March 30, 2008 -- The Arab millionaire is charming but determined. He has made a bet to persuade four young Christian women from four different Western countries to become his wives simultaneously in accordance with the Islamic law that allows polygamy. The girls are American, British, French and German.
The man making the collective proposal is Salem Bin Laden, eldest brother of the better-known Osama, the al Qaeda terror mastermind. The girls are not streetwalkers or run-of-the-mill gold diggers. They come from "good families." One is even a trained medical doctor.
And yet: None reject the offer.
After all, the Saudi suitor is offering luxury villas, jewels, and expensive cars. Having won his bet, Salem dismisses the girls. He has proved that, provided you have money, you can buy anyone and anything in the West.
Steve Coll's marvelous new book, "The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century," which relates the episode, is presented as a collective biography of the infamous family, some 50 or so sisters and brothers begotten by a single illiterate, poor, one-eyed Yemeni bricklayer, later a Saudi millionaire, from his numerous wives and concubines.
But the book is something more. After all, the Bin Ladens are typical of rags-to-riches families living lives that resemble television soap operas. Their passion for fast cars, yachts, horses, private jets, jewels, trendy seaside resorts, glamorous escorts and trophy wives would not have justified an entire volume.
What makes Coll's book interesting, even significant six years after 9/11 as a study of a soft version of "the clash of civilizations" is his account of the fundamental, perhaps unavoidable, misunderstanding that has perverted the relationship between Arab elites and the West, especially the United States.
The Bin Ladens, along with many other members of the Arab elite, were fascinated by the United States, but not for reasons that had impressed Tocqueville two centuries earlier.
They were not interested in the US Constitution, judicial system, personal freedoms, scientific and academic excellence, and literary and artistic creativity. They would have Saks Fifth Avenue rather than the Metropolitan Museum anytime. They saw the US as a giant version of Ali Baba's cave, full of jewels, glittering palaces, beautiful concubines, and endless opportunities for making more money - a paradise bearing the sign" For Sale" on its entrance.
That impression was not made out of thin air. It was formed through years of experience by dozens of Bin Ladens who came to regard the United States as a second home. Many secured green cards; some acquired US passports.
The Bin Ladens bought their way into the highest echelons of US society. The list of prominent Americans who forged business and other links with the family reads like a who's who of the good and the great in America. Former presidents, senior politicians from both parties, high-level former diplomats, chief executives of top companies, and media and Hollywood stars succumbed to the charm of the Bin Ladens' money. (Coll cites only one example of an America who refused to work for the Bin Ladens, a Jewish public relations specialist from New York.)
The family built its fortunes thanks to public contracts to renovate parts of the Islamic holy places at Mecca and Medina. They did so with gusto but little regard for quality. Their motto was to destroy the old to build the new, fast. In one instance, they razed what was believed to be the Prophet Muhammad's home in Medina despite protests by archaeologists, environmentalists and historians. In its place, they built a " shiny public toilet."
Bin Laden money found its way into dozens of American corporations, and investment houses while the family's various companies won contracts from the US government, including the Pentagon.
On the side of the Bin Ladens, the misunderstanding was this: they believed that because they could do many things with money in the US, they could do anything.
In Saudi Arabia, the Bin Ladens' background as poor immigrant Yemenis meant that they would never rise above a certain level on the social ladder. Regardless of how much money they had, they would always be required to hold the door for the lowliest of the aristocrats from the Saudi heartland of Nejd. In the US, they faced no such barriers. The president himself would receive them cordially as equals.
Unconsciously, the Bin Ladens, while enjoying the welcome extended to them, despised the American way of life because they believed it was based on nothing but money. Salem, who built up the family's construction empire, often wondered whether Westerners liked him for himself or his money.
On the American side, the misunderstanding was equally stark.
To most Americans, the rich Arabs roaming the United States were like spoiled children, always looking for new toys and opportunities to play.
Coll shows that none of the numerous Westerners who dealt with the Bin Ladens, including men and women who married into the family, showed the slightest interest in the Saudi culture, let alone bothering to learn even kitchen Arabic. All that a Bin Laden was good for was to throw a lavish banquet, buy you an expensive gift, and sign a fat check.
Having enumerated the businesses the family acquired in the US, Coll asserts, no doubt with some exaggeration, that "the Bin Ladens owned America."
And then the black sheep of the family tried to destroy it.
Not surprisingly, Coll's book devotes much space to Osama Bin Laden, number 17 of the 25 Bin Laden brothers, who earned eternal infamy by financing the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington. Yet he, too, could never be sure whether the Pakistani and Arab militants who conceived, planned and carried out the attacks had wanted him for himself or his money.
Coll's meticulous research, backed by over 150 interviews, reveals aspects of Osama's character that merit greater attention. He comes across as a vain man, seeking to find a justification for his existence beyond the millions he inherited.
Osama was "less interested in becoming a martyr than creating a movement based on the emotional power of other people's martyrdom." He took extra care not to expose himself to danger, and was always the first to run for cover when things got rough. In his "final will and testament," written in 2001, he even advised his sons not to join the Jihad, ostensibly because they had to give others an opportunity to benefit from the rewards of martyrdom.
