Mecca crane disaster puts Binladin Group in the spotlight

Mecca crane disaster puts Binladin Group in the spotlight
Long-time favourites of the Saudi royals, the Binladin Group faces its biggest challenge since the global notoriety of its association with the name of Osama bin Laden.
3 min read
17 September, 2015
Yeslam Binladin is one of the Binladin Group's more famous, and Westernised, names [AFP].
The measures being taken against the Binladin Group in the wake of the Mecca crane disaster, which left at least 107 pilgrims dead, are tough, especially in light of the group's favoured position with the Saudi royal family, one that goes back to the very earliest days of Saudi Arabia.

An investigation commission decided that the firm's executives would be forbidden from leaving the country, and that the company would be barred from taking on new projects.

This was after the Binladin Group was found partly responsible for the tragedy, which involved a crane belonging to the group.

The irony is that the disaster that has led to these unprecedented punishments occurred at the very place where the family-run company's deceased patriarch, Mohammed bin Laden, began making his billions – Mecca's Grand Mosque.

The company was given exclusive construction rights at the mosque in Mecca, as well as in Medina, and even at Jerusalem's holy sites while it was under Jordanian control.

Of course, it is not the Binladin Group's wealth and international business that has given it worldwide fame, but its association with the former head of al-Qaeda, until he was killed by US Navy Seals in 2011, Osama bin Laden.

The firm may spell the name differently, but there is no hiding the links to Osama bin Laden, who was one of Mohammed bin Laden's younger sons.

Admittedly, there were a lot of sons.

The elder bin Laden fathered 54 children from numerous wives, and the relationship between the siblings has been described as “more like cousins”, with each wife, or ex-wife, raising her children separately.

The Binladin Group has also faithfully served the Saudi state, and, while Osama bin Laden was railing against the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War, the firm was happily building an airstrip and barracks for the soldiers.

The company has, strangely for such a large enterprise, always shunned publicity, even before the association with the man who was once the world's most wanted.

Yet that link with the September 11 terrorist attacks was not the group's first brush with controversy.

In 1979 it emerged that rebels who took over Mecca's Grand Mosque, and were only defeated with the help of the French military, had brought weapons into the mosque hidden inside trucks used by the Binladin Group, knowing that they would not be searched.

Suspicion initially centred on Mahrous bin Laden, another of Mohammed's sons, but he was released after being briefly detained and carried on working for Binladin Group.

September 11 brought further problems.

Despite having publicly disowned Osama bin Laden in 1994, and the fact that he did not have any stakes in the family business, many international companies initially recoiled at the idea of working with Binladin Group.

Contracts were terminated or not renewed, and the company decided to focus its attention on Saudi Arabia, waiting for the storm to settle.

It did, but the publicity-shy company could still not escape attention.

In July of this year, three members of the family died after their plane crashed into a car auction site in the UK in a horrific accident.

The plane crash was not the first such tragedy to strike the family – Mohammed bin Laden was killed in one such incident in 1968, and his son Salem, who headed the Binladin Group, was killed in one in Texas in 1988.

The Mecca crane tragedy, coming only a matter of weeks after the UK plane crash, may mark 2015 as the Bin Laden's annus horribilis, as, despite the obvious problems the group faced in post-9/11, they still retained the confidence of the Saudi royal family.

And yet, while the Binladin Group will most likely be able to resume their privileged place in Saudi Arabia, the very act of publicly punishing the firm may be a sign that their lofty position is not as protected as it once was.  ​