Variety

The day I met Osama's brother

| | Updated on: May 03, 2011

It was a hot and sultry day in July 2008. The North African sun was beating upon us when we, more than 100 journalists from almost as many countries, arrived in Djibouti from Dubai in a chartered plane. We were first supposed to land at Sana in Yemen but at the last moment the Yemen's government refused us visas. We flew over the Red Sea and reached Djibouti. We had no clear idea about the exact nature of our assignment in the former French colony, we were only told “some projects of international importance will be announced by an important person”.

At the Djibouti airport, besides our plane, there were a couple of US military aircraft and another private plane guarded by security people. We were told “the important person” had already arrived. We were taken to Hotel Kempinski, a lavish property on the Red Sea.

The conference room of the hotel was huge, large enough to accommodate all the visiting journalists and many more including Djibouti's French-speaking President, Ismael Omar Guelleh. On the dais was a Tarek bin Laden, one of Osama's many half-brothers and a noted member of Saudi Arabia's business community. He was tall, bearded and in the usual flowing Arab robe with the headgear held by the traditional band. His sons, all similarly dressed, and their front man, Muhammad Ahmed al-Ahmed, a former Saudi Arabian business executive, were also present.

Tarek bin Laden announced what he called “the world's biggest engineering project” comprising building a ‘Noor City', and connecting a Yemeni city with Djibouti by a huge rail-cum road bridge across Bab-al-Mandib (Gate of Tears) Strait at the foot of the Red Sea. These would be the first of a hundred “Cities of Light” the vast Saudi Binladen Group planned around the world. “A hope for all humanity, the first environmental city of 21st century”. All at $200 billion or so.

He also announced the signing of an agreement with Djibouti marking the start of the huge project. After the Suez Canal, which connects Asia with Europe, this would be the largest project to connect Asia with Africa which held out the promise of emerging a driver of the future growth of the world economy, we were told. “A fantasy”, observed some of those present.

As expected, there were questions on Osama. “No comment, no comment, no comment ..“ came the reply. Interestingly, Tarek bin Lden was surrounded by American advisers. “Isn't it rather strange?” this scribe asked some of the Arab journalists present. “Who created Osama?” they shouted back. Clearly, I had no answer.

Published on May 03, 2011

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