With a population of little more than 350,000 people, the tiny but influential sultanate has always punched well above its weight in the international economic arena, thanks to its large oil and gas reserves.

But with unemployment a concern, national wealth on the decline and more than 40% of Brunei's GDP still coming from oil and gas, plans are being fast-tracked to ensure the Southeast Asian nation can jostle with the world's global economic powers in other fields.

Brunei's Economic Development Board (EDB) has an aggressive strategy to attract $6.7 billion worth of foreign investment and create 7200 jobs within four years through major economic diversification.

One of its most ambitious projects is a $1.5 billion deep water port at Pulau Muara Besar that EDB assistant manager Lim Hong Hin believes can outshine the region's major shipping hubs in Singapore and Malaysia.

Lim said the port would be among the six biggest in the world, able to cater for the "next generation" of supertankers that were expected to carry double the maximum load of the current biggest vessels.

Pulau Muara Besar's biggest selling point is its depth of 20 metres just one kilometre from shore, compared with maximum depths of 14.5 to 15.5 metres in Singapore and Malaysia.

Infrastructure

Youth unemployment is a
growing concern

Lim told reporters in Brunei on a state-sponsored visit to coincide with the birthday celebrations that two big European port operators had already expressed interest in Pulau Muara Besar.

While not revealing names, Lee said their interest as well as a recently delivered positive report from global consultancy firm Halcrow added to confidence the port could be up and running by 2008.

"Halcrow is telling us it's feasible to have a global competitive port in Brunei as long as we get the right partner, and they believe we have a 70% chance of getting the right partner," Lim said.

Aside from the port, Lim said previously announced plans to have US-based giant Alcoa build an aluminium smelter and Britain's ACI to establish a rubber recycling plant by 2008 were also progressing well.

Alcoa, the world's biggest aluminium producer, is expected to invest $1.5 billion in the project while the rubber plant is forecast to attract another $1.8 billion in foreign capital.

Aviation hub

Other less high-profile EDB projects include establishing Brunei as an aviation hub, a haven for eco-tourism and a financial services centre, targeting industries such as hedge fund management.

The government also intends to set up a 40-hectare "eco-cyber hub" within three years that will offer investors a 20-year corporate tax holiday and the latest technology for their offices and homes.

But there is one significant catch to these plans - they will require three times the amount of energy needed to currently power the entire country.

Industry experts say building a 1000 megawatt power plant within the timeframe required to have the port, aluminium smelter and rubber factory is possible and, of course, the gas is available to fuel it.

Several senior government officials said while everyone agreed on the need to diversify, weaning the country off its oil and gas dependence would not be easy.

Welfare state

"We do have poverty in Brunei (but) in the Brunei context. It may be middle class in other countries, I don't know"

Abd al-Aziz Umar,
Education Minister

Education Minister Abd al-Aziz Umar perhaps unwittingly offered a strong example of the complacency many people in Brunei feel after 20 years of economic wealth after sovereignty from the British in 1984.

"Your brother-in-law may be unemployed but you still see him driving a good car, well fed, well dressed, well housed," Umar told reporters last week when asked about the jobless rate.

"We do have poverty in Brunei (but) in the Brunei context. It may be middle class in other countries, I don't know."

Indeed, Brunei's rulers may be criticised for a lack of democracy and of wasting some of the nation's wealth on outrageously luxurious lifestyles and bad investments, but the general population have also benefitted.

Bruneians have access to free education, free health care and subsidised power and water charges, while the literacy rate of 92.5% is among the highest in Asia.