Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Trillion reasons to meet a sultan

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WASHINGTON -- The wealthiest oilman on the planet is sitting six feet away. He is a smallish fellow in his mid-60s, with dyed black hair and a trim goatee, wearing cowboyish black boots, a thick silver band on the middle finger of his left hand and a dark gemstone on the opposite paw, a crisp, white shirt with buttons rather than cufflinks, and a necktie the colour of billion-dollar bills.

The trousers of his dark suit are neatly hemmed, which is cheaper than getting them cuffed.

This is His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzaddin Waddaulah of tiny, lucky Brunei -- estimated net worth, a tidy chunk of a trillion dollars -- on a quick plane trip to America, the plane being a Boeing 747 the sultan not only owns, but pilots himself so that he doesn't have to pay a crew.

(He also serves as president, prime minister, finance minister, defence minister, sublime head of the Malay Islamic Monarchy, supreme commander of the Royal Brunei Armed Forces, chief of customs, and inspector general of police rather than hire a cabinet.)

Brunei is no bigger than Prince Edward Island, but anywhere you drive in a stake over there, up through the ground comes a bubblin' crude, all of which accrues to His Majesty. I am about to ask him for a small contribution to my daughter's college fund when I am interrupted by the man sitting next to the Sultan; namely, the president of the United States.

"Tomorrow, he's going to have an opportunity to take his family up to New York, where we're going to encourage him to do some shopping because we want to continue to strengthen the U.S. economy," Barack Obama is saying as we reporters ogle and giggle in the Oval Office.

(Compare Mr. Obama's wisecrack during last summer's campaign, noting that he and his opponent both were in Manhattan on the same day: "I shopped for a few items, Romney was shopping for a few stores." But the Sultan of Brunei has nearly 100 times more money than poor ol' Willard Mitt.)

"I know you have a very busy schedule. It's very kind of you to receive me," the petro-potentate smiles when his turn to gush comes. The Obama-Hassanal bacchanal lasts only an hour, lunch included, but had His Majesty contributed a paltry million or two to the Obama war chest, he might have spent a night upstairs in the Lincoln Bedroom.

The Sultan flies off to Tiffany's. Now it is one day later and the second-richest human who ever lived is reaching for a mug of Diet Coke and pushing up his glasses, which keep sliding down his nose.

"People are under-expecting the future innovations," Bill Gates is saying. "They hardly expect anything at all."

Un-tinted, tousled hair, a wedding band -- again, no cufflinks -- and that squeaky, geeky voice.

"What is your message to elementary school students?" someone asks. (It's a small media gathering at a fancy Washington hotel.)

"Be a voracious reader," Gates answers. "Be persistent in your learning. Not any specific skill -- a willingness to try again -- to see what you got wrong."

"I read more than anything," he tells us. "I'm reading more than I'm talking."

And later in life? "If you like to write code, you can make a lot of money," Bill Gates says.

William Henry Gates III is worth three or four times more than the Sultan of Brunei, but his wealth was earned by millennial foresight, not inherited, nor pumped from an equatorial marsh. (As if it is Hassanal Bolkiah's fault that his father was a Malay king; we all should be so cursed.)

At this soiree, Gates is introduced as "the most generous philanthropist in the world," having given $20 billion of his own dollars to eradicate polio, measles, perhaps soon malaria from the last poor countries of the shrinking world the codes he wrote connect.

He reports that the average cost of saving one child's life in Africa or the Asian barrens is $2,000. "When a child dies, that's measurable," is how he phrases the sum of the world's smallest, least visible tragedies.

We learn Vietnam has the highest rate of childhood vaccination at 99 per cent; Afghanistan -- "where we spend the most on aid" -- the lowest at barely six per cent. Satellites, Gates reports, are being used to scour the deserts for nomads who wander beyond the reach of hospitals.

Imagine this -- it encapsulates our world and our century -- nomads tracked from space.

Meanwhile, In addition to his 747, the Sultan of Brunei is reputed to own more than 300 Rolls-Royce automobiles and several dozen Ferraris.

"What's in your house that's not in my house?" Gates is being asked now.

"You wouldn't find it that weird," the rich man says. "A trampoline. I always wanted a trampoline."

Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 16, 2013 J1

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