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Brunei, A Shellfare State

On a whim - and upon receipt of an e-mail message from a friend working for Shell Oil - I decided to take the boat from Kota Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo to the oil rich microstate of Brunei.  I had some apprehension about taking a LOCAL boat across Borneo.  I had visions of Humphrey Bogart hauling prim, New England-style missionaries - played, of course, by Kate Hepburn - or Indiana Jones, Alan Quartermain, James Brooke, and Albert Schweitzer seeking fame, fortune, and the damsel in distress.

No.  The boat was full of Chinese.  Chain-smoking, phlegm hocking, incessantly chattering Chinese guest workers returning to Brunei after several days spent drinking in Kota Kinabalu - alcohol in prohibited in Brunei (or so I thought).  The Chinese do not spit in the Western sense of the word.  It is not a brief, forward-thrusting motion to get the loogie to go as far as possible.  When a Chinese spits, there are several minutes of preparation.  He takes a deep breath.  This is followed buy several rounds of throat clearing - clear, swallow, repeat.  It reminded me of a cow chewing its cud.  Then, at the very last phase, the whole body convulses.  The head goes back, the shoulders swing back, the back arches slightly.  Then comes the climax!  A tiny puddle of dribble comes out of the mouth and lands quietly on the floor.  No loogie traveling great distances through the air, no large chunk of phlegm dislodged from somewhere inside the respiratory system.  All that fuss for the tiny chunk of spit.

The process repeated every few minutes per person.  Luckily, the boat had bilge pumps.

The boat did have another form of entertainment; there was a television screen that showed a selection of movies and music videos.  The musical choice was a one of the most popular rock stars in Malaysia, a man from New Jersey: Bon Jovi.  No, the band has not gotten back together.  It was a videotape from the 1984 concert tour - complete with big hair, make-up, long, flowing blouses, and dangling earnings.  Ah, but that was American glam metal in the 80's.  Even funnier than the concert footage were the interviews with the band members - dubbed into the high-pitched, staccato Chinese language, they came across as Alvin and the Chipmunks Go Transvestite.

The boat arrived in Brunei.  I stepped off the dock and entered - St. Petersburg, Florida.  B.S.B.- the capital city of Brunei - is comprised of stark, 1960's white-refrigerator buildings intermixed with a few late 90's post-modern glass and chrome high rises.  The city seemed clean, well maintained and waiting for the first people to move in.  Despite the outwards signs of population, there were no people.  Those of us walking off the boat were the only people around - it was 1 p.m. on a weekday.  During my ten-minute walk to my hotel, I only saw two other people - one was a person from the boat going to the same hotel.

The wide, tree-lined streets flanked by stores with bland, standardized signs - Kong Fee Trading Co., Chin & Co. Stationary, Chow Yen Travel.  Oh, Brunei is a Muslim country - you can tell this by the large, gold-domed mosque rising above the city.  I guess the Muslims spent most of their time at the mosque because they did not seem to own or work at any of the stores in B.S.B.

On the second day I traveled to Seria to meet Juan Lopez, former Equilon pipeline engineer now assigned to Equilon's new parent company - Shell Oil.  Brunei has oil, lots of oil and the Shell Brunei Petroleum Company is the company that has the job of getting the oil out and - more importantly - making sure that the Sultan of Brunei gets his piece of the action.  At last count, the Sultan's piece of the action amounted to something over $21 billion.  That is not counting the $25 billion he has spent on houses, cars, boats, horses, whores, etc.  Again, Brunei is a very Muslim country and the Sultan is the head of the church in Brunei.

In fact, Shell's dominance over Brunei's economy has dubbed the country a "Shellfare State."

As we drove from B.S.B. to the oil fields near Seria, we drove through still-unspoiled rain forest.  It was a tiny, two-lane road that was surprisingly well maintained.  I remarked that this was the best road I had seen in several weeks.  "Asphalt." replied Juan.  "We have to do something with it.  It costs too much to ship to Japan."  Asphalt is a petroleum bi-product.  The detritus that is left after all of the more valuable chemicals - gasoline, kerosene, naptha, the cream filling for twinkies - are removed from crude petroleum.  Rather than dump the stuff, Shell would just pave the roads.

