Saad Hariri. Illustration by Kagan Mcleod
Saad Hariri. Illustration by Kagan Mcleod

Newsmaker: Saad Hariri



In helping to usher a former political enemy into power in Lebanon, Saad Hariri is – on his own account – making a sacrifice "to save the state from total collapse".

There are those who consider his intentions to be honourable and genuine. And there are others who interpret an eyebrow-raising gesture as a straightforward act of expediency from a man struggling to preserve the political and industrial empire of his father, assassinated 11 years ago.

Hariri, the leader of Lebanon’s Future Movement, was yesterday announced as prime minister, his second term of office, as part of a deal that saw him secure crucial support for the accession of 81-year-old Michel Aoun to the presidency.

To understand his central role in the latest attempt to reshape Lebanon after a vacuum of over two years without a head of state, a talent for mental gymnastics is probably as helpful as a sound grasp of Middle Eastern politics.

Where is the rational explanation for a fierce opponent of Hizbollah, the suspected assassins of his own father, to contemplate throwing his weight behind the presidential ambitions of a man who in recent years has supported the Iranian-backed group?

When Hariri’s bond with Saudi Arabia, the country of his birth and emphatically no friend of Iran, is also taken into account, the contradictions seem impenetrable.

Perhaps the latest intrigue in Lebanese politics begins to make sense only if Hariri is being entirely genuine when he insists he has acted in the interests of a gravely threatened state. But there is, of course, a more cynical analysis.

A glance at Forbes, the US magazine that publishes rich-lists of the world’s wealthiest men and women, reveals a striking slump in Hariri’s fortune.

In his late 30s, he was put in 334th place in the Forbes global rankings for billionaires, with a net worth of US$3.3 billion (Dh12.12bn) as head of the construction empire he inherited from his father Rafik, who was the Lebanese prime minister when murdered in 2005. Eleven years later, the 2016 list shows his prosperity to have experienced a significant tumble. The fortune has more than halved, to US$1.5bn. If this still leaves him a wealthy man, his position in the list – down to 1,275th position – at least hints at steep decline.

A BBC correspondent in Beirut developed the less favourable rationale of the manoeuvrings of a billionaire “whose business interests in Lebanon and abroad are reported to be in deep trouble”. On this version, faced with “mounting anger from unpaid staff and a crisis in overdue loans” along with disenchantment among political supporters, “his endorsement of Michel Aoun might have been his only way back to the office of prime minister” and therefore a chance to salvage his leadership of the Future Movement.

Four years ago, the Egyptian newspaper Al Akhbar portrayed him as a man “increasingly incapable of holding his late father’s financial and political empire together”.

But this analysis is strongly challenged by a woman who has observed Hariri at close quarters.

Baria Alamuddin may be best known to celebrity gazers as mother of Amal, wife of the Hollywood superstar George Clooney. She is also a vastly experienced Lebanese journalist, foreign editor of the London-based pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat and a respected broadcaster. She has interviewed numerous western and Arab heads of state and lays claim to having been the last journalist to interview Indira Ghandi before the Indian prime minister’s assassination in 1984.

She sees Hariri’s initiative as a bold, selfless attempt to help his country and, in the face of the extraordinary influence wielded by Iran on Lebanese decision-making, preserve his late father’s legacy of moderate leadership.

“You cannot look at anything to do with Lebanon from a purely national perspective,” Alamuddin tells The National. “You always have to consider the regional and international context.

“I know Saad Hariri well. He is very kind, very nice, a gentleman. It is very wise and generous of him to accept the responsibility of fulfilling a symbolic but very important position. But neither he nor the president can do anything in Lebanon without taking account of regional and international powers. I am sure Hariri is going to try his best, and the question will be whether his best is enough unless there is a miracle like Iran, Saudi Arabia and the USA somehow starting to see eye to eye.”

Now 46, Saad Hariri was born in Riyadh, the second of three sons born to Rafik Hariri’s Iraqi first wife, Nida. His elder brother Bahaa is also a businessman, “strong and flamboyant” according to the academic journal Mediterranean Politics, but who chose to concentrate on his own commercial interests rather than follow his father into politics. A younger sibling, Houssam, was killed in a road accident in the US.

Hariri formed a close relationship with his father’s Palestinian second wife, Nazik. When his father was assassinated, he joined her with Jacques Chirac, then French president and a close family friend, among leading mourners at the funeral.

Rafik Hariri died on February 14, 2005, when a parked van packed with about 1,800kg of explosives was blown up as his motorcade passed close to the Parisian-designed St Georges hotel in central Beirut. Twenty-two other people were also killed.

