In a fascinating, well-told new book, Pulitzer Prize-winner Steve Coll paints a vivid portrait of Saudi Arabia’s most visible merchant-class family. Americans became aware of them after one of Mohammed bin Laden’s 54 (legitimate) children, Osama, masterminded the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But their name would not be new to anyone around the Middle East.
In Saudia Arabia, the bin Laden name was synonymous with building. Mohammed left the desert wild of Yemen and came to Saudi Arabia and earned a fortune as a foreman, at first through sweat labor and talent and later by skillfully manipulating his connections to the royal family. If the king needed a power station, bin Laden would underbid the contract and build it, even if he had no experience in the realm. His small army of workers built roads and dams and even, with the help of the Army Corps of Engineers, Saudi military bases. Ultimately, Mohammed bin Laden’s company helped renovate and restore some of the holiest sites in Islam.
Given how many children he sired, Mohammed bin Laden was an aloof, out-of-touch father. But he wasn’t uninvolved. He met with his children annually, brought them to his construction sites, encouraged them to go to the best schools in the Middle East and travel abroad.
Coll never lets the taint which Osama bin Laden has brought to this family color his writing. Instead, The Bin Ladens spins a straightforward family tale full of intrigue and close connections to the Saudi royal family—and in so doing, tells us more about the man behind Al Qaeda than any other book published to date.
One of the key figures to emerge from the portrait is not Osama, but his eldest half-brother Salem, a fast-living prankster educated in England who became the family hub after his father’s plane crash. Unlike the quiet and shy Osama, he had the stamina and gregarious desire to please and to keep the large family together.
But he has apparently done it his own way. Salem branched out into American real estate, buying up tracts of land outside Orlando and taking relatives to Disney World. After hemorrhoid surgery in the United States, he liked to show pictures of his rear end to the royal family. He dated Western women, collected small aircraft and doled out family allowances (which run toward $300,000 a year for heirs).
Salem makes for a striking contrast to Osama, for he has managed being Saudi in the American century differently—even though he and his brothers were educated in cosmopolitan settings. Coll has done some serious digging and turns up new information about Osama bin Laden’s adolescence, which wasn’t as wild and playboy-ish as previously assumed. Like Craig Unger, in House of Bush, House of Saud, Coll correctly places bin Laden at the prestigious Quaker Brummana High School in Lebanon, which several bin Ladens attended but gets some of the information about his classmates incorrect. It’s a minor quibble in a large narrative, but it caused this reader to question what other small, but telling details might be slightly off-base.
Like Coll’s Ghost Wars, The Bin Ladens relies upon such details to make his story tangible. Many of them here point to the importance of family in Osama bin Laden’s life, of revenge, of the inherited ambition of doing something for the kingdom. Here’s one, though, that will be hard to forget: Five of the 19 hijackers involved in 9/11 were recruited from the Saudi village where Osama bin Laden’s father died in an airplane crash. The pilot of that plane was American.
THE BIN LADENS: AN ARABIAN FAMILY IN THE AMERICAN CENTURY, By Steve Coll, Penguin Press, New York, $35