Hotels are geopolitical sites. Although we may think of them simply as places to stay when we’re on holiday, they are also venues for international conferences, summitry and more illicit encounters involving spies, journalists and diplomats.
Hotels in various parts of the world have also borne the brunt of terrorist and state-sponsored violence. The Europa Hotel in Belfast and the Hilton Hotel in Beirut, for example, were on the frontline of the troubles in Northern Ireland and the Lebanese civil war respectively.
But hotels can also be sites of protest. Recently, the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles has been caught up in a boycott campaign, along with a number of other establishments owned by the government of Brunei. A coterie of celebrities, including Stephen Fry, Ellen DeGeneres and Jay Leno, have offered their support. The source of the outrage is the introduction of an Islamic penal code in the small oil-rich state. The legislation will bring in penalties against homosexuality and adultery that involve death by public stoning.
The Beverly Hills Hotel is, of course, no ordinary hotel. Its distinctive pink buildings have featured on the cover of the Eagles’ Hotel California album and in films such as Beverly Hills Cop II and American Gigolo. Established in 1912, it’s now managed and owned by the Dorchester Collection, a luxury hotel operator owned by the state-run Brunei Investment Agency (BIA).
Although this arrangement attracted little public comment in the recent past, the penal code controversy changed that. What makes this interesting for geographers is how distance and proximity can be recalibrated, and how particular geographical sites, such as hotels, get transformed into places of protest and dissent.
A number of organisations have cancelled events at the hotel, including the Gill Action Fund, an advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. The management subsequently released a statement saying that the hotel does not and will not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Regardless, the City Council of Beverly Hills voted to condemn Brunei for introducing the penal code. The mayor of Beverly Hills, Lili Bosse, also encouraged action designed to force the BIA to sell its stake in the hotels managed by the Dorchester Collection chain.
In response, the chief executive of the Dorchester Collection, Christopher Cowdray, questioned whether those calling for a boycott of Brunei- owned hotels would extend their boycott to venues owned by other countries with less-than-enviable human rights records, such as Saudi Arabia.
Such a question is pertinent to any country that encourages foreign direct investment and an ‘open economy’, as such investment is mobile and attentive to business opportunities, especially those associated with prestigious brands.
Since the discovery of oil in Brunei during the 1920s, its economy has been dominated by oil and natural gas production. The energy sector accounts for around 90 per cent of GDP and the resulting income has enabled the BIA to invest heavily in overseas markets.
Part of the Ministry of Finance, the agency was established in 1983 to manage the government of Brunei’s general reserve fund. Today, it controls around 40 per cent of Brunei’s foreign reserves, with investments in hotels, minerals and real estate. The Dorchester Collection is perhaps the most highprofile investment and includes hotels in the UK, the USA, Italy and France.
For some human rights groups, the protest against Brunei and its penal code is part of a wider campaign to secure human rights for vulnerable communities in Afghanistan and elsewhere. It’s also increasingly a virtual campaign, with the Twitter hashtag #StoptheSultan attracting support from citizens around the world.
US president Barack Obama has also been urged to take action against Brunei and possibly exclude it from the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is designed to liberalise economic ties between North America and some of East Asia’s largest economies. As it stands, Brunei would be one of the agreement’s beneficiaries, gaining a golden opportunity to increase its investment portfolio in the USA.
What this boycott campaign reveals, however, is how transnational investment and national politics can converge around particular sites and spaces. And when one of those sites is located close to media and entertainment hubs, actors and public figures are readily available to practice ‘celebrity geopolitics’.
This story was published in the July 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine