US-created monster

The prince and the terrorist

Yassamine Mather explores the fabulously rich bin Laden family and the links between the Middle East’s efficient royals and Britain’s dignified royals

If you asked a European, a north American or even a member of the third world elite to tell you who they think Osama bin Laden was, they will probably tell you, ‘he was a terrorist’. In their mind they might have an image of a tribesman, a peasant from those last pictures taken when, in May 2011, US Navy Seals raided his Abbottabad compound and killed him.

Yet, anyone who followed this weekend’s news will know that in 2013 - 12 years after 9/11 and two years after the US operation to kill Osama bin Laden - the heir to the British throne, Charles Windsor, accepted £1 million from two of Osama’s half-brothers. According to the Sunday Times:

Prince Charles accepted the money from Bakr bin Laden, who heads the wealthy Saudi family, and Bakr’s brother, Shafiq, following a meeting with Bakr at Clarence House.1

The heir to the throne took the money despite objections from advisors and the Prince of Wales Charitable Fund. However, Sir Ian Cheshire, chairman of PWCF, told the newspaper that the 2013 donation had been “carefully considered” by the five trustees at the time.

All this in the week that saw the killing of bin Laden’s successor, former Egyptian eye surgeon Ayman al-Zawahiri, by a US drone strike in Afghanistan.

These two leaders of al-Qa’eda might be dead, but the devastation caused by their atrocities and by offshoots, such as Islamic State and Khorassan al-Qa’eda - not to forget two decades of the so-called ‘war on terror’ led by the US and its allies - have truly destroyed large chunks of the Middle East, leaving us with failed states in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and civil wars, hunger and destitution.

But who was leading these terrorist jihadi groups? Who was financing them? The reality regarding the leadership of these groups in the Middle East has no relation to western popular images of jihadi ‘soldiers’. After their deaths, western media tell us that Zawahiri was born into a middle-class family of doctors and academics. According to the BBC: “His grandfather, Rabia al-Zawahiri, was the grand imam of al-Azhar, the centre of Sunni Islamic learning in the Middle East, while one of his uncles was the first secretary general of the Arab League.” The grand imam of al‑Azhar mosque had close ties to Saudi royals. In 2001 when Saudi Arabia’s king Fahd allowed the stationing of foreign troops in his country, he asked the religious leader of al-Azhar, instead of the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, to issue a fatwa legitimising the move.

In the case of Osama bin Laden, we are talking of an extended family with close ties to Saudi royals - in fact a more fascinating and complicated story.

The bin Laden family - also rendered as bin Ladin - were, and remain, a very wealthy family with decades of association with the al Saoud royals who rule the country. As in the case of the ex-shah of Iran, British royals consider these ‘new Middle Eastern dynasties’, who exist - and indeed came to power, one way or another - courtesy of British colonial rule in the first decades of the 20th century, with disdain - a bit like former servants who have made good. But the current economic global situation means they have to accept donations - ‘bakhshish’ - from these former servants and their associates, however unsavoury this might sound.

So who are the bin Ladens?

The family’s origin has been traced to the village of al-Rubat in southern Yemen, where Awad bin Laden lived. His son, Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden (1908-67), emigrated to Saudi Arabia and set up a construction company. His first project involved the renovation of the Saudi royal palace, initiated by the Saudi king. Later the family obtained exclusive rights for the construction of all religious places, not just in the religious city of Mecca but also in Medina and the holy places in Jerusalem - the latter until the 1967 war. The bin Laden empire then moved into other spheres such as trade, finance and banking.

Socially, Mohammad bin Laden was closely associated with the Saudi royals, and his sons attended the same college as the offspring of Saudi and other Arab royals in Alexandria, in Egypt.

When Mohammed bin Laden died in 1967, his son, Salem, took over the family’s many enterprises, until his own death in an air crash in 1988. However, even after Salem’s death, the bin Ladens remained part of a select group of friends surrounding Saudi king Fahd. Others in the same circle included prince Khaled Turki al Soudairi (the king’s brother‑in‑law), prince Faisal ben Turki al Abdullah (married to another sister) as well as the family of the king’s wife Moona, the Ibrahims.

These trusted friends of Saudi royals were given various tasks, such as acting as chaperones to the princes, or advisors helping them start their business ventures - as was the case of prince Mohammed ben Fahd and prince Daud ben Nayef, who became heads of major Saudi financial empires and international companies in the 1980s.

