Steve Coll's "The Bin Ladens"

A Dynasty of Extremes

In his detailed and precise study of the Bin Laden family Steve Coll describes the development from being a poor clan living in the coastal Hadhramaut region of Yemen to becoming one of the most powerful and prosperous families in Saudi Arabia. Sebastian Sons has been reading the book

​​ While most studies in recent years have concentrated entirely on Osama bin Laden, the American journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Steve Coll has attempted a portrait of the whole family. With the help of over 150 interviews in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Great Britain, Switzerland, Germany, Israel and Egypt, and with insight into court and administrative files, original correspondence and documents, Coll describes the relations between the Bin Ladens and the Saudi Royal Household and later the United States.

The title describes the book's aim. Although Coll naturally deals with the Bin Laden dynasty, its business acumen, its family relationships and feuds, its main purpose is to portray the Bin Ladens as a prominent family in the microcosm of the Saudi royal family and the macrocosm of US-Arab relations before and after September 11, 2001.

Osama's grandfather as Sinbad the sailor

Coll begins with the emigration of Osama's grandfather, Awad bin Laden, to escape poverty in the Hadhramaut region of Yemen. With a love of detail and a tendency to include small, seemingly unimportant anecdotes, Coll tells the story of how the family firm developed under Osama's father, Muhammad bin Laden, from a small business to the most important construction company in Saudi Arabia.

Muhammad's rise is portrayed by Coll a bit like the odyssey of Sinbad the sailor: he leaves his homeland, boards a ship for Africa, finds work in Ethiopia, and finally makes his way via many detours to Jedda.

Osama Bin Laden (photo: AP)
Despite his international notoriety, Osama Bin Laden is not the only influential Bin Laden: other members of the family are extremely powerful too, albeit behind the scenes

​​ This is where his rise really begins. He started as a porter in a company organising pilgrimages, went on to open a snack-bar, and then founded his own small construction company in 1931. He quickly won a number of contracts and found himself working for the wealthy residents of Jedda, before he eventually made contact with the Saudi king Abdulaziz.

Initially he built homes for members of the royal family. Larger construction projects followed, and soon he had become indispensable for the construction plans of the royal household. Among other projects, he built a water pipeline to Medina, supplied electricity generators for the city, built the new Foreign Ministry building and ran a marble factory. But his most important project was the renovation of the mosque in Mecca, which consolidated his extraordinary position in Saudi Arabia for years to come.

The struggle for social influence

Bin Laden's rise was also a struggle for social influence. Coll prefers to concentrate on the excessive lifestyle enjoyed by some of the family. He describes in minute detail their various affairs and marriages, as well as their religious commitment. In spite of their polyglot and globalised life-style, the Bin Ladens were members of a highly traditional society.

It's Coll's aim to describe, with a multitude of examples, the repeated contradictions involved in moving between these different worlds.
Salim, the head of the family following the death of Muhammad, is seen as a typical example. Coll treats him as a kind of opposite to the pious and withdrawn Osama. Coll describes Salim bin Laden as a charismatic proletarian, who wins the trust of the Saudi king with bawdy jokes and uncourtly, impolite behaviour.

It is Salim too who oversees the development of relations with the United States, where he can indulge in his debauched life-style. There he can display his wealth and behave as in as unrestrained a way as he wants.

Osama bin Laden as the opposite of his westernised siblings

Coll delivers a kaleidoscope of the Bin Laden Dynasty, beginning with Muhammad and ending with Osama bin Laden, on whom he focuses in the last part of the book.

Steve Coll (photo: private copyright)
Journalist Steve Coll received the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for his book <i>Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden</i>

​​ Using many detailed examples, he explains, in some cases very vividly, how the man who admired his father turned into the outlawed Prince of Terror. He tries to find indications of this development in Osama's youth, when he had contact to Islamist teachers and ideologists. He sees Osama as an opposite to his westernised and America-oriented brothers, who expand their business increasingly towards Europe and the United States. Meanwhile Osama increasingly turns into a domestic critic of the Saudi royal house.

On the one hand, Coll succeeds impressively in painting a dazzling picture of a dazzling family, throwing light on the social and historical background, but on the other hand his narrative remains on the level of amusing family stories, sometimes one-dimensional and full of clichés.
Coll's book "The Bin Ladens" is entertaining and diverting. It's impressively researched, but it contains much that is trivial or rudimentary.

One other issue is worthy of criticism: although the author bases his work on 150 interviews, he has failed to get any member of the Bin Laden clan to say anything meaningful.

Sebastian Sons

© Qantara.de 2008

Sebastian Sons is head of the academic department of the German Orient-Institute (DOI). A longer version of this review can be found on the DOI website.

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

Steve Coll: The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century, Allen Lane, 2008 (published in Britain as The Bin Ladens: Oil, Money, Terrorism and the Secret Saudi World)

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