Lebanese politician Rafic Hariri (1944-2005) helped rebuild his country after its long civil war, both as a billionaire businessman and as its prime minister from 1992-1998 and 2000-2004. Hariri amassed his fortune in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s and 1980s, then returned to Lebanon and became its dominant political leader of the 1990s and 2000s. After emerging as an opponent of neighboring Syria's occupation of Lebanon, Hariri was assassinated by a massive car bomb, causing an international dispute that led to the occupation's end.
Hariri relished his public role as “Mr. Lebanon,” the international leader of his nation's recovery. “He was as extravagant in his charitable works as he was in his big-game hunting, yachts, private jets and multimillion-dollar real estate projects,” wrote Susan Sachs of the New York Times. “Always impeccably dressed, he was stout with bushy eyebrows and a commanding manner.”
A Self-Made Billionaire
Hariri was born on November 1, 1944, in Sidon, a town on the Mediterranean coast in southern Lebanon. He was the third child of a Sunni Muslim grocer and farmer. Hariri studied in Egypt as a teen and then attended the Arab University in Lebanon, studying accounting. He left without graduating, probably unable to afford the tuition. In 1965 he moved to Saudi Arabia, like many ambitious Lebanese of his generation. He became a math teacher in Jeddah and worked parttime as an accountant for a contracting company. While living in Saudi Arabia, he married Nazik Audeh Hariri.
In 1969 or 1970, Hariri founded a construction company, Cisconest, intent on getting involved in the oilfinanced Saudi building boom of the time. He quickly amassed a fortune by building palaces, hotels, and convention centers for wealthy Saudis. He became the owner of Saudi Arabia's largest construction company in the late 1970s by taking over the French firm Oger. He became close to Saudi Crown Prince Fahd and to Jacques Chirac, the once and future French prime minister and future French president. Saudi Arabia granted Hariri citizenship in 1978.
Hariri's business interests expanded into telecommunications, insurance, and real estate. He bought mansions around the world. In the 1990s Forbes magazine named him one of the world's richest men. His wealth was conservatively estimated at $4 billion.
A dedicated philanthropist, Hariri founded the Hariri Foundation for Culture and Higher Education, based in Beirut, in 1979. The foundation has given scholarships to 30,000 Lebanese students for education at home and abroad, and provides social services to the needy in Lebanon. Hariri's wife, Nazek, oversaw many of his charitible projects. She has served as head of the Children's Cancer Center of Lebanon.
From the mid-1970s through the 1980s, a brutal civil war among several political and religious factions in Lebanon killed 150,000 people. Hariri became directly involved in trying to end the war in 1983, when he returned to his home country as a mediator representing Saudi Arabia's King Fahd. He played a major role in convening conferences of various Lebanese groups in Switzerland in 1983 and 1984. Meanwhile, his company, Oger, helped tear down buildings destroyed during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
Since Syria exerted strong control over Lebanon, Hariri attempted to win over its president, Hafez Assad, by building a palace for him in the Syrian capital, Damascus, as a gift. In 1985 and 1987, Hariri tried to convince Lebanese Christians to accept Syria's influence over Lebanon, but failed. In 1989 Hariri paid for dozens of Lebanese leaders to attend a peace conference in Taif, Saudi Arabia, that brought an end to the civil war, but with a price: The agreement allowed Syria's army to remain in Lebanon and occupy its capital, Beirut, and essentially gave Syria substantial control over Lebanon's government.
Leading His Nation
In 1992 Hariri was elected to Lebanon's parliament and became prime minister. Hariri named a cabinet equally balanced between Muslims and Christians, an attempt to bring Lebanon's various religions and factions together. In the delicate balance of Lebanese politics during the Syrian occupation, Hariri had complete freedom over the country's economy, but Syria's army and intelligence services were responsible for Lebanon's security, and Hariri had to run major appointments past them. He did not have much control over the country's foreign policy. Also, the militant group Hezbollah, supported by Syria and Iran, controlled much of southern Lebanon.
