The oil boom of the 1970s changed Muhammad bin Laden's fortunes. The development boom in the Hijaz brought him in direct contact with the Saudi elite, and he soon developed a special relationship with the upper-most echelons of the House of al-Saud as both a superior builder and the provider of discreet services, such as the laundering of payments to "causes." His contacts at the top enabled Muhammad bin Laden to expand his business into one of the biggest construction companies in the entire Middle East -- the Bin Laden Corporation. The special status of the bin Laden company was established when the House of al-Saud contracted with it to refurbish and rebuild the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina. During the 1970s, the bin Laden company was involved in the construction of roads, buildings, mosques, airports, and the entire infrastructure of many of the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf.
Osama was destined to follow in his father's footsteps. He went to high school in Jedda and then studied management and economics at King Abdul Aziz University in Jedda, one of Saudi Arabia's best schools. His father promised him he would be put in charge of his own company, which would enjoy the bin Ladens' direct access to the Court to gain extremely profitable contracts.
Osama bin Laden started the 1970s as did many other sons of the affluent and well-connected -- breaking the strict Muslim lifestyle in Saudi Arabia with sojourns in cosmopolitan Beirut. While in high school and college Osama visited Beirut often, frequenting flashy nightclubs, casinos, and bars. He was a drinker and womanizer, which often got him into bar brawls.
Ultimately, however, Osama bin Laden was not an ordinary Saudi youth having a good time in Beirut. In 1973 Muhammad bin Laden was deeply affected spiritually when he rebuilt and refurbished the two holy mosques, and these changes gradually affected Osama. Even while he was still taking brief trips to Beirut, he began showing interest in Islam. He started reading Islamic literature and soon began his interaction with local Islamists. In 1975 the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war prevented further visits to Beirut. The Saudi Islamists claimed that the agony of the Lebanese was a punishment from God for their sins and destructive influence on young Muslims. Osama bin Laden was strongly influenced by these arguments.
The drastic personal change in Osama bin Laden's life in the mid-1970s reflects the turmoil of the Arab Middle East, specifically Saudi Arabia, during the 1970s.
What began as a period of Arab self-respect and great expectations -- derived from the self-perceived restoration of "Arab honor" in the 1973 Yom Kippur War (the coordinated Egyptian-Syrian surprise attack against Israel that ended with an inconclusive Israeli military victory) and then the great affluence and influence resulting from the oil boom that followed the embargo of 1973-1974 (which the oil-producing states of the Arabian Peninsula declared in order to force the West into adopting anti-Israeli policies) -- quickly turned into an era of acute crisis and trauma due to the Arab world's inability to cope with the consequences of its actions. The sudden increase in wealth of the ruling elite and the upper and educated strata and exposure to the West led to confusion and a largely unresolved identity crisis resulting in radicalism and eruptions of violence. Improved media access and availability throughout the region brought home crises in other parts of the world. Because of its conservative Islamic character and sudden wealth and influence, Saudi Arabia was uniquely influenced by these dynamics.
In Jedda, Osama bin Laden was constantly exposed to the often contradictory trends influencing Saudi society at the time. As Saudi Arabia's main port city on the Red Sea coast, Jedda was exposed to Western influence more than most other Saudi cities were. Sailors and experts came to Jedda, while the increasingly rich local elite, including the bin Laden family, visited the West. Coming from generally conservative and isolated Saudi Arabia, these visitors were shocked by their encounter with the West -- by the personal freedoms and affluence of the average citizen, by the promiscuity, and by the alcohol and drug use of Western youth. Many young Saudis could not resist experimenting with the forbidden. When they returned to Saudi Arabia, they brought with them the sense of individualism and personal freedoms they encountered in the West.
Excerpted from bin Laden by Yossef Bodansky Copyright 2001 by Yossef Bodansky. Excerpted by permission of Prima Lifestyles, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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