Bin Laden's Stature Rises with the World's Tallest Building

Perhaps the Bin Ladens should get out of the skyscraper business.

The Bin Laden Construction group recently won a bid to build the tallest skyscraper in the world in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE). The announcement made front-page news in most major Arab media outlets, including the Arab News, the Gulf News and the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

According to Asharq al-Awsat, the building will be over 2,300 feet high, with 160 floors in addition to a parking garage and the ground floor. The Bin Laden skyscraper will outstrip by more than 820 feet the current contender, Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and will house a hotel wing, apartments, offices, entertainment centers and restaurants, according to the report.

The project is intended to show the world the extent of the Bin Laden group's financial and engineering abilities: They will handle all aspects of the building, from financing to construction, on their own. Any large company wants to be seen flexing its industrial and commercial muscle. But the powerful images of 9/11 may give the project its own symbolic meaning.

The computer-generated picture of the proposed Bin Laden tower, printed in Asharq al-Awsat, only adds to the disquiet one feels in reading about the immensity of the building. The tall, sleek structure is shown against an evening sky. From two smaller buildings flanking the tower, two white beams shoot to the sky. For me, these are vivid reminders of the beams of light that served as a temporary memorial near Ground Zero, starting on March 11, 2002, the six-month anniversary of the World Trade Center attack. Could one evoke the destruction of the Twin Towers by the "other" bin Laden more directly? Are we to understand this new project in Dubai as a kind of replacement for the buildings Osama bin Laden destroyed?

What other messages could be gleaned from this drawing? Indeed, it suggests that Dubai could surpass New York's centrality as a business hub. The emergence of moguls like the Bin Laden group and the prominence of the Gulf Cooperation Council economies are written into this project. The tower can be read as a story of how and where the Bin Laden construction group will remake the world.

The Bin Laden company has always tried to keep its distance from Osama, the Bin Laden of destruction. The company was founded by Mohammad bin Laden in the Saudi city of Jeddah in the 1950s. Thirteen of Mohammad bin Laden's sons sit on the firm's board. The family disowned Osama after he lost his Saudi citizenship in 1994 for suspected terrorist activities.

Will the buildings serve as a reminder of the role that Dubai banks played in funneling money to Al Qaeda?

Islamic symbolism has always been important to the Bin Laden group. They were involved in many Islamic projects. Many years ago, they were entrusted with the renovation of the holy mosques of Mecca and Medina by the Saudi government. The road that connects the rocky stretch between the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina was also built by the Bin Laden group.

But the plan for a new tower in Dubai and the visual connection it makes in relation to New York's former Twin Towers represents a new turn in the symbolism the company embraces. It blurs the lines between Osama's actions in the name of Islam and the kinds of Islamic projects for which the company has become known.

Surely there are more appropriate ways for the bin Ladens to express their engineering and architectural genius.

Mamoun Fandy is a columnist for the two largest Arab-language dailies, Cairo-based Al Ahram and London-based Asharq Al-Awsat. A former professor of politics at Georgetown University, Dr. Fandy is senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C.

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