Rafiq Hariri

Billionaire prime minister of Lebanon

Rafiq Bahaa Edine Hariri, politician and businessman: born Sidon, Lebanon 1 November 1944; Prime Minister of Lebanon 1992-98, 2000-04; married Nazek Audeh (four sons, two daughters, and one son deceased); died Beirut 14 February 2005.

Twice prime minister of Lebanon - from 1992 to 1998 and 2000 to 2004 - Rafiq Hariri dominated the country's political and business life and was widely credited with getting the country back on its feet after the devastating 15-year civil war. He also gained massive popularity by rebuilding much of the infrastructure destroyed by the Israeli heavy bombardments and air-raids in their 1982 invasion to drive out the Palestinians. He used his own money, at a time when no other investor would touch Lebanon, while the threat of attacks by Israel remained.

In the past few weeks Hariri, or "Mr Lebanon", as he was nicknamed by local journalists (some on his payroll), had been busy steering a national election campaign through a movement he called "Al-Mustaqbal" ("The Future"). Future was also the name of his television station, which was popular throughout the Arab world.

When the open-minded Hariri was voted in as prime minister in 1992, he was welcomed as a breath of fresh air in a scene dominated by warlords. People tired of civil war and corruption pinned hopes on the tycoon to restore Beirut's pre-war reputation as a leading financial centre. He succeeded in putting Beirut back on the international financial map through the issuing of eurobonds, winning the praise of the World Bank for his plan to borrow reconstruction money.

Using his financial clout, and contacts, the billionaire entrepreneur attracted foreign investment, mainly from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf where he had made his massive fortune, and set up private redevelopment firms to rebuild the business heart of Beirut. His critics say he was behind compulsory purchasing orders, appropriating land from impoverished families, to rebuild big hotels, shopping malls and other projects, in contracts awarded to his relatives and friends. Others were critical of his economic strategy after he saddled the nation with big debts, which contributed to his 1998 departure from office following a row with the Syrian-backed president, Emile Lahoud, who opposed Hariri's political, economic and social plans.

Ordinary Lebanese began to judge him by the same standards applied to other politicians, many of whom had made their fortunes in civil-war activities, after two successive periods in office.

Hariri bounced back as prime minister in 2000 for another four-year term, only to fall out again over Syria's role in the country. He became critical of the Syrian backing of Lahoud last year against the wishes of majority of Lebanese, which prompted the Americans to back UN resolution 1559 calling for Syria to pull out of Lebanon. Only 24 hours before his death in a massive car bomb yesterday, typical of civil war assassinations, he joined the growing Lebanese opposition to Syria's three decades' occupation of Lebanon; many of Hariri's supporters chanted anti-Syrian slogans shortly after his death, blaming the Syrians.

Hariri was a self-made businessman in the American style. He was born in the southern port of Sidon to a poor Sunni family. His march into success in business and politics went against the grain of Levantine politics, where, historically, key figures on the complicated, and often treacherous, political scene, rely for their success, let alone personal survival, on their powerful clans or strong political families.

Educated at local schools, he read economics and commerce at Beirut University, working as a book-keeper to finance his studies. Following graduation in 1966 he trained as a teacher. He travelled along the path of many self-made Lebanese, in 1970 heading to the Gulf to answer an advertisement for a teaching job in Saudi Arabia. He was to spend six years there, teaching, and working as an accountant in a construction firm, eventually establishing his own firm, Saudi Oger. From 1977 he doubled his fortune every few months, with the massive increase in oil revenues generating a huge appetite for big construction projects in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations.

Hariri became the personal contractor as well as an unofficial adviser of the then Crown Prince Fahd (King of Saudi Arabia since 1982), winning high-profile government and private-sector construction contracts. In the process he amassed a fortune, catapulting him into the ranks of the Forbes list of the world's 100 richest men. It is impossible to establish his exact wealth, but a 1990 conservative estimation put it at US$2bn, including construction companies, hotels and a vast media empire. Many say that twice or three times the fortune is held in undisclosed Swiss bank accounts.

He had majority or influential holdings in many firms, including Mediterranean Banking Group, Saudi Lebanese Banking group, Arab Bank, Indo-Swiss bank, Sheraton Middle East and Future TV, as well as the newspapers Al- Mustaqbal, The Arab Voice and An-Nahar, one of Lebanon's oldest dailies.

A flamboyant figure, Hariri invited camera crews and glossy-magazine writers into his home and posed with his attractive wife, Nazek, for cover pictures. He was well regarded among international leaders, counting President Jacques Chirac as a close friend. He continued receiving international statesmen even after he left office.

He never overtly came out against Syria in the dispute, but his resignation in September 2004 was a clear protest against the Syrian pressure to keep Lahoud in office, and his open criticism, just one day before his death, placed him as a nationalist figure among the majority of his countrymen and women.

Adel Darwish

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