Power and perils face Lebanon's richest PM

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The Independent Online
THE EXCHANGE dealers ran out of cash. Yesterday, even the banks had to ask customers selling dollars to wait while they went in search of more blue, Lebanese 1,000-pound bills. In 12 hours, Lebanon's new billionaire Prime Minister increased the value of the pound by 10 per cent - and, no doubt, the value of his own holdings in the country.

It was as if Rockefeller or Ross Perot had become US president, as if the Duke of Westminster had taken John Major's job. The Syrians had dithered over the appointment, but the Saudis gave their approval. Rafiq Hariri is a Saudi, although he was born in Lebanon. And he is probably Lebanon's last card, the final chance to break with the tragedy and betrayal of the past and face the familiar capitalist future.

Forbes magazine lists him among the world's 100 richest men. He has dollars 3bn ( pounds 1.8bn) to his name. For how much longer can the world ignore Lebanon now that Rafiq Hariri is Prime Minister? For how much longer will the US be able to isolate the country to which Americans still cannot travel and to which US airlines cannot fly? Rafiq Hariri, son of a poor Sidon farmer who made his fortune in construction, may be his own man. But he is also a favoured son of Saudi Arabia, a confidant of King Fahd, and the most famous and the wealthiest Sunni Muslim ever to achieve high office in Lebanon.

A shareholder in at least nine Arab and French banks, Mr Hariri is a businessman and a philanthropist, dispensing millions of dollars among both Muslim and Christian communities in Beirut. His Hariri Medical Centre in Sidon - destroyed by Israel's militia allies in 1985 - cost him dollars 60m. He spent even more on his Hariri Foundation, funding the overseas education of thousands of Lebanese students. He paid for the Taif conference, which proposed the only peace which Lebanon obtained after 15 years of civil war. He will be a principal shareholder in the company which will rebuild the devastated centre of Beirut - by law he can hold up to 10 per cent of the shares - and the owner of land along the Beirut coastline, in the mountains above the capital and across Sidon.

The 12 Islamic radicals MPs - eight Shia Hizbollah members and four Sunnis - did not want Mr Hariri to be prime minister. Mr Hariri has other enemies in Lebanon who fear his money and his power and his support from Saudi Arabia.

Frosted over with suspicion and dark memories, Lebanon will take many years to revive. The problem is the Saudi connection. The Saudis could drown Lebanon in money. Since Saudi Arabia is a US ally, Lebanon cannot fail to be drawn under US influence. Just as when Camille Chamoun was president in 1958 and called in the Marines to save his country from 'international communism'. But Mr Hariri will have to tread softly. For powerful men, Lebanon remains a dangerous place.

(Photograph omitted)