The terrorist leader was a bad businessman who lost millions because of his poor management. At one point, he is forced to lay off 2,000 employees in his Sudanese businesses. Later, the Sudanese force him to sell his businesses "at fire sale prices" and leave the country.
Osama is also a hypocrite. He rails against banking as a system of usury, forbidden in Islam, but maintains personal Swiss bank accounts earning a healthy interest. He mocks America for "doing nothing to Bill Clinton" for his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky. But Osama himself does not hesitate to take a new 14-year old concubine every year or so, fathering still more children.
Coll clears several errors that are often made about Osama.
He shows that Osama was never a "militant Wahhabi" but a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a Salafi outfit, from the age of 16. Founded in Egypt in the 1920s, the Brotherhood has always regarded Wahhabism with disdain. We also learn that Osama, his boastful claims notwithstanding, never took part in battles against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. He did appear on the margins of one battle in Jalalabad, eastern Afghanistan, in the context of a film he had made to prove his heroism in action.
Another myth: Osama never worked for the CIA, although his first Afghan patron, Mullah Jalaleddin Haqqani, later to become a leader of the Taliban, was on the agency's payroll.
Coll reveals that Osama, and Al Qaeda, had been in contact with Iranian mullahs years before 9/11, and that several of Osama's sons now live under the protection of the Islamic Republic in Iran.
We also learn that Osama never had $300 million, as his fans claimed, nor was the family's business the largest in Saudi Arabia. Osama received a total of $27 million from his family over a period of 20 years, plus a one-time payment of $8 million. The Bin Laden Group ranked 27th in the list of the 100 top Saudi companies.
Coll assumes that Osama is still alive and, perhaps, hiding in a wild region of Pakistan, preparing to finance other attacks against the United States. Although he implies that some of Osama's half-sisters may still be in touch with him and providing him with some pocket money, Coll - and the US government - seem to believe the Bin Laden family that they have nothing to do with their "black sheep" anymore.
Salem, who died in 1988 when the ultralight aircraft he was piloting crashed outside of San Antonio, liked America, though for the wrong reasons, and tried to buy as much of it as he could. Osama hated America, also for the wrong reasons, and tried to destroy it. Both failed, and that, ultimately, is the core of this family saga and our relationship with Arabia in general.
EXCERPTS FROM ...
The Bin Ladens
An Arabian Family in the American Century
by Steve Coll
On Osama's position in the family
"Osama offered ... a touchstone of religious devotion to the extended Bin Laden family. His family saw him - some with skeptical tolerance, others with unequivocal admiration - as their clan's remarkably committed young preacher and prayer leader. Just as European aristocratic families of past eras considered it a matter of course for one or two sons to join the priesthood, while others became officers in the military or advisers at court, so did the Bin Ladens regard it as unremarkable for some of their sons and daughters to answer Islam's call. This choice did not in itself make Osama a particularly prestigious Bin Laden son - certainly not under [eldest brother] Salem's leaders. And yet, of course, the Bin Ladens regarded themselves as an Islamic family, and so Osama's idealism and commitment were respected, even when he grated."
On his propaganda
"[In 1989] Osama continued to embrace media projects that promoted him and his audience to Arab audiences; he imagined himself as a writer-director-producer of jihad. He continued to finance the Egyptian filmmaker Essam Deraz, who had followed him onto the Jalalabad battlefield. As warfare, Jalalabad had been a calamity; as propaganda, it could be salvaged. During the battle, Osama had cast himself not only as an Islamic warrior but also an actor in a movie about Islamic warriors ... He invited [a journalist friend] to a Bin Laden company auditorium in Jeddah and arranged for employees to screen a print of the 16-milimeter film."
On being ostracized
"As early as 1994 or 1995 ... Osama had blown through his lump sum inheritance, his dividends, and his charitable funds in just four or five years, a total of perhaps $15 million or more. ... Osama's eldest son, Abdullah, a teenager, chafed at being cut off from the privileges enjoyed by a Bin Laden in good standing. He had seen enough of his cousins' lifestyles in Jeddah - the slick cars, the Harley motorcycles, the wave runners on weekends in the Red Sea - to know what he was missing. He asked his father for permission to return to the kingdom [from Sudan] and take up a job in the family business. ... The defection of his firstborn pained Osama."
On the family after 9/11
"Osama's sudden popularity among ordinary Saudis redoubled the complexity of the Bin Laden family's position: Had they brought shame and disrepute upon their kingdom, or had they nurtured a new Arab folk hero? To please American audiences, the Bin Ladens would have to seek forgiveness and denounce Osama. To please audiences in the Arab world, such a posture would be seen as craven ... From his many years spent in Saudi Arabia, [Andrew] Hess [a Tufts professor] had come to think that there was 'a certain posture that Arabs take in cases of tragedy' and that [Osama half-brother] Abdullah Bin Laden, over dinner, now exuded this posture, which Hess saw as a sort of burdened fatalism: What can one do?"