27 January, 2014

Hadhrami Influence in Saudi Arabia: Sheikh Muhammad bin 'Awadh Bin'Ladin

الشيخ محمد بن عوض بن لادن
Very few people on Earth, have migrated so much and so many, and have had such long lasting influences in the places they migrated to and settled in as the Hadharem, from Hadhramout. No other Arabs have had such a profound influence, impact and effect in other places and on other societies in the modern world, as the Hadhramis. In Eastern Africa, South East Asia and India - the Hadharem have, by spreading Islam, mainly been influential religiously. In Saudi Arabia, which is the cradle and center of Islam - the Hadhramis' influence has mainly been economical and financial.

Early and in the middle of the last century, in search of livelihoods and escaping from very harsh and hard conditions in Hadhramaut, thousands of Hadhramis migrated to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Most of them were illiterate and without any skills at all. Except, they were: humble yet full of pride; very determined, very disciplined, religious, devout, austere, conservative, tenacious, hardworking, very honest and trustworthy - these are what they took to the Kingdom; and it is these qualities that very much impressed and won over their Saudi hosts and employers, including the Kingdom's leaders. One of those who migrated probably after the First World War and before the creation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, was young, energetic Muhammad bin Awadh bin Aboud Bin'Ladin (known to foreigners and westerners as 'Mohammed bin Awad Bin Laden'). Muhammad - who became the basis, and the driving force for the extraordinary growth and influence that the Bin'Ladins have achieved.

Muhammad Bin'Ladin arrived in Saudi Arabia in his teens - a penniless and an illiterate immigrant like the many other Hadharem who had migrated or were migrating to the Kingdom. Within a short time - through hard work and the sheer power of his ingenuity, shrewdness and character, he had set up a construction business; and befriended King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud and later King Faisal ibn Saud.

Muhammad was born around 1908, in an impoverished family of subsistence farmers, in the remote village of Al Ribat, at the southern ends of the deep canyons of Wadi Do'an, in Hadhramaut. The exact date of his birth is not known because celebration of birthdays was not a custom at the time and there was no central government to record births. He was the son of 'Awadh Bin'Ladin and the eldest of his parents' three sons and three daughters. His father died when Muhammad was young, probably before he reached adolescence. Muhammad needed to provide income for his family, but the Hadhramaut offered almost no opportunities for employment. Reportedly, an orphaned Muhammad was sent by his family to work in Ethiopia; he sailed to the Horn of Africa probably shortly after 1920, reportedly taking a job as a store sweeper in Ethiopia. While there, he lost his right eye; according to differing accounts, he lost his eye either in an accident or when an abusive employer once struck him so hard in the face. Whatever the cause, Muhammad had a glass eye for the rest of his life.

Muhammad Bin'Ladin returned home, but he later followed many other Hadhrami youths who emigrated to Saudi Arabia. In the late 1920s or in the beginning of the 1930s, he traveled to the Red Sea port of Jeddah, the gateway to the Holy City of Makkah. Here he initially earned a living as a dockworker and a porter, carrying the bags of affluent pilgrims to Makkah. During this time, he and his younger brother Abdullah slept in a ditch they had dug in the sand. Many years later, when he was a rich man, Muhammad hung the scarred leather bag he had used to haul pilgrims' personal effects - in his office.

Muhammad, for a Hadhrami at that time, was relatively tall (about five feet eight inches tall), and he was known for his skill at organizing other people's work in a practical and efficient manner. He was a spirited practical joker and an avid dancer of traditional Hadhrami music; he sometimes danced while using pistols and shooting into the air. He was especially good at cultivating and retaining important friends long before he gained access to the inner circles of the Saudi royal family.

Within a few years, Muhammad Bin'Ladin no longer was a porter and had became known around Jeddah for doing small-scale construction work, such as fixing arches and renovating the facades of old buildings. With the arrival of the Great Depression in the early 1930's, the economy of Jeddah collapsed as the pilgrim trade declined. Reportedly - Bin'Ladin, again, found himself on the road looking for work. He entered the oil business by taking a job as a bricklayer with the oil firm Aramco in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. The oil revenue that was pouring into the coffers of the Saudi royal family soon would make Bin'Ladin wealthy, as some of that income would finance his construction projects.

After holding several menial jobs, Muhammad - shortly after 1930 - had formed his own small, construction company and had made the acquaintance of Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, who would become the first monarch of the modern Saudi state. The relationship between the two men, enabled Muhammad Bin'Ladin to become wealthy by constructing buildings for the king. He then won contracts from the royals to build highways, airports and goverment ministries; and most important of all - he won contracts for the expansion and renovations of Masjid Al Haram in Makkah, Masjid Al Nabawi in Medina and other holy sites. He was given the "royal builder" status; a status established by a royal edict in 1950. By then Bin'Ladin and his family reputedly became the richest non-royal family in Saudi Arabia.

Muhammad Bin'Ladin accumulated his fortune through hard work, being trustworthy and through his acute business sense and his ability to cultivate royal contacts; and by offering the monarchy quality work at a relatively low price. In 1955, Muhammad Bin'Ladin's status was solidified when a royal decree named him a minister of state in Saudi Arabia. In 1964 when his very close friend - the progressive and most revolutionary leader Saudi Arabia has ever had, Faisal Al Saud - became King of Saudi Arabia, and with the oil boom, Muhammad Bin'Ladin won more construction contracts and became much more wealthier. In September, 1967 aged about 60, Muhammad bin 'Awadh Bin'Ladin was killed when his twin engine plane crashed in the south-west of Saudi Arabia; he had married many times and fathered over fifty children. After his death, his very young son (at the age of 21), Salim became the head of the Bin Laden Group. He went on to expand his father's company extraordinarily fast and making the Bin'Ladins not only one of the wealthiest families in Saudi Arabia, but in the world.

I have never read any book written about Muhammad Bin'Ladin that is as absorbing, as interesting and as moving about the man as the way elderly Hadhramis tell his story. In fact, almost all the books about him don't get it right; they deviate from the legendary Muhammad - the man, the adventurer, and the founder of the Bin'Ladin fortune - and dwell and focus too much on his son Osama. They don't even get his last name (Bin'Ladin) right; they don't know that Bin Laden is actually a Hadhrami surname, and is only one word - Bin'Ladin - as in the Gaelic O'Sullivan (which is not O Sullivan) and McAllister (which is not Mc Allister); or in the Scottish MacLeod (which is not Mac Leod) or McMillan (which is not Mc Millan). All the books that I have read about the Bin'Ladins, even the highly acclaimed ones, are written - with a western, foreign perspective; are poorly researched and are only produced with making lots of money in mind. So, all kinds of spins and lurid, (some times fictional) tales are included to attract readers.

Muhammad Bin'Ladin became and has remained a legend in his Homeland: Hadhramout, where he was an inspiration to the many thousands of Hadhramis who were still migrating or had migrated to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for employment. Today, each year, thousands of Hadharem still migrate to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in search of livelihoods and a better life. Many, if not most, still face incredible hardships and challenges. Most are still trusted by the Saudis. And many are still inspired by the extraordinary life and achievement of Muhammad bin 'Awadh Bin'Ladin.

+ Wikipedia
+ Hadhramout and the devastating Great Famine of the 1940s
+ The Hadhrami and Irish migrations
+ Images: Google