Before 9/11, I don’t think I could have named one living person from Saudi Arabia. Afterward, I could name one. So I didn’t know much going into Steve Coll‘s book.
The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century starts near the turn of the century, with Awadh Bin Laden’s beginnings in Yemen. His sons Mohamed and Abdullah would leave for Saudi Arabia and begin the Bin Laden Construction Company. The close ties that Mohamed managed to develop with the first king of Saudi Arabia helped cement his fortunes, earned with a combination of pluck, overwhelming work ethic, and obsequiousness. He and his kids would become involved in construction projects in Riyadh, Medina, Mecca, and other spots in Saudi Arabia. The Bin Ladens were in on a pretty incredible list of projects: lots royal palaces and getaways, highways, telecommunications, infrastructure, renovations on the Prophet’s Mosque and the Grand Mosque, and some semi-suspicious military-related projects near the Yemeni border. The Bin Laden family relied on the royal family.
Mohamed had at least 54 children. His oldest son Salem became the new family patriarch after Mohamed’s death and continued the ties with the royal family and launched a new wave of international investments. The family businesses and the family itself spread across the globe. Miami, California, D.C., Boston, London, Geneva, Egypt, Syria, everywhere. His brother Bakr rose to leadership when Salem died.
Osama was the 17th son of the family. His story, like the rest of the family, seems to get a pretty fair treatment. It’s easy to paint a one-dimensional villain as we now see him, but the whole story is told. There’s a sense of appreciation for some of the energy and courage of Mohamed, the ineluctable cheer of Salem, the maturation of Bakr. Coll doesn’t hesitate to point out contradictions or hypocritical behavior of anyone in the family. He’s also quick to qualify when his research is incomplete (“the best evidence suggests that…”).
I could have done with fewer anecdotes about shopping sprees for planes and jewelry. Otherwise, a great read and a surprising page-turner for its heft.