The remarkable rise of the bin Laden family begins with Osama’s father, Muhammad bin Oud bin Laden. "His people were either Yemeni slaves or Yemeni laborers," Stanley Guess, a former United States military test pilot who flew the father around the kingdom in the early nineteen-sixties, said. "Either way, you couldn't get much lower." Although Muhammad was illiterate, Guess told me, "he was a genius in many ways. His mind was like a computer for figures." He was a talented engineer, and Guess believes that in the nineteen-fifties Muhammad won the favor of King Saud, who was confined to a wheelchair, by building him a ramp so that he could be pushed up to the second floor of his palace. Other sources have pointed to Muhammad's skill at building a road full of hairpin turns up a nearly sheer cliff, in order to shorten the royal family's commute to the summer palace in At Taif.
When Faisal ascended the throne, in 1964, the new king thanked Muhammad by giving him the contract to build virtually every road in the country, which at the time, according to Guess, had only one well-paved route, from Riyadh to Dhahran. Generous though these contracts were, they don't compare with the contract that the bin Laden family was given by the royal family in 1973 to rebuild the Islamic holy sites at Mecca and Medina, a project so prestigious and ambitious that it has been likened to rebuilding Vatican City. The renovation, which began as the kingdom experienced a rush of oil dollars and is estimated to have cost seventeen billion dollars so far, continues with no completion date in sight….
Over the years, there have been warm, substantial ties between members of the bin Laden family and leaders of the foreign-policy establishment in America and Britain. Until late last month, the family had a stake amounting to two million dollars in the Washington-based Carlyle Group, a private equity firm with a large interest in defense contracting. The Carlyle Group is known for its politically connected executives such as former President George H. W. Bush, former Secretary of State James Baker, and former British Prime Minister John Major. In the nineteen-nineties, both Bush and Baker visited the bin Laden family when they were prospecting for business in Saudi Arabia. The chairman of the firm is former Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci, who has been a trusted friend of the current Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, since their days on the Princeton wrestling team. Sources inside the firm suggest that there was a spirited discussion among the partners about whether to sever connections with the bin Ladens, with some believing that to penalize the family for guilt by association was, as one put it, "monstrous." But the prospect of President Bush's father being in business with the half brother of Osama bin Laden was politically untenable, and, when "the irony became too much," as one insider in the firm put it, the bin Ladens recouped their initial investment, plus five hundred thousand dollars.
The family continues to have a stake, estimated by one source at about ten million dollars, in the Fremont Group, a private investment company, on whose board of directors sits another former Secretary of State, George Shultz. Much of the family's private banking is handled by Citigroup, which is chaired by former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. The family has equity investments with Merrill Lynch and Goldman, Sachs. Among the family's business partners is General Electric. A spokesman for Jack Welch, the chairman of G.E., says that the family threw a party for him in the nineteen-nineties in Saudi Arabia, and that Welch "considers them good business partners." One American diplomat says, "You talk about your global investors, it's them. They own part of Microsoft, Boeing, and who knows what else." Others note that the family has been awarded contracts to help rebuild American military installations, including the Khobar Towers, which were damaged in a terrorist attack that killed nineteen servicemen in 1996.
-- Jane Mayer, The New Yorker, November 12, 2001