The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century | Chapter 41 of 62

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28. A ROLLS-ROYCE IN THE RAIN

IBRAHIM AND CHRISTINE BIN LADEN formally separated on November 22, 1991, after almost five years of marriage. They had a two-year-old daughter, Sibba; Christine moved with her into a Los Angeles–area duplex apartment. She hired divorce lawyers. In February they filed papers in Los Angeles County Superior Court seeking a temporary restraining order against Ibrahim; Christine feared, she wrote in a declaration, that her husband “may become angry with me” over her decision to leave their marriage “and may retaliate by taking my daughter with him to Saudi Arabia.”

Christine was then thirty-one years old, about five years younger than her husband. She told the court of her “desperate financial situation.” It was a sort of desperation, however, that was peculiar to the west side of Los Angeles. “For many years during the marriage, Ibrahim provided me with a monthly allowance of approximately $15,000,” she reported. Yet for January and February of 1992, following their separation, he had provided her only $5,000, which was “woefully inadequate.” She had no income apart from Ibrahim’s support. Because of her husband’s sudden parsimony, she wrote, “our lifestyle has been changed and our living conditions are substandard to those which we had during marriage.” She explained to the court:

Ibrahim, my daughter and I lived in our Bel Air mansion at 634 Stone Canyon Road. This was a 7,000 square foot house, on three acres of property, with a seven car garage. The house is presently worth between $8–$10 million dollars. We employed full-time groundskeepers, household help, chauffeurs, and enjoyed private security. We had many cars, two of which were Rolls-Royces. Ibrahim would take my daughter and I on frequent vacation trips. We always flew First Class or on one of the private family jets. We would spend a month at a time traveling in Europe, or skiing in Switzerland, or short trips to Hawaii. This lifestyle also supported me making trips to New York, to go shopping, the opera and the theater. Last year Ibrahim let me buy a $16,000 fur coat on a shopping trip.

Christine inventoried the considerable investments she had made in education and other forms of self-improvement, such as the $3,250 she had recently spent on cosmetic surgery, as well as additional sums on manicures, pedicures, waxing, hair coloring, and haircuts. She had enrolled in private needlepoint classes and took private lessons in English horseback riding, painting, watercolors, sculpture, and Arabic. It was “not uncommon” for her to spend $3,500 on a dress. Ibrahim bought her “furs, jewelry, a $30,000 watch,” and a $90,000 diamond wedding ring. She purchased a Steinway piano for their Bel Air home, and they “always ate at the best restaurants,” such as Spago and Morton’s.

Not that the issues all revolved around her: Christine reported that she also typically spent $3,000 per month on Sibba’s and her clothing. It cost her several hundred dollars per month just to buy birthday presents adequate for Sibba to give to her Bel Air toddler friends at parties. The Bin Ladens, she added, did not shirk when it came to their own parties for children. In Jeddah, the previous September, she had spent $7,000 on a party for Sibba that included “a monkey, the rental of five horses, a hot air balloon, a private disc jockey, a photographer and catering, decoration and gifts for our guests.”

Christine did not wish to create the impression that she had built this lifestyle on her own. Ibrahim, she reported, also lived well. For example:

He has flown us to Switzerland just for the weekend to see a car show. He has numerous cars: Two Rolls-Royces, a Honda, a Lexus, a Mercedes 500 SEL and a Lamborghini jeep. Ibrahim will, at times, rent a Mercedes at $350 a day so that he does not have to drive his Rolls-Royce in the rain.

His passion for his cars had left her with some resentment. In particular, when she became pregnant with Sibba, Ibrahim had promised “to buy me a Rolls-Royce of my own; however, I only received a Limited Edition Jeep Cherokee.” She expected better of him. He was, after all, involved in construction in Saudi Arabia of the two Holy Mosques, airports, highways, military bases, royal palaces, and other large development projects.

The Bin Laden family is worth in excess of $2 billion dollars. This organization employs 17,000 people and has substantial real estate holdings. This family organization also owns a fleet of 8–9 airplanes, with a full staff of pilots and stewardesses. The family just recently purchased a G-4 Aircraft worth approximately $25 million, and a new Learjet.

