The Bin Ladens

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

One of the most extraordinary stories of the last century is the establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its transformation in the course of a single generation from poverty and obscurity to unsurpassed wealth and influence. In The Bin Ladens, Steve Coll recounts the story and its familiar actors: Abdulaziz Bin Saud, who set out from Kuwait one day in 1902 with a few ragtag followers to reconquer the little town of Riyadh, formerly part of his family’s possessions, and who within a quarter of a century went on to take the Hejaz in the west and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina; the Englishman Harry St. John Bridger Philby, Arabia’s greatest explorer, personal friend of King Abdulaziz, and an advocate of American development of the oil fields; the self-indulgent King Saud, who inherited from his father a society reeling in an effort to accommodate the technological and consumerist fruits of that development with the demands of Wahhabism, a particularly austere form of Islam; the devout King Faisal, another son of Abdulaziz, who first used oil as a political weapon against the West; and his three, to date, successors, Khalid, Fahd, and Abdullah.

However, in addition to the House of Saud, another family, from even more modest beginnings, found its fortunes unrecognizably changed over the first half of the twentieth century. Around 1900, Awadh Bin Laden decided to leave his village in present-day Yemen to avoid threats generated by the death of a borrowed ox. He died young, but his sons Mohammad and Abdullah soon found themselves doing well in Jeddah, on what would become the Saudi Red Sea coast. Eventually Mohammad would forge a close relationship with the Saudi royal family and establish a role as the king’s chief builder, and this at a time when oil revenues were pouring into dynasty-consolidating, prestige-enhancing construction projects in Mecca and Medina, not to mention into the creation of the kingdom’s first real roads and into the building of numerous royal palaces. If all this meant keeping a constant wary eye on the whims of spoiled princes and waiting months or longer to be paid, it also meant stupendous and increasing wealth: The most notorious of Mohammad Bin Laden’s grandchildren, one of twenty-five brothers and twenty-nine sisters, would inherit about eighteen million dollars in 1988 as his share of the family pile when Salem, Mohammad’s eldest son and successor, was killed in a plane crash, as his father had been.

Notwithstanding his business savvy, Mohammad Bin Laden was practically illiterate and ignorant of the non-Arab world. It was Salem who began bringing the Bin Ladens into contact with the West, especially the United States. Salem was an engaging and charismatic figure who “believed in his Learjet and his MU-2 and his jeans and guitar and harmonica,” as a friend put it. Secular and Westernized, he represented the company’s interests well in Europe and in the United States during the boom years of the 1970’s; and it was he who encouraged his brothers and even his sisters to pursue graduate education in the United States. More than a quarter of the fifty-four did so.

One who did not was Osama. He was the single offspring of Mohammad and a Syrian girl who was about fifteen when he was born and who was divorced by her husband within three years. Shy and obedient as a boy, he would be radicalized by a teacher at his elite high school in Jeddah. Despite his later claims of a long-standing hatred of Americans as enemies of Islam, at this stage of Osama’s life there was little exceptional about him beyond his piety. He was “perfectly integrated” into the family, according to a sister-in-law, playing soccer, working for the family companies, and buying expensive cars with his allowance, even, in typical teenage style, totaling one of them.

The greatest strength of Coll’s book is that it portrays Osama not as a diabolical figure of unique evil or as a paragon of Islamist virtue but as the comprehensible product of his time and place. Just as his later role in Al Qaeda would be molded by knowledge and techniques acquired in his family’s companies, so did his earliest contributions to the Islamist cause flow...

(The entire section is 1721 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

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