The unexplained death of Salem, Osama bin Laden’s oldest brother, in 1988, brought to an abrupt end a long and intriguing relationship between President Bush and the head of the bin Laden family fortune.
By Roger Miller
The world now associates the bin Laden name with Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect be hind the terror atrocities of Sept. 11. As President George W. Bush leads an intense international manhunt for Osama, few Americans realize that Osama’s eldest brother, Salem, was one of Bush’s first business partners.
A photograph from 1971 has surfaced and been printed in English papers showing Osama, age 14, and his brother Salem, age 19, enjoying a summer holiday at the Astoria Hotel in Falun, Sweden. Christina Akerblad, the hotel owner, told the Daily Mail, “They were beautiful boys, so elegantly dressed. Everybody loved them.”
Osama embraced Islamic fundamentalism and is now the world’s most wanted man. “Salem went on to become a business partner of the man who is leading the hunt for his brother,” the Daily Mail’s Peter Allen said. “In the 1970s, he and George W. Bush were founders of the Arbusto Energy oil company in Mr. Bush’s home state of Texas.”
President Bush and the bin Laden family have been connected through dubious business deals since 1977, when Salem, the head of the bin Laden family business, one of the biggest construction companies in the world, invested in Bush’s start-up oil company, Arbusto Energy, Inc.
James R. Bath, a friend and neighbor, was used to funnel money from Osama bin Laden’s brother, Salem bin Laden, to set up George W. Bush in the oil business, according to The Wall Street Journal and other reputable sources.
Through a tangled web of Saudi multi-millionaires, Texas oilmen, and the infamous Bank of Credit and Commerce International, Bush was financially linked with the bin Laden family until Salem met an untimely end in a freak flying accident near San Antonio in 1988.
The infamous BCCI was shut down in 1991 with some $10 billion in losses.
In June 1977, George W. Bush formed his own oil drilling company, Arbusto Energy, in Midland, Tex.
“Arbusto” actually means “shrub” in Spanish, but the Bush family interpreted it as “bush”.
Salem bin Laden, a close friend of the Saudi King Fahd had “invested heavily in Bush’s first business venture,” according to The Daily Mail (U.K.).
Arbusto later became Bush Exploration, when Bush’s father became vice president. As the company neared financial collapse in September 1984, it was merged with Spectrum 7 Energy Corp. in an effort to stay afloat.
The 50 investors who propped up the Bush company with $4.7 million were “mainly friends of my uncle” who “did pretty good” in Bush’s words, although they lost most of the money they invested in the company. Jon Bush, George’s uncle, raised money for Arbusto from political supporters of the Reagan-Bush administration.
“These were all the Bushs’ pals,” family friend Russell Reynolds told the Dallas Morning News in 1998. “This is the A-Team.”
The “A-Team” limited partners contributed $4.67 million to various Bush funds through 1984 but got only $1.55 million back in profit distributions, and $3.9 million in tax write-offs.
William DeWitt and Mercer Reynolds, two staunch Reagan-Bush supporters, owned Spectrum 7.
Despite his poor track record, the owners made Bush president of the company and gave him 13.6 percent of the parent company’s stock.
As the hard times continued, Spectrum merged with Harken Energy in 1986. In 1990, Harken received a contract from the government of Bahrain to drill for offshore oil although Harken Energy had never drilled a well overseas or anywhere in water.
“Knowledgeable oil company sources believe that the Bahrain oil concession was indeed an oblique favor to the president of the United States but say that Saudi Arabia (home of bin Laden) was behind the decision,” according to The Outlaw Bank: A Wild Ride Into the Secret Heart of the BCCI, by Jonathan Beaty and S.C. Gwynne.
It raised oil-industry eyebrows when the Persian Gulf state announced it had chosen tiny Harken to explore an offshore site for gas and oil. Bahrain officials said they had no idea President Bush’s son was associated with Harken, a claim oil-industry sources ridicule.
The Bahrain deal was brokered in part by Arkansas investment banker David Edwards, one of Bill Clinton’s closest friends. The Bahrain oil project resulted in two dry holes and Harken energy abandoned the project.
Two months before Iraq invaded Kuwait, on June 20, 1990, the younger Bush sold two-thirds of his Harken stock, 212,140 shares at $4 a share-for a total of $848,560.
“That was $318,430 more than it was worth,” Dr. Arthur F. Ide, author of George W. Bush: Portrait of a Compassionate Conservative, said. “George W. broke the law to do this since the transaction was an insider stock sale.”
