So just how wealthy is America's new public enemy No 1?

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ARABS GREETED President Bill Clinton's ban on financial transactions with the Saudi dissident, Osama bin Laden, with astonishment and mirth yesterday.

One Saudi I called shortly after the presidential announcement laughed for more than 30 seconds on the telephone before he could control himself sufficiently to explain that Mr bin Laden, who demands a United States military withdrawal from Saudi Arabia, has for 10 years been campaigning for a boycott of all American companies. "He even refuses to drink Pepsi- Cola," the man said.

Americans may take it seriously. If they can accept labels such as "public enemy number one" - Mr Clinton's infantile honour for a man who has been seeking such an accolade for years - at face value, the latest presidential decree in America's "war against terror" will seem to make sense. In the Middle East, it is meaningless.

True, the family construction company of Bin Laden - in which Osama bin Laden's shareholding is frozen, and which now has no financial dealings with him even though run by one of his more than 40 brothers - may be treated with suspicion by US investors who do not realise how many members there are in the Bin Laden family. But a man who has always refused to buy an American car, an American videotape - even an American soft drink - is unlikely to be trading in Wall Street. Osama bin Laden has frequently spoken in public about the need to boycott the American economy.

During his stay in Sudan, when he used the same construction equipment he had employed in the war against the Russians in Afghanistan to build public highways for Sudanese villagers, he controlled only one company that might have done business with the Americans: Wadi al-Aqiq, an agricultural and trade corporation that could have dealt with US concerns.

The Sudanese authorities paid him for his road projects not in cash but in sesame seeds, which Mr bin Laden would then sell on the commodity market. But for the most part, Wadi al-Aqiq would buy fertilisers from Europe. Mr bin Laden did have stakes in a number of Sudanese banks that could have used American companies, although not any more. When he left Sudan, his friends say, Mr bin Laden liquidated all his business assets there and did not get a cent for them because he had to leave the country so suddenly.

In reality, it does not cost a lot to maintain construction equipment and a satellite telephone in the mountains of Afghanistan. Mr bin Laden's guerrillas - who followed him through the war against Soviet occupation - obey him through loyalty rather than money.

When his wives moved to Afghanistan with him they were housed in tents beside a field, with latrines, sheltered by blankets, dug into the soil outside. The bulldozers and earth-clearing vehicles Mr bin Laden used in the Afghan war, and later in Sudan, were of largely Italian manufacture. Five years ago they were already nearing the end of their days.

Some of Mr bin Laden's supporters say he receives money directly from Saudi Arabia - quite probable in view of his popularity among some sections of the ulema (religious leaders) there - but even if he did invest outside the Gulf, he could do so under a different name. Many Middle East countries act as money transactors - cash, for example, passes through Beirut night and day - for unknown investors. Even today, minor shareholdings in many Middle East projects are unknown. It is possible Muslims in the US have sent funds to Mr bin Laden, though not of a kind that would make any appreciable difference to his wealth.

He may be worth a few million dollars, though Saudis dispute even this. "The idea that he has $250m [pounds 152m] is fantasy," another Saudi said yesterday. "The Americans dream up these extraordinary figures, claim them to be the truth, get them printed in the press and - just like that - they have created the 'millionaire terrorist' that they want."

Of course, the US could say it has "compelling evidence" Mr bin Laden has invested in a company, just as it claimed the Sudanese factory it destroyed last week was making chemical weapon precursors. Which may - or, more likely, may not - be true. But Mr bin Laden is likely to greet Mr Clinton's latest blow in the "war against terror" as an American farce.