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One Big Unhappy Family

Osama bin Laden; drawing by Pancho

About a decade ago I had a curious visitor to my office at the London School of Economics. An American in his mid-fifties, he explained that he had been a student in the 1960s and had come by to see who was in the office of a former professor. I asked him what he was now doing. “I am the American ambassador to Saudi Arabia,” he replied. Previously, Wyche Fowler had been a Democratic senator from Georgia, losing his seat in 1992; he had then been appointed US ambassador in Riyadh by President Clinton, a position he held from 1996 to 2001. So, I asked him, how would he evaluate the situation in this notoriously opaque country? Ambassador Fowler explained that indeed it was difficult to monitor the country; he and his colleagues were largely confined to the embassy, and access to Saudis was extremely difficult. As ambassador, he said, the only person he could really talk to was the King—an experience he compared, with a little irony, to talking to Ronald Reagan.

He was not alone in finding it difficult to get a handle on Saudi Arabia. Until the past decade or so, there was almost no reliable academic or journalistic writing on the country.1 US intelligence and diplomatic analysis did little better. As The Bin Ladens, Steve Coll’s fascinating recent book, demonstrates, precise knowledge about the workings of power, members of the ruling elite, security, and money was intrinsically impossible to find.

Along with several other American ambassadors to Saudi Arabia, Wyche Fowler has a walk-on part in Coll’s book. Following the bombings of two US embassies in East Africa in 1998, Fowler was told to put pressure on the Saudis to reveal details of the bin Laden family finances and links to Osama, who took credit for the bombings. He found himself caught up in conflicts between different branches of the US government, each insisting that it had the best means of getting the desired information. It is easy to claim that one or another approach would have made a decisive difference, that the September 11 attacks could have been avoided, or that the Saudis could really have closed down the al-Qaeda operation. Looked at from the outside, however, such assumptions appear less certain. In a world where public statistics, and accounts, are largely inventions, in which even basic figures of national income and expenditure are worthless, conventional forms of investigation, based on experience in the United States or elsewhere, are of little use.

To read Coll’s book is to enter a universe of perpetual movement and deal-making, but one in which little, if anything, is recorded or written down, where power and money are distributed by means of kin networks, informal gatherings of influential Saudi males, and the mobile phone. The Bin Ladens is not so much a book about Osama bin Laden himself, or his terrorist network and political aspirations, as about the power structures of modern Saudi Arabia. And in this it is most informative. Against much contemporary writing about the Arab world, which tends to explain political and social behavior by analysis of culture and religion, Coll’s book is about more secular matters—about sibling rivalry; fascination with modern technology, particularly planes and means of communication; about the attraction of women; and above all, for all the talk of piety, about money.

Drawing on extensive oral testimony from friends and business partners, The Bin Ladens gives persuasive explanations not just of Osama bin Laden, of where he came from and how he was radicalized, but of his gifted and restless family and, perhaps more than anything, of the modern Saudi elite itself. The success of the bin Ladens was tied to their connections and access to the King and his close associates, and the ability to anticipate and carry out, whether in building, engineering, or accounting, the wishes of the House of Saud.

Coll describes the rise of Mohamed bin Laden, a poor immigrant from the Hadhramawt region of Yemen who arrived in Arabia in the 1920s and became one of the country’s leading construction magnates. Beyond ingenuity and hard work, he had a remarkable capacity for understanding and manipulating the shifting and internecine worlds of the Saudi royal family. The Saudis came to power in the 1920s without the experts or trained personnel to run a state, and they relied heavily on enterprising immigrants, like Mohamed bin Laden, together with the more cosmopolitan business elite of western Arabia, the Hijaz. This reliance persisted well into the second and third generations, so that by the time Mohamed bin Laden was killed in a plane crash in 1967, his elder son Salem—educated in Britain and in Lebanon, and with a taste for the life-style of Texas and California—came to occupy the same position, coaxing contracts and payment out of the Saudi court and, in a loose but effective way, managing the family construction business on behalf of Mohamed’s fifty-four children, among them twenty-four sons, of whom Osama was one of the youngest and, initially, less prominent.

Salem bin Laden built up contacts with Americans that would have been unimaginable to his father. These included oil engineers, fixers, financiers, and pilots, as well as a string of lovers whom he met in his ceaseless traveling, flying, purchasing, and negotiating. He died in a plane crash at a small airfield in Texas in 1988. There is something at once elusive and intoxicating about the world of the oil elite of Arabia. Many of its members spend their lives talking, charming, making deals, managing to receive payments, moving from one city and continent to another, accompanied by hangers-on, cronies, sycophants, and friends. The first question that always arises in such circles is ” Mata wasalt? “: “When did you arrive?”

This is a world awash with money, the precise origins of which are hardly clear. In all the pages of The Bin Ladens, and the detailed account of the family’s business, personal, and political activities, three words rarely if ever appear: “book,” “idea,” “read”—although we soon gather that the initially reserved and pensive younger brother Osama must have read extensively. It is small wonder that, exposed to both Saudi puritanism and the Western lifestyle, the members of the bin Laden family should have chosen a variety of paths, from assimilation into the Western elite, such as Yeslam, now in the perfume business in Geneva, to outright rejection, as in the case of Osama. As Coll puts it, perhaps with a little simplification, the bin Laden family divided into the “Hard Rock” and ” jihadi ” factions.