Christine’s declaration offered a hint about how she might be assuaged now that she and Ibrahim were destined for divorce. She had found her previous personal allowance of $15,000 per month, she noted in her court filing, to be “adequate.”1

 

THEY HAD MET in Beverly Hills during the mid-1980s, according to Jack Kayajanian, one of Christine’s attorneys. Ibrahim was in the company of Dodi Fayed, who later died in a Paris automobile accident with Princess Diana of Wales. (Fayed was the son of a wealthy Egyptian businessman, Mohamed Fayed, who purchased control of Harrods department store in London and the Hotel Ritz in Paris, where members of the Bin Laden family frequently stayed.) Christine Hartunian, as she was then, was a daughter of an Armenian Christian businessman who lived in Orange County, California. At twenty-five, Christine relied upon her father for financial support and had never earned enough money at a job to have filed a tax return. She was tall, slender, dark, and beautiful—“a very attractive, very flashy young lady,” as another of her attorneys, Michael Balaban, recalled. One of her favorite nightspots was the Denim and Diamonds bar in Santa Monica, then a fashionable urban cowboy watering hole with a sparkling globe above the dance floor and stuffed heads of moose and deer mounted on the walls.2

As Balaban got to know Christine, he found that she seemed to drop the names of a number of celebrities, suggesting that they were her friends. Balaban thought she was “full of crap,” as he put it later. One day, however, he was meeting with his client in his Los Angeles office. A partner of Balaban’s represented Paul McCartney, the former Beatle, on a copyright matter, and McCartney happened to be in the law firm’s waiting room. Christine stepped into the corridor; McCartney saw her and exclaimed, “Christine! How the hell are you?” As Balaban said later: “You don’t forget things like that. She knew what the hell she was doing.”3

Ibrahim Bin Laden was not batting in the same league. He was the youngest full brother of Yeslam and Khalil. He had followed them to Los Angeles and attended the University of Southern California for a year, but he did not share his older brothers’ interest in business. He seemed content to drift along on his dividend payments. One of the Americans who occasionally joined him on the L.A. nightclub circuit recalled an evening at a restaurant in Beverly Hills when several of the Bin Laden brothers had come into town and gathered for dinner. It was around the time when Ibrahim fell for Christine. The Bin Laden brothers had a ritual, the American recalled: when the restaurant bill arrived, they would wrestle for control of the check, each more determined than the next to perform the role of host and patron. Ibrahim was the only brother present who did not seem interested in this performance. “In the end, my father is going to pay for this,” he explained. Another time, this person recalled, Ibrahim said he did not see the point of working as an executive in the family business. They could never surpass their father’s financial achievements. They had more than enough money. What was the point of striving so hard?4

Ibrahim was devout. Christine regarded herself as a Christian, without allegiance to any particular denomination, but as she and Ibrahim talked about marrying, she agreed to convert to Islam. There would be no other way to live comfortably as a member of the Bin Laden family. As their wedding neared, however, the couple negotiated over how to synthesize—in the form of a written prenuptial contract—the imperatives of his upbringing in Saudi Arabia with those of her upbringing in Southern California.

A Los Angeles–area attorney, Robert Shahin, drafted a proposed agreement, titled “Antenuptial Agreement Submitting Marriage to Islamic Law.” It was an extraordinary document, one that attempted to ensure that Ibrahim was protected by Saudi laws governing child custody and inheritance issues, in exchange for his pledge to Christine to forswear his right under Islamic law to take more than one wife. A draft copy was later filed in court.

It began:

Whereas the Bridegroom and Bride anticipate moving from time to time from various parts of the world to others…The parties agree as follows:

  • 1) Islamic Faith. Both the Bridegroom and Bride shall be practicing Muslims during the marriage and the children of their marriage shall be raised as Muslims…
  • 2) Islamic Law Controls. All incidents of the marriage shall be governed by Islamic law, except as modified herein…
  • 3) Only One Wife. The Bridegroom hereby waives his right during this marriage to have more than one lawful wife.
  • 4) Mahr (Dowry to Bride). The Bridegroom hereby pledges a $____________ dowry to the Bride, as her sole and separate property…In the event of divorce, the Bridegroom shall pay the Bride another $____________…

The draft required Christine to give up her rights under California’s laws governing community property; Ibrahim pledged “under Islamic law” to support any children born to them. A provision captioned “Equalizing Grounds for Divorce” noted that under Islamic law, Ibrahim could initiate a divorce virtually at will, while Christine’s grounds for divorce were more circumscribed. Therefore, “The Bridegroom hereby agrees that he will take steps to terminate the marriage upon the Bride’s request if irreconcilable differences arise between them.” In the event of divorce, Ibrahim “shall have custody of the children after their infancy, as defined by Islamic law.”5

Christine later said that she and Ibrahim “never could agree” about all the points in the draft prenuptial contract. They decided to marry anyway. “We were supposed to sign it after the marriage and we still never agreed,” she said later. “So it was never signed.”6

Their wedding took place at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The betrothal ceremony consecrated their union under Islamic law. Visiting Bin Laden family members and other guests lodged overnight in the hotel’s pink stucco bungalows “and the wine and champagne flowed throughout the evening,” recalled Robert Freeman, one of those who attended. Half-siblings such as Shafiq and Huda were among those in attendance. Salem was still alive—the wedding took place in January 1987—and he presided over the reception dinner with his usual songs and jokey monologues. Christine was “a beautiful bride,” Freeman later wrote. Her dress molded itself tightly around her hourglass figure and spread out in circular drapes around her ankles. “Her long beautiful flowing red tresses mesmerized the guests…The top florists must have worked into the night preparing the stupendous array of beautiful blooms throughout the hotel. It was an unbelievable sight!”7