There was also a political aspect to Salem bin Laden’s financial activities. Like Ali ben Moussalem, Salem played a role in the US operations in the Middle East and Central America during the 80s.

It was these close ties that led to Osama bin Laden’s involvement in the Afghan war. Soon after the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan - or, according to some commentators, even before it - the United States in collaboration with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) got involved in the war, paying hundreds of million of dollars a year to the Afghan mujahideen insurgents who were fighting the pro-Soviet secular government in Kabul. The operation, code named Cyclone, included native Afghan mujahideen as well as Muslim volunteers from other countries. They were called ‘Afghan Arabs’.

Osama bin Laden, who had studied business administration at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, was the most famous of the Afghan Arabs.

He had volunteered for the war at a meeting attended by senior Saudi royals. When the king asked the gathered group if anyone would volunteer to lead the jihad against the atheist Soviets and the Afghan government, Osama bin Laden was the only one to raise his hand. He subsequently went to Afghanistan and was known there as a pious Saudi who provided his own money and helped raise millions from other wealthy Persian Gulf Arabs for the jihad against the ‘infidel’ Soviet Union. A computer database he created in 1988 listing the names of volunteers for the Afghan war led to the formation that year of a new militant network named al-Qa’eda (Arabic: “the Base”).

Despite official US denials, there is plenty of evidence showing that bin Laden and his fighters received American and Saudi funding. In a 2004 article entitled “Al-Qa’eda’s origins and links”, published by the BBC website, we read:

During the anti-Soviet war bin Laden and his fighters received American and Saudi funding. Some analysts believe bin Laden himself had security training from the CIA.2

This claim was supported by Robin Cook, UK foreign secretary from 1997 to 2001. He wrote:

bin Laden was, though, a product of a monumental miscalculation by western security agencies. Throughout the 80s he was armed by the CIA and funded by the Saudis to wage war against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan.3

After ‘victory in Afghanistan’, bin Laden was welcomed in Saudi Arabia as a war hero. By this stage, however, he was already a victim of western propaganda, under the illusion that the mujahideen had single-handedly defeated a superpower: the Soviet Union.

It was this delusion that made him more ambitious, this time trying to remove US bases from holy Saudi land. The Frankenstein created by the US was now at war with its former paymaster, its creator.

In 1990, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Saudi authorities did not agree to bin Laden’s requests to use his ‘army’ to defend the Saudi kingdom against the threat of a “military invasion” by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Instead Saudi royals relied on US troops for protection. This was the start of a conflict between Saudi royals and bin Laden, who left the country in 1991, settling in Sudan.

Family finances

Of course, no-one in Saudi Arabia can hold large fortunes unless they work with the royals, and Saudis talk of a discrete link between the bin Laden group and the royal family. The bin Laden family is represented in most Saudi cities and in a number of Middle Eastern capitals: Beirut, Cairo, Amman, Dubai.

According to the US PBS network a number of significant projects have been noted in Saudi Arabia itself during recent years:

When it comes to international finance, the bin Laden family seems omnipresent. In France, the Banque al Saoudi faced bankruptcy in 1989, but was saved by the Banque de France and partially taken over by Banque Indosuez, becoming Banque Française de l’Orient, which later merged with former Lebanese pro-Saudi premier Rafik Hariri’s Méditerranée group.

The bank was, of course, important to Saudi royals, as the honorary chairman was none other than prince Mohammad bin Fahd, and the board of directors included sheik Salem bin Laden, sheik Bugshan and Khalid bin Mahfouz.

In London, the bin Laden group also controlled the Abdoulla brothers’ Evered Holdings in the 1990s. In 2019 the family’s wealth, including holdings in Egypt, was estimated at a net worth of $7 billion (SAR 1,093 billion).

Paying £1 million to the prince Charles charity would have been small change for the family. After all, many decades ago in 1962, when $1 million meant a lot more than now, the shah of Iran allegedly paid $1 million to be photographed next to Elizabeth II at the wedding anniversary of the Dutch queen.

There is nothing new about the miserable connection between Middle Eastern nouveau riche royals and aristocratic older European royals. What is strange is the lack of any analysis about the historic connections of Saudi and other Persian Gulf royals with jihadi terrorists.

  1. www.thetimes.co.uk/article/prince-charles-accepted-1m-from-family-of-osama-bin-laden-7pd55sgn6.↩︎

  2. news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/1670089.stm.↩︎

  3. www.theguardian.com/uk/2005/jul/08/july7.development.↩︎