How Malaysia ended up owing US$15 billion to a sultan's heir

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  • How Malaysia ended up owing US$15 billion to a sultan's heirs


    Malaysia is scrambling to protect its assets as the descendants of the last sultan of the remote Philippine region of Sulu look to enforce a US$15 billion arbitration award in a dispute over a colonial-era land deal.

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    In 1878, two European colonists signed a deal with the sultan for the use of his territory in present-day Malaysia – an agreement that independent Malaysia honoured until 2013, paying the monarch's descendants about US$1,000 a year.

    Now, 144 years later after the original deal, Malaysia is on the hook for the second largest arbitration award on record for stopping the payments after a bloody incursion by supporters of Sultan Mohammed Jamalul Alam's heirs in which more than 50 people were killed.

    "It is a fascinating and unusual case," said lawyer Paul Cohen, a lead co-counsel for the sultan's heirs from British law firm 4-5 Gray's Inn Square.

    For years, Malaysia largely dismissed the claims but in July, two Luxembourg-based subsidiaries of state energy firm Petronas were served with a seizure notice to enforce the award that the heirs won in February.

    The arbitration ruling in France followed an eight-year legal effort by the heirs and US$20 million in funds raised for them from unidentified third-party investors, according to interviews with main figures in the case and legal documents seen by Reuters.

    Malaysia did not participate in nor recognise the arbitration - allowing the heirs to present their case without rebuttal - despite warnings that it would be dangerous to ignore the process.
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