After their honeymoon, the couple moved into the mansion on Stone Canyon, across from the Riviera Country Club. Sibba arrived in January 1989. As they had planned, they divided their time between Bel Air and Jeddah. Christine found it difficult to be away from her mother, who lived in California, and to share space with the larger Bin Laden family at Kilo 7, Ibrahim later said. To please her, he said, he bought beachfront land beside the Red Sea and broke ground on what would become a seaside estate worth about $3 million.

It was not long, however, before their marriage slipped into difficulty. Their quarrels persisted, and finally, late in 1991, Christine decided to move out of the Bel Air house and take Sibba with her. Ibrahim hired his own lawyers after she sued for divorce. As his brother Khalil had learned in 1990, when America in Motion had its troubles, Ibrahim was about to discover that American attorneys, once loosed, could rattle even a mellow man’s serenity.

 

“DO YOU KNOW what your assets are worth?”

“No.”

“Do you have any idea what your assets are worth?”

“No.”

Ibrahim sat in a Los Angeles conference room in the summer of 1992, answering deposition questions from Christine’s attorneys. The couple now seemed to be headed for a full-blown Los Angeles divorce trial; among other issues, lawyers for the two sides argued over how much income Ibrahim received, how his fortune might be valued, and what part of it Christine and Sibba might tap as alimony and child support. Christine’s lawyers found Ibrahim elusive on the subject of money. He said it was just not something he worried about or understood in any detail.

“Have you made any attempt to find out what your assets are worth?”

“Yes…I talked to my brothers who run the company. Nobody—nobody knows.”

“Which brothers did you talk to?”

“I talked to Yehia…Y-e-h-i-a…”

“Where is Yehia located?”

“Saudi Arabia.”

“What did you ask him?”

“How much each of them worth. How much each of—each one of us worth.”

“And what did he say?”

“It is hard to tell. He doesn’t know.”

“Did you tell him you needed to have the information to file with the Court in the United States?”

“No. I told that to my brother Khalil, and he told him.”

“And what happened?”

“Nobody knows. They don’t know.”

“…Mr. Bin Laden, other than what you have already stated, what attempts have you made to ascertain what your net worth is?”

“Just pick up the phone, and I talk to my brother, and to my knowledge, you see, I don’t know the work. I don’t work with them. I don’t know what they have, so what they send me, I assume that is what they—that is what they sent. I don’t know…”

“Do you know what your income is on a yearly basis?”

“It goes up and down. It is—it depends on the job we get. It is not like a salary, so I don’t know.”

“What do you mean, it depends on the job you get?”

“Like if the organization this year have jobs from the government, we have more roads. If we are doing good the profit will go up. If we don’t do good or if we don’t have a job, there is no profits.”

“What was your income for 1991?”

“I don’t know.”

“What has been your income so far in 1992?”

“The what?”

“What has been your income so far in 1992?”

“I have no idea.”

Michael Balaban and Christine’s other lawyers had particular difficulty believing that Ibrahim did not work at all, as he claimed, and, indeed, had never worked a day in his life. Under California divorce law, it was in Ibrahim’s interest to maintain during court proceedings that he did not receive any salary during the period of their marriage; if his income derived from assets he owned before he met Christine, it might be harder for her to win a large settlement.

“Do you know any of your brothers who don’t work at some job?” Balaban asked Ibrahim at one point during his deposition.

“Period—they don’t work at all, you mean?” Ibrahim asked.

“Exactly.”

“Yes.”

“Which ones?”

“Myself…”

“Well, give me a number, and then we will identify them.”

“Myself. Abdullah. Mohammed. Shafig…Abdullah Aziz…and some I don’t keep in contact with. I don’t know if they work or not.”

Balaban asked about his purchase of his Bel Air mansion during the early 1980s, before he met Christine; the price of the estate had been just over $2 million.

“How much cash did you pay?”

“I don’t remember, but some—around one million cash…No. More than that. I paid, maybe, one mill, six hundred.”

“Thousand?”

“Yeah, dollars.”

“Okay, so one million, six hundred thousand dollars?”

“Yes.”

“Where did you get the cash?”

“From Saudi Arabia, from my brother, Yeslam.”

“Was that a loan?”

“No. He sold some of my stocks.”

“…And whose name was the house put in?”

“My brother in—my brother’s name.”

“Which brother?”

“Yeslam.”

“Why?”

“Because they told me if I put the house under my name, and then here, I have to pay income taxes if I own something.”

