The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century

In This Review

The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century

By Steve Coll
Penguin Press, 2008
688 pp. $35.00
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An impoverished, early orphaned native of Hadhramaut, Yemen, made his way to Saudi Arabia, where he became a successful building contractor and intimate of the royal family. He sired some 54 sons and daughters, who then extended the family fortune into a complex network of ventures. The story of this family might well have been a distinctive Arabian Peninsular equivalent of the story of the Rothschilds in Europe or of the Rockefellers in the United States -- but for the fact that one of the sons was Osama bin Laden. Coll has not, however, used the larger family as a backdrop to decipher Osama; instead, he has folded the story of Osama into a genuine family history. Salem bin Laden, the savvy and flamboyant son who led the family after the death of the founder, Muhammad, in 1967 garners as much coverage as Osama, even though Salem died in 1988. Several other sons, and at least one daughter, are followed throughout the book, as are the Saudi royal family and the many Saudis and foreigners who had dealings with the bin Ladens. Many of the stories told offer a whiff of Arabian Nights fantasy, but all are meticulously documented. These multiple biographical sketches illustrate the distinctive Saudi political culture and the complex confrontation of Saudis with the outside world alongside the story of the bin Laden family's most notorious member.