- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 30, 2008

Close to the end of the first decade of the 21st century, more than seven years after those hijacked airliners crashed into the towers of the World Trade Center and the mighty Pentagon, ignorance of the internal realities and complexities of Saudi Arabia remains almost total among the American public and U.S. policymakers alike. Steve Coll’s massive new volume, “The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century” is therefore an urgent and most welcome contribution towards lifting this veil of darkness.

The Al-Saud royal family and the circle of families who have been their intimate allies and loyal retainers over the past century are among the wealthiest and therefore most reclusive groups on earth, but this aversion to publicity has not served them well. Absurd over-simplifications and the most lurid of conspiracy theories have thrived in the darkness.

Steve Coll, a former Pultizer Prize-winning author who is now the president of the New America Foundation, has performed a notable public service in shining a massively researched but sober and balanced searchlight on this darkness. In so doing, he has also produced one of the most important biographical works yet written on Osama bin Laden.

Drawing heavily — and with full acknowledgement — on the extremely important pioneering work done by Peter Bergen, Mr. Coll charts Osama bin Laden’s personal path within his society and within his family. He was long overshadowed by brothers who were vastly more successful businessmen, more confident, more outgoing, and vastly more successful with the ladies. Osama was devout and shy. He finally found a cause, and one that won widespread popular, family and even state approval, in supporting the mujaheddin guerrillas fighting the Soviet Red Army in Afghanistan.

Mr. Coll correctly recognizes that the paradoxes and problems of 21st-century Saudi society lie in its rapid transformation from one of the poorest, most traditional and un-modernized societies on earth to one of the most wealthy, sophisticated and pivotal, while retaining its austere Wahabi Islamic structure.

“The Bin Ladens” is a story of a dynasty of fabulously wealthy international magnates and entrepreneurs that rivaled the Rothschilds, not just in their incomparable wealth but in the brilliantly visionary and innovative businessmen they have produced in generation after generation. Even estranged wives and daughters have shown this remarkable entrepreneurial gene.

Mr. Coll documents how so many prominent members of the family have far preferred the exhilaration, tolerance and opportunity of life in America, where satisfying achievement was to be had, preferring only to use Europe as sites for their parties.

Mohammed bin Laden made his family the Bechtel of Saudi Arabia, the construction colossus of the Desert Kingdom. His son Salem was been a towering figure in developing telecommunications across the Middle East and appears to have been more of a father figure and stabilizing influence to Osama bin Laden than Mohammed himself was. This was not so difficult as Mohammed had not less than 54 children.

On top of its other virtues, Mr. Coll’s book offers an extraordinary insight into the freewheeling global creativity of Middle East entrepreneurs over the past 30 years. Among its many virtues, it easily gives the lie to the oft-cited slanders that Arabs “can’t do” free enterprise, entrepreneurial capitalism or high tech business ventures.

The way Salem bin Laden met Rupert Armitage, his exceptionally successful first managing director for Bin Laden Telecommunications is a caser in point. They met at a Rome nightclub where Rupert was partying with the son of Lord Carrington, who was then foreign secretary of Britain. “They jammed with their guitars that night” and six months later, Salem asked Rupert to come to Jeddah to give him additional lessons.”

“The Bin Ladens” is a sobering lesson in the stresses and dangers that the rapid transition of a society from medieval feudal culture to global wealth, technology, confidence and power can produce when it is concentrated over only a couple of generations. The parallel with the stresses of late-19th century modernization in Czarist Russia that produced Lenin and the Bolshevik revolution is sobering.

It is deeply ironic that as late as 1988, Osama bin Laden still enjoyed the confidence and trust of the Saudi Royal family. This was not because of some gigantic, sinister Islamist conspiracy, as so many know-nothing pundits utterly ignorant of the Saudi reality have claimed, but because Osama’s brother Salem had strongly uprooted his genuine humanitarian work among Afghans in their long eight-year struggle against the Soviet Union.

Salem’s death in a tragic light plane accident in San Antonio, Texas in 1988 cast Osama adrift existentially. The decision of the Saudi royal family to permit the assembling of a gigantic, 700,000 -strong U.S.-led and dominated army in its territory in the winter of 1990-91triggered Osama’s fateful final transformation into the revolutionary monster, that the world now knows only too well. As Prince Turki Al-Feisal, the long-time and exceptionally able head of Saudi intelligence said, “This shy retiring and seemingly very innocent person had changed.”

Saudi Arabia is not in any way a uniform totalitarian society of America-hating fanatics. Dangerous hatreds and haters certainly exist there in significant numbers. But they sit cheek by jowl with a deep-rooted sense of westernization among the middle class as well as the ruling al-Saud. Saudi Arabia has the largest middle class as a percentage of its population of any significantly-sized Arab nation. It is simultaneously one of the most traditional societies on earth and one being wrenched at breakneck speed into pulsing heart of modern high tech globalism.

The bin Laden family lies at the heart of both these forces. The intense magnetic fields those contrasting polar opposites set up have generated astonishing achievements,. They have also created the monstrous mutations of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Yet al-Qaeda hates the society of and monarchy of Saudi Arabia with as much intense hatred as it does the United States. Mr. Coll charts Osama bin Laden’s personal path within his society and within his family.

Today, Mr. Coll concludes, the bin Laden family’s fortunes stand higher than ever. Neither the long-ailing King Fahd, who had done so much to further the fortunes of Mohammed bin Laden and his more than 50 sons, nor current King Abdullah Bin Abdelaziz, have held the family collectively responsible for Osama and his notorious deeds.

The bin Laden family remains a loyal pillar of the Saudi establishment. And with global oil prices now fluctuating around an unheard of $100 a barrel, Mr. Coll concludes, “the Al-Saud needed the Bin Ladens’ expertise … New condominium and office skyscrapers, shopping malls, freeways, mosque and airports were announced one after another … The Bin Ladens were particularly well-placed to profit.”

After two years of probing the complexities and rich ironies of bin Laden family history following the attacks of Sept. 11, an FBI analyst cited by Mr. Coll concluded that “there were ‘millions’ of Bin Ladens ‘running around’ and ‘99.999999 percent of them are of the non-evil variety.’” After reading Mr. Coll’s outstanding book, it is impossible to disagree with this assessment.

Martin Sieff is defense security editor of United Press International and a former veteran foreign correspondent for The Washington Times where he received three Pultizer Prize nominations for international reporting. His most recent book, the “Politically Incorrect Guide to the Middle East,” was published in January.

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