The master of all he surveys: Hariri builds on the ruins of Lebanon

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR should envy Rafiq Hariri. Ruins aplenty there are in Beirut. But no publicised sex scandals, no claims of government corruption and little political opposition to a prime minister who owns one third of Lebanon's national television station, controls the most widely heard radio in the Middle East - Radio Orient - and owns seven per cent of the company that is to rebuild his capital city. No matter that Mr Hariri also holds a Saudi passport. The words he uses most often in interviews are 'my country'.

It is as if Mr Major owned almost half the BBC, controlled the BBC World Service and held a substantial stake in the Canary Wharf project while carrying a Swiss passport.

But Mr Hariri, who arrives in London today for talks with Mr Major and other British ministers, has no need to worry. The very existence of this wealthiest of all prime ministers - Forbes magazine lists him among the world's 100 richest men - has increased the value of the long-devalued Lebanese pound and is drawing big investors back to the country. Ask him what he wants from Britain and his plump hands describe a generous arc: 'We need railways, trains, construction companies, power stations.'

Mr Hariri has plenty of critics at home, of course. He is too big for Lebanon, they claim. His former employees have become ministers and civil servants, including the minister of finance, who is accompanying him to London. His financial stake in the reconstruction of Beirut city centre is turning him into proprietor as well as prime minister of Lebanon; he has invested dollars 25m ( pounds 17m) in the project but insists all profits will be given to charity in perpetuity. 'I feel as if my entire life depends on this man,' a Lebanese economist muttered last week. 'If anything happens to him, our lives will collapse.'

Mr Hariri's response is immediate: 'So make sure nothing happens to me. Look, I don't think what these people say is true . . . In a democracy, a country does not depend on any one person. But let's put it differently. When I came to power, the situation in Lebanon was much worse than it is now. In the 14 months I've been in power, there's no doubt the country has advanced tremendously. So the more the country advances and the healthier it gets, the less will depend on me.'

As for his property-buying, he insists he is not the biggest land-owner in Lebanon - 'nor the second, the third, nor the fourth' - although he declines to say how much land he possesses. 'That stupid question]' he snorts. 'Look, I come from a farming family. For a farmer, property and land are the most important things in life. If I offered my father and mother a choice between a dollars 10m diamond or a dollars 1m plot of land, they would choose the land without a minute's hesitation.'

In Mr Hariri's office, there is a coloured snapshot of Hariri senior, red tarbouche on his head, sitting with his wife under a grape-arbour in the family home in Sidon. Rafiq made his fortune in construction in Saudi Arabia, winning King Fahd's favour by completing the Intercontinental Hotel in Taif in time for an Islamic summit.

Even in the aftermath of war, there are reasons to envy Mr Hariri's presiding role over Lebanon's reconstruction. He rules a country so damaged by civil war that Lebanon can rebuild its entire infrastructure from scratch with the newest technology. The government plans to spend dollars 10bn over the next 10 years as the new city centre rises from the wreckage of the war.

Mr Hariri will bring a few ghosts to the Foreign Office. Mr Hurd will be reminded of a predecessor's promise to support a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and of the result of that promise in Lebanon: 400,000 Palestinian refugees for whose presence many Lebanese still hold Britain partly responsible. 'This is a big problem for us,' Mr Hariri says. 'The Palestinians came here in 1948 (after the creation of Israel) and others in 1967. And they are supposed to go back. We cannot give them nationality because this would affect our political and demographic situation in Lebanon as well as being unconstitutional.'

After the Assad-Clinton summit in Geneva last weekend, the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, called Mr Hariri from the Washington- bound jet to tell him that Lebanon had played 'an important' part in the discussions. With 35,000 Syrian troops in his country, as well as a much smaller Israeli occupation force in the south, Lebanon's peace with Israel is going to go hand- in-iron-glove with Syria's.

Mr Hariri stoically insists that the presence of Israelis and Syrians in Lebanon are not in any respect comparable. 'The Israelis have occupied part of our country. The Syrian troops are here to assist and assure the security of Lebanon. I don't think the Syrians want to stay here. They are on a mission. When it is finished, they will go back to Syria.'

Thousands of Syrians converged yesterday on Qardaha, the birthplace of President Hafez al-Assad, to attend the funeral of his eldest son. Basil al-Assad, 31, an army major, was killed in a car crash in Damascus on Friday. He was widely regarded as the heir-apparent to his father.- Reuter

(Photograph omitted)