For most of our drive, there was a tiny pipeline alongside the road.  Every few hundred meters or so, the pipeline would branch off and head into the jungle.  As we drove closer to Seria, the maze of pipelines became more complex and the pipes became fatter and fatter.  Juan explained that these were gathering lines - pipelines bringing the oil from various wells to the processing center and storage tanks.  In total, Shell Oil had over 20,000 miles of gathering lines in Brunei.  Juan also explained that most of the wells were controlled by computer from a central location - they could be turned on or off to achieve the desired production goals.  Eventually the pipeline - which was only a few inches across at the start of our trip - was now easily several feet in diameter.  All of it carrying crude oil.

All of the sudden the jungle disappeared.

The road opened up and on either side of us were acres and acres of petroleum storage tanks.  Each tank was fifty feet in diameter and could hold 40,000 barrels of crude oil.  Off in the distance I could see the industrial landscape of the catalytic cracking units and, even further away, the towers belching flame into the sky.  These towers periodically burned off exhaust gas and other potentially dangerous refinery products.

A whole petro-chemical complex in the middle of the jungle.

We passed MTBE injection units and several other multi-million dollar toys of the oilmen and came to Seria, the tiny town that housed the Shell Oil workers and their families.

There is no doubt that Seria is a company town.  People fly in and out of the Shell Airport - with chartered flights for Shell employees to Singapore, Kuala Lampur, Bangkok, Bali, Australia, and Hong Kong.  KLM has regular through flights to Amsterdam for families of Shell workers.  A child can be born at the Shell Hospital and then go to school at the school for children of Shell employees.  There is the Shell Country Club and Shell Beach and the Shell General Store.

There is even a Shell radio station.  I first noticed this while driving with Juan from B.S.B.  The station was remarkably up to date - it was playing Brittany Spears, Fat Boy Slim and some English bands that I could not identify but sounded more recent than the sexually ambiguous Bon Jovi shown on the boat.  The periodic news updates concerned Shell Workers - "Joe Blow in Petroleum Geology just became a father, his wife Mary gave birth to a 4 kilo baby boy last night at the Shell Hospital" or "Happy birthday to Tom Jones, Bill Williams, and Tex McShane!" and, of course "The price of West Texas Intermediate closed up 34 cents in heavy trading in response to rumors that Saudi Arabia may reduce supply......."

We went to the Shell Country Club for lunch.  As we drove towards the clubhouse the left hand side of the road was jungle.  Bamboo trees and a type of vine grew five feet from the side of the road - on the other side of the gathering line, of course.  I do not think I could see more than 50 feet into the jungle.  On the right hand side of the road, fat, middle-aged Western men - wearing red or yellow pants, plaid shirts, and Shell Oil baseball caps - played golf.  I wonder what the rules said about loosing a golf ball in the jungle?  Or down an oil well?

Juan asked me whether I wanted a beer with lunch.  "I thought alcohol was illegal in Brunei."  Juan replied that prostitution is illegal in Brunei but that did not stop the Sultan from flying in whores by the dozen.  Juan explained that Sultan silently approved the serving of alcohol at certain Shell Oil establishments.  The Sultan rightly figured that the oil field workers are going to drink and that it would be better to let Shell deal with it then the police.  So there was an understanding: Shell controlled the alcohol given to its employees, took responsibility for their conduct, and made sure that no alcohol (or drunken rig worker) left the Shell concession.  It seemed fair.  It was 94 degrees, that cold beer tasted good.  It was, of course, Heineken.

After lunch I checked into the Shell Guest House.  I was tempted to check in under the name Tim Boyle, Tim Muris, or Tim Deyak and let somebody else worry about the bill, but, alas, discretion prevailed.  I spent the rest of the day touring several Shell facilities.  Juan tried to get me out to see a well being drilled but there were no drilling teams working that afternoon - they were all in Bangkok for their week off.

So I spent the rest of the day at the Shell Swimming Club, the Shell Tennis Club - where I charged my meal to Mr. Underhill - the Shell Country Club, the Shell Food Court, and finally the Shell Bus Company to the Shell Airport.