Coll is careful not to bring Salem’s younger brother Osama into the picture too early. This is in part because he wants to show from what kind of world Osama, who was born in the mid-1950s, emerged. He received an elite education in a private school in Jeddah, al-Thaghr, modeled on a British “public” school; it featured English and Scottish teachers, and a school magazine which was edited in Osama’s time by a Saudi who later became a student at the London School of Economics. For many years, until his estrangement from the family in the late 1990s, Osama received his share, estimated by Coll at between $2 and $3 million per year, of the bin Laden business income.

His entire career and life opportunities had been framed by his ties to the Saudi elite; but whereas his brothers concentrated on financial and commercial links, Osama’s links were political. Radicalized by Muslim Brotherhood teachers who were in exile from Egypt in the 1980s, and increasingly drawn to an austere, reserved lifestyle, Osama went to Pakistan in 1984 to help organize the recruitment and deployment of Arab volunteers who had come to fight the Russian and Afghan Communist forces over the border. At first, his primary function was to help funnel money from the Saudi intelligence services to the Mujahideen, and also to use skills, contacts, and, it seems, even construction equipment provided by the family business to build bases and facilities for the anti-Communist forces inside Afghanistan.

Coll is keen to maintain a sense of proportion in describing Osama bin Laden’s role in the Afghan jihad. He was not a major military leader, but had a part in at least two bloody episodes in the latter stages of the war: a battle in 1987 in the border region of Jaji, where he had built a network of caves and fortifications for the Islamist fighters; and the unsuccessful siege of the eastern Afghan town of Jalalabad in 1989. Coll goes on to develop one of his major themes—the degree to which Osama bin Laden, increasingly involved in fighting and an apparently heroic military campaign, came, more and more, to believe in his own rhetoric about his leadership of a global Islamic movement. He quarreled first with his Palestinian mentor, the militant Islamist cleric Abdullah Azzam, who died in mysterious circumstances in 1989, and then with his Saudi sponsors, following the Iraqi attack on Kuwait in 1990. Saudi Arabia supported the US in the Gulf War, while bin Laden saw the presence of infidel US forces in Arabia as violating the sacred land of Islam. It was when King Fahd rejected bin Laden’s offer to fight the Iraqis using Islamist forces instead of relying on the US that the latter’s real falling-out with the Saudi ruling family began.

Coll questions the conventional story about bin Laden’s links to the CIA. As the author of a previous book on the CIA’s role in Afghanistan, Ghost Wars,2 he is well placed to investigate the issue. He finds that there is no evidence of bin Laden ever being paid by, or meeting directly with, American intelligence representatives during the Afghan war. However, as Coll also makes clear, this does not mean too much. Bin Laden was well connected with the Pakistani and Saudi security services, and made at least one trip to London, in 1986, when he stayed in the Dorchester Hotel for six to eight weeks, negotiating for the supply of portable antiaircraft missiles to the Afghan guerrillas with his brother Salem and a representative of the German arms firm Heckler & Koch. Plausible deniability is, in the world of covert operations and intelligence, very much part of the game.

Coll draws on information found by the Bosnian authorities during a raid in 2002 to provide an account of the founding of al-Qaeda as a loose transnational coalition at meetings in Peshawar, Pakistan, in August 1988. The story of Osama’s gradual estrangement from the Saudi state and from his own family is also well told. For Coll, key turning points are Osama’s involvement, however indirect, in the 1993 attempt to bomb the World Trade Center in New York and his open denunciation, beginning in 1994, of the Saudi ruling family for allowing the military bases of American infidels on Arabian soil.

  1. 1

    The quality of publications and analysis has changed quite dramatically over the past decade. Whereas only a while ago there were few serious academic or journalistic studies of Saudi Arabia, and all of these were by outside observers (Richard Johns, Helen Lackner), we now have a score of books that explain how the country works. Perhaps the first author to do this was the Russian Arab expert Alexei Vassiliev in The History of Saudi Arabia ( NYU Press, 2000). The French social scientist Pascal Ménoret, in The Saudi Enigma (Zed, 2005), a book based on two years living in the country, and the British political economist Tim Niblock, in his recently published The Political Economy of Saudi Arabia (Routledge, 2007), have also helped to lift the curtain. Two women authors with a Saudi connection have done much to remedy past ignorance as well: Dr. Mai Yamani and Dr. Madawi al-Rasheed, in their studies of contemporary Saudi Arabia, have provided analysis that is at once rich in detail and convincing in overall judgment.

    As for Saudi Arabian literature, there is the monumental trilogy of the late Abdelrahman Munif, Cities of Salt, an epic narrative, on the grand nineteenth-century European scale, of the origins and early years of the Saudi kingdom, published by Vintage in 1989 in a translation by Peter Theroux. The Saudi poet, ambassador, and minister Ghazi al-Ghosaibi has also written a number of telling and evocative novels and short stories. And lest anyone be tempted to regard such things as impossible in such an apparently closed society, there is also a literature written by Saudi women, some of which has been published in Voices of Change: Short Stories by Saudi Arabian Women Writers, edited by Abubaker Bagader, Ava M. Heinrichsdorff, and Deborah S. Akers (Lynne Rienner, 1998).

  2. 2

    Penguin, 2004; reviewed in these pages by Ahmed Rashid, May 27, 2004.

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