Sons of a self- made man

John Free­man

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

THEY de­scend from a pa­tri­arch who made a for­tune in the wild west of early 20th- cen­tury cap­i­tal­ism. Their fam­ily his­tory is haunted by air­craft crashes, il­le­git­i­mate chil­dren and the ex­pec­ta­tions of pub­lic life. Many of them were ed­u­cated at elite prep schools and Amer­ica’s best univer­si­ties. They are not the Kennedys, but an­other dy­nasty, the bin Ladens.

In this fas­ci­nat­ing, well- told new book, Pulitzer Prize win­ner Steve Coll paints a vivid por­trait of Sau­dia Ara­bia’s most vis­i­ble mer­chant class fam­ily. The West­ern world be­came aware of them only af­ter one of Mo­hammed bin Laden’s 54 ( le­git­i­mate) chil­dren, Osama, launched a war on the West when he mas­ter­minded the ter­ror­ist at­tacks of Septem­ber 11, 2001. But their name would not be news to any­one in the Mid­dle East.

In Sau­dia Ara­bia, the bin Laden name was syn­ony­mous with build­ing. An il­lit­er­ate Mo­hammed left the desert wilds of Ye­men, went to Saudi Ara­bia and earned a for­tune as a fore­man, at first through sweat, labour and tal­ent, and later by skil­fully 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, dams and even, with the help of the Army Corps of En­gi­neers, Saudi mil­i­tary bases. Ul­ti­mately, bin Laden’s com­pany helped ren­o­vate and re­store some of the holi­est sites in Is­lam.

Coll never al­lows the stain that Osama bin Laden has brought to this fam­ily to colour his writ­ing. In­stead, The Bin Ladens , sub­ti­tled An Ara­bian Fam­ily in the Amer­i­can Cen­tury in its US edi­tion, spins a straight­for­ward fam­ily tale of in­trigue and close con­nec­tions to the royal fam­ily, and in so do­ing tells us more about the man be­hind al- Qa’ida than any other book pub­lished to date.

Given how many chil­dren he sired, Mo­hammed was an aloof, out- of- touch fa­ther. But he wasn’t un­in­volved. He met his chil­dren an­nu­ally, brought them to his con­struc­tion sites, en­cour­aged them to go to the best schools in the Mid­dle East and to travel abroad.

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 Bri­tain, who be­came the fam­ily hub af­ter his fa­ther’s death in a plane crash in 1967. Un­like the quiet Osama, he had the stamina and gre­gar­i­ous de­sire to please to keep the large fam­ily to­gether.

But he has ap­par­ently done it his own way. Salem branched out into US real es­tate, buy­ing up tracts of land out­side Or­lando, tak­ing rel­a­tives to Dis­ney World. Af­ter haem­or­rhoid surgery in the US, he liked to show pic­tures of his rear to the royal fam­ily. He dated West­ern women, col­lected small air­craft and doled out fam­ily al­lowances, which can run to­wards $ US300,000 ($ 330,000) a year for heirs.

He’s 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’s ado­les­cence, which wasn’t as wild and play­boy as has been as­sumed. Like Craig Unger in House of Bush, House of Saud , Coll cor­rectly places bin Laden at the dis­tin­guished Quaker Brum­mana High School in Le­banon, which sev­eral bin Ladens at­tended, but gets some of the in­for­ma­tion about Osama’s 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 pre­vi­ous book, Ghost Wars: The Se­cret His­tory of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet In­va­sion to Septem­ber 10, 2001 , The Bin Ladens re­lies on such de­tails to make his story tan­gi­ble. Many of them here point to the im­por­tance of fam­ily in bin Laden’s life, of re­venge, of the in­her­ited am­bi­tion to achieve 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 bin Laden’s fa­ther’s plane crashed. The pilot of that plane was Amer­i­can. John Free­man is pres­i­dent of the US Na­tional Book Crit­ics Cir­cle. He is writ­ing a book on the tyranny of email for Scrib­ner.

On the road to 9/ 11: Osama bin Laden with one of his chil­dren at his com­pound in Kan­da­har, Afghanistan, in 2001

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