reuters / Mario Anzuoni)

In a telling interview I did with LGBT activist Ali Hili – who once ran a gay nightclub in Baghdad in the 90’s at the infamous Al Rashid hotel - but is now living in hiding in London after the Ayatollah Sistani (whose clout was greatly enhanced by the US invasion and occupation) issued a fatwa against him, said,

“The irony is that the situation for gays has been caused by the Anglo-American invasion. The fatwas were issued by people empowered by the invasion…. But no-one is talking about the killing of gays by the fundamentalist militias.”

“Our struggle as an LGBT people is the struggle of Iraqis in general. Some of the Western gay rights groups are in denial about the connection between the invasion and the empowerment of fundamentalists – and the terrible situation for gays today. But the invasion was a catastrophe that destroyed Iraq culturally, morally – in all aspects.”

In a tale of two hotels – the Al Rashid and the Beverly Hills – it’s hard to say who would have the moral higher ground. While the Beverly Hills Hotel was immortalized on the cover of the Eagles 1976 album Hotel California (as they sang enigmatically We are all prisoners here/of our own device ) Leonard Cohen’s 1983 film I am a Hotel neatly extends the hotel as metaphor concept to the very human condition.

But if the hotel really is a metaphor for the human condition, I would think Wes Anderson’s film The Grand Budapest Hotel (a contemporary sibling of the classic Grand Hotel starring Greta Garbo and inspired by Stefan Zweig’s the World of Yesterday) would be at the very least instructive.

In it Ralph Fiennes plays a concierge/hotelier who uses civility as a force to combat fascism. Sadly he doesn’t survive it but makes some incredible escapes along the way.

So if boycotting hotels- rather than say, protesting US foreign policy, is the new Hollywood rage, then so be it. But let’s reflect on the limitations of such a blunt instrument.

Much like the Al-Rashid – whose Saddam era moniker "More than a hotel" was always met with smirks by foreign hacks staying in its bugged to the gills rooms, in the era before it became a Green Zone fortress for Marines and CIA agents, the century old Beverly Hills is also more than a hotel. It pre-dated and practically conjured Hollywood, and was a favorite hang out for everyone from Errol Flynn to Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. Its story is a metaphor for the way Hollywood invents, and then consumes itself, much like the serpent eating its tale (another line from a song by Leonard Cohen, who really should be named the patron saint of hotels).

And while Hollywood morality excels at black and white heroes and villains, it could stand to learn a thing or two from Cohen’s depth and complexity. Move over Hotel California, I think the Dorchester Collection should make the Guests their new theme song.

One by one the guests arrive

The guests are coming through

The broken-hearted many

The openhearted few

And no one knows where the night is going...

Hadani Ditmars for RT

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.