A family that built Saudi Arabia, and shaped a wayward son
“The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century” (The Penguin Press, 575 pages, $35): In Steve Coll’s “Ghost Wars,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2004 account of the CIA, Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden, the bin Laden family gets passing treatment. We learned that Osama was one of roughly 50 children of patriarch Mohammed bin Laden, who turned his skills as a construction worker into a construction empire and an instrument of the Saudi royal family.
Coll had a lot more to say in “Ghost Wars,” so he moved on quickly to other material.
But the seeds were planted for his new book, “The Bin Ladens.” It is another extraordinary journey into fascinating worlds, this time Saudi Arabia and the rarefied circles outside the kingdom where its royals and a few wealthy subjects, like the bin Ladens, move.
“The Bin Ladens” is a multigenerational epic of two concentric clans ” the house of Saud, and the bin Ladens who built the kingdom’s palaces, road projects, airports and religious shrines.
In this marvel of reporting, Coll stitches together a quilt of family histories using revealing human anecdotes, legal and financial documents and government and private archives. By Coll’s accounting, he conducted more than 150 interviews in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Germany, Switzerland, Israel and elsewhere. The bin Laden family offered almost no help; this was, Coll says, an “outside-in” project.
One challenge Coll faced is that Osama’s own biography is well-trod ground.
Journalists, including Coll himself when he was a reporter and editor at The Washington Post, have thoroughly documented bin Laden’s arc from shy teenager to radicalized mass murderer. And at this point, many Americans have probably written off bin Laden as an abhorrent monster not worth spending any more time on.
But reading “The Bin Ladens” is like spending a semester with a passionate foreign-affairs professor who has spent time both “in-country” and in the world’s great libraries. It documents how Osama’s upbringing shaped him, and how his transformation pained his family, emotionally and politically.
It bursts with insights into the secretive, symbiotic relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States; the growing pains of a kingdom born only in 1932; oil politics; and globalization.
Whether or not one has a burning interest in this family of Yemeni immigrants, the book is a magic carpet ride that begins in a barren canyon in Yemen ” the headwaters of the bin Laden family ” and flies from Jeddah, Riyadh, Mecca and Medina to Florida to London to the jihad camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
It’s grand portrait of the stifling culture of Saudi Arabia, and free-spirited, monied Southern California, and the bin Laden family’s sometimes bewildering shuttles between the two worlds.
Coll’s new book lacks the sex appeal of the unforgettable “Ghost Wars,” which was populated with CIA agents, special forces soldiers, Predator drones and classified cables. And the book sometimes becomes bogged down in tedious detail, such as family financial accountings that only a tax attorney could love. “Ghost Wars” benefited from a “principal characters” chart, but “The Bin Ladens” lacks such a guide.
This time, in the place of spies, Coll serves up a cast of dozens of colorful characters, many of them deeply flawed, to move the narrative along. The most Technicolor character is Salem bin Laden, the hard-living, unpretentious half-brother of Osama who steps up as family leader when Mohamed bin Laden is killed in a 1967 plane crash.
“The Bin Ladens” is a richly written and exhaustively reported odyssey into secretive worlds. It will enhance any reader’s grasp of the people and currents that have helped shape U.S. foreign policy, the Middle East and a man named bin Laden.
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