“Who told you that?”

“Some of my friends.”8

On and on it went, the lawyers probing, Ibrahim responding in a tone of genial indolence. Following the depositions, as their trial date steadily approached, the estranged couple filed dueling declarations about the collapse of their marriage and their daughter’s best interests.

Christine wrote that she felt trapped when she visited Saudi Arabia with Sibba. Ibrahim would disappear and “stay at the beach or go to one of his brothers’ houses…and if he did come home…he would eat and take a nap or eat and leave the house quickly.” During her stay in Jeddah during 1991, she wanted to go home to California, but Ibrahim “would not allow Sibba and myself to return to the United States.” Ibrahim took her passport and told her “that it was being held at the Bin Laden Organization’s office.” She needed Ibrahim’s signature to obtain an exit visa, and he refused, she wrote, telling her, “If you want to go home, you can go home, but Sibba is staying.” She now feared, she told the court, that if Ibrahim was permitted to take Sibba to Saudi Arabia as part of their postdivorce custody agreement, she might never return. During their quarrels, Ibrahim had told her “numerous” times that Sibba “would go to Saudi Arabia no matter what happens and no matter what the court orders.” Other members of the Bin Laden family had also told her that if Ibrahim took Sibba to Saudi Arabia, “he would not return her to me.”9

“I see very clearly the intention of Chris is to punish me by keeping Sibba from going to Saudi Arabia,” Ibrahim wrote in reply. He had “never tried to stop her from leaving” the kingdom; in fact, “I helped her to leave…One time we had an argument and she wanted to leave and I told her you could do whatever you want, she knows very well she could leave if she wanted to. The law a wife can’t leave without a husband’s permission applies on the Saudis only. The only time I take her passport is to get her an exit visa…She did not need any signature from me for her to leave.”

He felt that Christine was deliberately attempting to alienate him from his young daughter. As an example, he reported that he had recently been laughing with Sibba in the car when he asked her if she was happy, and she said she was, and then she asked him, “Are you happy, Baba?”

“Yes,” he had answered.

“But mom said you are unhappy man.”10

At a deposition called by Ibrahim’s lawyers, Christine described the agreements she and her husband had made about Sibba’s upbringing.

“So it would be correct, then, that you and Mr. Bin Laden agreed that she was going to be reared in the Muslim faith?

“Yes.”

“And would the child be exposed to, and if possible, learn to speak, read and write Arabic?” “Yes.”11

Ibrahim wanted to raise his daughter as a Saudi and as a Bin Laden, he told the court. It was in Sibba’s best interest to understand who she was, and to become a full member of an extended family upon which she could long rely:

It is better for her now to know these things and grow up exposed to that culture, because I believe growing up with different “way of life” make you accept them, and it would be harder if she is not exposed to it until later—after she is grown. The other reason I want her to go to Saudi Arabia is to know her other part of the family, to feel their love for her, to be able to speak the language and feel comfortable to pick up the phone and ask any of her family if she needed anything or had a problem.12

He was convinced that Christine was using their daughter as a lever to extract money from him. “She only started to give me this trouble when she found out the Court will not give her what she wants from me,” namely, alimony of $21,648 a month and an additional $6,188 in child support. He was prepared to offer $3,250 in monthly child support, but as for alimony for Christine, his lawyers asserted, she had “remained with Ibrahim for less than five years, during which she enjoyed the benefits of Ibrahim’s family’s largesse. She certainly didn’t earn a lifetime of such living.” She should go out and find a job; she “has been supported long enough.”13

Their trial was scheduled for June 1993. As it neared, the two finally began to negotiate. On July 6, 1993, they completed a “Final Divorce Judgment” that brought their struggle to an end—or so they believed.

Ibrahim agreed to pay $5,000 per month in child support and $335,000 in a onetime cash settlement payment to Christine, with no additional alimony or attorney fees. He would be permitted to keep his 1977 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow; his 1983 Rolls-Royce Corniche; his 1992 Hummer; his 1991 Lexus; his 1984 Honda Civic; his 1987 Lamborghini jeep; his 1986 Mercedes-Benz 500 SEL; and his Mercedes jeep, as well as sole title to his real estate in Los Angeles and Jeddah, his bank accounts, and his interest in the Mohamed Bin Laden Company. Ibrahim agreed to spend six months of each year in the United States and to share custody of Sibba during that period.

Christine agreed to enroll their daughter in an Islamic school and to ensure that she received Arabic lessons. Until she was seven years old, Ibrahim could take her to Saudi Arabia for visits of up to one month; later, the stays could be longer.

It seemed a reasonable if expensively constructed compromise, and, indeed, the divorce decree between Ibrahim and Christine Bin Laden would hold steady for the rest of the decade—until the events of September 11 shattered the bicultural comity on which it rested.

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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