Review of “The Bin Laden Family” by Steve Coll

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

The Bin Ladins are an intriguing family even aside from Osama, and Steve Coll has written a fascinating account of their history. Mohammed Bin Laden, the Yemeni family patriarch, started his career as an illiterate bricklayer, whose hard work and dedication enabled him to rise quickly in the construction field. At age 22, he was able to start his own business with his brother (whom he later bought out). Once he got in with the Saudi royal family (beginning with a princely palace here and there), there was no stopping him. Mohammed figured out a way around the 4-wives limitation by serial divorces and marriages, ending up with over twenty wives during his lifetime and fifty-four children. He built roads and condos, did major renovations at Mecca, got exclusive rights to all mosque construction, and even did work in Jerusalem. By the time he died in a plane crash in 1967, his company was worth some $150 million. In his estate, the sons each got double the shares of the wives and female children, but they all did just dandy.

Mohammed bin Laden
The grand patriarch of the bin Laden family, a billionaire industrialist and father of Osama, appears in a 1964 painting. (Time Magazine)

The son who took over in the role of family patriarch was the wild and charismatic Salem, who spread money around like desert sands, and who died in a plane crash of his own in 1988. Reading about the exploits of Salem will help you answer the question, “Hmmm, I wonder what I would do if I had a gazillion dollars to spend on having fun?”

Next up was Bakr, a more serious fellow who remains a major business player in Sauda Arabia. Osama was the only son of a Syrian mother. Coll’s biography suggests to me a lot of commonalities with the young Mohammed Atta. Osama had big liquid brown eyes, was timid, distant from his father, and excessively tied to his mother (one pictures Atta still sitting on his mother’s lap even as an adult, just as Osama apparently was fond of sitting at his mother’s feet and stroking her). Both men seem to have developed a lot of anger, for which religious rigidity and anti-Semitism served as ready-made outlets. Sort of oddly, Osama’s stepfather had the name of Muhammad al-Attas. What Osama had that Atta did not, however, was a rather tidy inheritance, family business salary, and royal family connections. And ready access to construction equipment.

Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan

Osama’s half brothers were happy to help him with Caterpillar tractors, “charitable” funds, and even weaponry, at least until 9/11. The family tried to distance themselves from Osama after that, many expressing fear that their own substantial fortunes might be put in jeopardy. The Saudi royals supported the Bin Laden’s efforts to function independently of whatever Osama did, and it probably also didn’t hurt that the Bin Laden family had other royal friends in high places, including Prince Charles in Britain and the Bush Dynasty in the U.S. Profits from oil enabled Saudi Arabia to go on a construction binge, and the Bin Ladens are reaping in the benefits. At the time of this book, the Saudi Binladin Group (SBG) had some 35,000 employees and oversaw a vast construction empire. In September 2015 however, Saudi Arabia suspended SBG from new contracts following the collapse of a crane in Mecca’s Grand Mosque which killed 107 people. The ban was lifted in May, 2016, but not until after a great many layoffs and protests by unpaid workers. In February 2017, it was reported that SBG received substantial payments from the Saudi Arabian government to settle debts, a boost to the struggling construction conglomerate and to the kingdom’s economy, banking sources said.

Rating: 4.5/5

Note: Pulitzer Prize Nominee for Biography (2009), PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award (2009)

Published by Penguin Press, 2008

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