Beirut's Mr Big aims to rebuild Lebanon: Robert Fisk outlines the ambitions of a new leader backed by Saudi riches

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EVER SINCE he moved to Beirut almost three years ago, President Elias Hrawi of Lebanon has been living in an apartment owned, furnished and maintained by Rafiq Hariri.

In Damascus, the vast new presidential palace above the Syrian capital, its air-raid bunkers penetrating deep into the mountainside, is a personal gift to President Hafez el-Assad from Rafiq Hariri. Vice-President Abdul- Halim Khaddam of Syria is a close personal friend of Rafiq Hariri. So is King Fahd.

Lebanese social acceptance, Syrian muscle and Saudi cash proved an unbeatable triumvirate. Mr Hariri last week became Lebanon's most powerful - and undoubtedly its richest - prime minister.

Unlike so many Lebanese cabinet ministers of past years, he is not corrupt. With dollars 3bn ( pounds 1.86bn) to his name, he does not need to be. Mr Hariri has bought much of the city of Beirut, will hold a 10 per cent shareholding in the new city centre project and owns so much land outside the capital that he says, in all honesty, that he does not know how much of Lebanon he possesses.

When a rumour spread through Beirut two months ago that he had bought the clifftop land opposite the Raouche fish restaurants and the Bain Militaire, I asked him if it was true. 'Yes, absolutely,' he replied. 'I paid full tax on the land. Why shouldn't I buy it? I love my country.'

At 48, he is overweight, invariably dressed in expensively tailored blue suits and silk ties - or in spotless, gold-embroidered Arab robes at home in Riyadh or Taif - polite to a fault, excited by philosophical questions, and apparently bored by the routine of business. (Asked how many banks he controlled, he once replied: 'Oh, I don't know - a lot.')

What chiefly fascinates the Lebanese is his relationship with Saudi Arabia. Although born in the southern Lebanese city of Sidon, Mr Hariri moved to Riyadh 27 years ago, and is one of the few foreigners to hold a Saudi passport. His links with that kingdom are as politically powerful as they are genuine.

The Saudis admire entrepreneurs, and King Fahd himself noticed Mr Hariri when his Saudi Oger company finished building the Taif Intercontinental Hotel in less than six months, just in time for the Islamic summit meeting. Mr Hariri constructed the royal residence in Riyadh, the city's conference palace, the Sheraton Hotel and a new hospital.

When the Saudis gathered in Taif to host the parliamentary talks that were to end the 15-year Lebanese civil war, none was more influential than Mr Hariri. He personally paid for the conference; and he donates dollars 87m a year to Lebanese charities.

As he invests in Lebanon, he clearly believes in its future - one of the few to do so for a long time. And if he believes in it, so do the Saudis. But what do the Saudis want, apart from stability and continued wealth?

According to the Washington Post, the Saudis paid for the 'rogue' CIA unit that tried to kill the Beirut Shia Hizbollah cleric Mohamed Fadlallah with a car bomb on 9 March 1985 (it missed its target and slaughtered more than 80 people). No wonder that the eight Shia Hizbollah members of the new Lebanese parliament, and four radical Sunni clerics, voted against Mr Hariri's appointment last week.

He would never have had a hand in so murderous an affair - he played no role in the Lebanese civil war, save for providing blankets and medicines to the impoverished people of southern Lebanon - but none would deny that the area of the country which initially received most of his attention was his own home city of Sidon, in which a Sunni majority lived in fear of being taken over by the large Shia community to the south. The huge Hariri medical centre - containing the best heart clinic and surgery in the Middle East until Israel allowed its 'South Lebanon Army' militia to steal half the equipment and blow up the rest - was built scarcely 10 miles from Sidon.

In a land in which the Christian Maronites had their zoama - their big families like the Gemayels and Chamouns and Franjiehs - to protect them, and in which the Shias had Iran, the Sunnis always knew their best interests would be remembered by their favourite son, Rafiq Hariri. The Shias are now the largest single religious sect in Lebanon, yet among the highest offices in the land they can hold only that of the speaker of parliament.

If Lebanon is to have a new future - if Mr Hariri's first priority is to be the 'building-up of the state,' as he put it on Thursday - who will control it? The Syrians, to be sure. Deeply beholden financially to the Saudis, they were unlikely, anyway, to oppose Mr Hariri's nomination. Syria's 40,000 troops will probably begin their withdrawal from Beirut within the next two weeks, although they will keep watch on the city from the mountains. But what of the Saudis? Saudi money will be forthcoming: for communications, industry, new technology. Saudi largesse will also have its own interest: to keep at bay the fundamentalism that plagues Algeria, Egypt and Jordan. Iran's patrimony towards the Hizbollah and the Shia poor will be matched by Saudi wealth.

Lebanon was once the playground of the Arab rich, not least of the Saudis, when summer temperatures scorched the Gulf. Now the Gulf Arabs will be able to return to their second home. It will be wealthy and it will be safe. Some of it may be Saudi. Since the Gulf war, Saudi Arabia has become America's banker in the Middle East, funding those Arab states that have earned the friendship of the United States - Egypt in particular, Syria less so - and, by the same token, influencing the internal politics of those states, ensuring that they remain loyal to the 'new world order' laid down by the man who may soon lose his presidency in Washington.

Lebanon, it now seems certain, is supposed to join the 'new world order', a place synonymous with capitalism and 'moderation', of pleasure rather than fundamentalism, of security rather than debate and political conflict, and - most important of all - of pro-Western, pro-American sentiment. Given the cruelties inflicted on Lebanon these past 16 years, it should perhaps be given the option of returning to its old pre-war ways.

Mr Hariri is a kindly and immensely generous man who has endured his own private tragedy: his favourite son, Hussamedin, was killed in a car accident in the US. 'Rich people fear death more than the poor,' he once said, 'because they are not sure how great will be the difference between their life on earth and paradise.' He acknowledges his debt to the Saudis while claiming political independence. 'If I had stayed in Lebanon, you would never have heard of Rafiq Hariri. I would not do anything to harm them at all. But I am not part of their political system.'

We shall see. Mr Hariri's accession means that the Lebanon war really has ended. And he is a big enough man for his new task. Whether he will prove to be a great man is another matter. Given the enemies the West has built up for itself in the Middle East, he will also have to survive.

(Photograph omitted)