A Canadian television investigation pointed an accusing finger at Hizbollah, which in turn blamed Israel. Syria has also been suspected of involvement.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon, a United Nations-backed process at The Hague in the Netherlands, has concentrated on five Hizbollah figures accused in absentia of participation in the atrocity. One of the five was killed in May this year and it remains unclear when the tribunal, established in 2009, might reach a conclusion.

Hariri’s early years were divided between Lebanon’s third city, Sidon, and Riyadh, the latter reflecting his father’s close ties with Saudi, as a political envoy of the royal family and later advisor to Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Rafik was credited with much of the groundwork for the Saudi-sponsored Taif Accord, which ended civil war in Lebanon in 1990.

Saad Hariri moved to Washington, DC for higher education, graduating in business administration from the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University in 1992. He returned to Riyadh after graduation to look after his father’s business interests.

He is multilingual and holds dual Lebanese-Saudi citizenship, and his wife, Lara, the mother of their three children, is from a prominent Syrian family.

Two months after the killing of his father, Saad Hariri took over as leader of the mainly Sunni Future Movement and also spearheaded the March 14 Alliance coalition of groups prompted by the Cedar Revolution, following the assassination, which successfully demanded the departure of Syrian troops after nearly 30 years. In 2009, he became prime minister and a few weeks later made a bridge-building visit to Syria, evidently intended as an act of statesmanship placing national interest above personal considerations.

However, any notion of conciliation soon evaporated. Eighteen months after he left office in 2011, Hariri was named in an arrest warrant issued by Bashar Al Assad’s authorities accusing him and others of arming and financing opposition groups, a move that prompted him to denounce the Syrian president as a “monster”. Hariri had already moved to Paris, feeling himself safer in France than in the Middle East, but returned to Lebanon in 2014.

As the new prime minister he faces a tall order to make a difference, in the absence of more encouraging regional and world developments, to the chaos into which his country has descended.

Much may also depend on the extent to which the elderly new president, a Maronite Christian, is able to show himself as a leader for all Lebanese people and not just factions backed by Iran. The prospects, say some observers, are not glowing.

But while it may sound like faint praise, Alamuddin draws modest hope from the precedents she has witnessed over and again.

“He is the image of his father,” she says. “At first he knew nothing about politics, a little like his father. But I have seen many political figures around the world who knew nothing at the beginning but became very successful.”

weekend@thenational.ae

COMPANY PROFILE

Company name: Almouneer
Started: 2017
Founders: Dr Noha Khater and Rania Kadry
Based: Egypt
Number of staff: 120
Investment: Bootstrapped, with support from Insead and Egyptian government, seed round of
$3.6 million led by Global Ventures

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KEY DATES IN AMAZON'S HISTORY

July 5, 1994: Jeff Bezos founds Cadabra Inc, which would later be renamed to Amazon.com, because his lawyer misheard the name as 'cadaver'. In its earliest days, the bookstore operated out of a rented garage in Bellevue, Washington

July 16, 1995: Amazon formally opens as an online bookseller. Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought becomes the first item sold on Amazon

1997: Amazon goes public at $18 a share, which has grown about 1,000 per cent at present. Its highest closing price was $197.85 on June 27, 2024

1998: Amazon acquires IMDb, its first major acquisition. It also starts selling CDs and DVDs

2000: Amazon Marketplace opens, allowing people to sell items on the website

2002: Amazon forms what would become Amazon Web Services, opening the Amazon.com platform to all developers. The cloud unit would follow in 2006

2003: Amazon turns in an annual profit of $75 million, the first time it ended a year in the black

2005: Amazon Prime is introduced, its first-ever subscription service that offered US customers free two-day shipping for $79 a year

2006: Amazon Unbox is unveiled, the company's video service that would later morph into Amazon Instant Video and, ultimately, Amazon Video

2007: Amazon's first hardware product, the Kindle e-reader, is introduced; the Fire TV and Fire Phone would come in 2014. Grocery service Amazon Fresh is also started

2009: Amazon introduces Amazon Basics, its in-house label for a variety of products

2010: The foundations for Amazon Studios were laid. Its first original streaming content debuted in 2013

2011: The Amazon Appstore for Google's Android is launched. It is still unavailable on Apple's iOS

2014: The Amazon Echo is launched, a speaker that acts as a personal digital assistant powered by Alexa

2017: Amazon acquires Whole Foods for $13.7 billion, its biggest acquisition

2018: Amazon's market cap briefly crosses the $1 trillion mark, making it, at the time, only the third company to achieve that milestone

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Stars: Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge

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