Eight days later, Harken finished the second quarter with losses of $23 million and the stock went “into a nosedive” losing 75 percent of its value, finishing the year at a little over $1 a share.
“Like his father who made his fortune in the oil business with the money of others, George W. founded Arbusto with the financial backing of investors, including James R. Bath,” said the late James Howard Hatfield, author of a “controversial biography,” Fortunate Son: George W. Bush and the Mak ing of an American President.
Hatfield, 43, was found dead of an apparent prescription drug overdose in a hotel room in Springdale, Ark. on July 18, 2001. Police declined to investigate.
Bath became friends with George W. during their days together in the Texas Air National Guard. Bath “confided that he was an original investor in George Bush Jr.’s oil exploration company,” according to The Outlaw Bank.
Bath found investors for Arbusto and “made his fortune” by investing the money of two BCCI-connected Saudi sheiks, Khalid bin Mahfouz and Salem bin Laden. Mahfouz was one of the richest men in the world and a controlling shareholder in BCCI.
Bill White, a former real estate business partner of Bath, said: “He had put up $50,000 to help George, Jr., get started in oil business” at a time when “Bath had no substantial money of his own,” according to The Outlaw Bank.
Bath received a 5 percent interest in two Arbusto-related limited partnerships controlled by Bush, although Bush told The Houston Post in 1990 that he had “never done any business” with Bath. However, Bush said Bath was “a lot of fun.”
Bath told White that he was in the CIA and that “he had been recruited by George Bush himself in 1976 when Bush was director of the agency . . . he said Bush wanted him involved with the Arabs, and to get into the aviation business.”
White contends that the Saudis were using Bath and their huge financial resources to influence U.S. policy during the Reagan and Bush administrations, according to the Houston Chronicle of June 4, 1992. Such representation by Bath would require that he be registered as a foreign agent with the Department of Justice, which he was not.
Shortly after Bush’s father was appointed director of the CIA, Salem bin Laden appointed Bath as his business representative in Texas. According to The Houston Chronicle, Salem bin Laden, heir to one of the largest building companies in the Middle East, signed a trust agreement appointing Bath as his Houston representative in 1976.
In 1978 Bath purchased Houston Gulf Airport on behalf of Salem bin Laden. When bin Laden died in 1988, his interest in the airfield passed to bin Mahfouz.
There was also a political aspect to Salem bin Laden’s financial activities, which played a role in U.S. operations in the Middle East and Central America during the 1980s,
according to Public Broadcasting’s Frontline report.
As head of Binladen Brothers Construction (now the Binladen Group), a company that later helped build U.S. airfields during Operation Desert Storm, bin Laden was close to King Fahd of Saudi Arabia and “a good friend of the U.S. government,” a San Antonio attorney, Wayne Fagan, who represented Salem bin Laden from 1982 to 1988, told the San Antonio Express-News.
When the family patriarch, Sheik Mohammed bin Laden, died in 1968, he left an industrial and financial empire and a progeny of 54 sons and daughters, the fruit of a number of wives. In 1972, Salem bin Laden, the oldest son, took over the estate as his father’s successor, with the assistance of several brothers.
With over 40,000 employees, the Bin Laden Group is represented in the major cities of Saudi Arabia and the Arab capitals of Beirut, Cairo, Amman, and Dubai. The company builds highways, housing units, factories, hangars, and military bases, some of which are part of the U.S.-Saudi “Peace Shield” agreement.
The story of the Bush involvement with bin Laden and the BCCI scandal involves “trails that branched, crossed one another, or came to unexpected dead ends,” according to The Outlaw Bank.
Salem bin Laden came to an “unexpected dead end” in a Texas pasture, 11 years after investing in Arbusto, when the ultralight aircraft he was flying crashed into power lines near San Antonio on Memorial Day, 1988.
On the morning of May 29, 1988, almost immediately after takeoff, Salem bin Laden’s aircraft struck and became entangled in power lines 150 feet high before plunging to the ground.
“He was a very experienced pilot. He was a good pilot. We just can’t understand why he decided to go right instead of left,” recalled airstrip owner and former Marine Earl May field, who cradled bin Laden, bleeding from the ears.
That day, bin Laden took off in a southeasterly direction into the wind. He surprised onlookers by turning west to ward power lines less than a quarter-mile away.
“Nobody could figure out why he tried to fly over the power lines,” said Gerry Auerbach, 77, of New Braunfels, a retired pilot.
Bin Laden had more than 15,000 hours of flight experience.
The police report concluded “freak accident..