“I want to go down in the history books as the man who resurrected Beirut,” Hariri declared upon taking office, according to Sachs. Using his many business ties to benefit his country, Hariri convinced financial partners of his to invest in Lebanon. He regularly visited Washington, D.C., and European capitals to lobby for aid for his country, and was usually successful. In December of 1996, for instance, he co-chaired an international “Friends of Lebanon” conference to attract foreign aid and private investment.
Thanks to the new investment, Lebanon's currency gained value and the country became more prosperous. Hariri also implemented a $10 billion program to rebuild Lebanon's infrastructure. He helped set up a company, Solidere, to rebuild Beirut's downtown, especially along the ravaged Green Line, which had been the border between fighting factions during the civil war. He set up a new government department, the Ministry for the Displaced, in 1993 to help refugees from the civil war resettle in their former towns.
Hariri's rebuilding plan was controversial. His business allies and many Syrians profited greatly from government contracts. Lebanon accrued a massive foreign debt, about $35 billion, and a large budget deficit. Critics argued that his focus on reconstructing Beirut and regaining Lebanon's former status as a financial and trading center neglected poor and rural areas. Several government officials were investigated for possible corruption. His administration had mixed success managing the economy, since the government's deficit drove up interest rates and slowed growth. However, the rebuilding effort created tens of thousands of jobs, and Beirut, once a center of Middle Eastern culture, regained some of its former health.
Mindful of Syria's power over his country, Hariri carefully avoided direct criticism of its president, Hafez Assad, and his son, Bashar Assad, who succeeded him. Occasionally, though, Hariri's frustration with Lebanon's occupier showed. In 1993, for instance, a Boston Globe reporter asked Hariri if he minded the fact that many copies of the elder Assad's portrait hung in Beirut's airport. “It's not a problem to put it up,” Hariri said, according to Sachs. “It's a problem to take it down.”
Hariri resigned as prime minister in 1998 after a dispute with Lebanon's pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud. He returned to the post in October of 2000 and continued working to improve Lebanon's economy. He also had to rebuild a part of southern Lebanon that Israel had occupied for two decades. While he was prime minister in the 2000s, tourism increased greatly, especially due to visitors from Persian Gulf states. He represented Lebanon at the second “Friends of Lebanon” conference to attract international aid and investment in 2001.
Confrontation With Syria
Hariri, ever mindful of Syria's power, never openly called for Syria to withdraw from Lebanon, but he allied himself with factions in parliament that did. In 2004 he defied Syria's will during a political crisis, a stance that may have led to his death. The presidential term of Lahoud, Hariri's longtime rival, was scheduled to expire, but Syria pressed the Lebanese parliament to pass a constitutional amendment that would allow Lahoud to stay in the office. Hariri commanded enough support in parliament that he could have resisted, but after visits to Damascus and the office of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, Hariri agreed not to block the change.
Later, a United Nations investigation reconstructed Hariri's meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus in August of 2004. Assad told Hariri he wanted to extend Lahoud's term by three years, and when Hariri refused, Assad threatened him, according to recollections of Hariri's aides and family in the UN report. Though Hariri allowed the constitutional amendment to pass, he resigned as prime minister in October of 2004, a move widely interpreted as a protest of Syrian influence and a final break with Syria. Meanwhile, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution calling on Syria to respect Lebanon's sovereignty.
As 2005 began, Hariri was organizing a new political movement called Al Mustaqbal (The Future). Observers believed he would be elected prime minister again in May. However, Hariri felt that he had endangered his life by crossing Assad and the many Syrian business associations that benefited from the occupation of Lebanon. On February 1, according to the UN report, Hariri told a Syrian deputy foreign minister, Walid Mouallem, that Lebanon would no longer be ruled by Syria. Mouallem replied that Syrian security forces had cornered Hariri and that he should not take the situation lightly, the UN report said. On February 13, Hariri told an ally, Walid Jumblat, leader of Lebanon's Druze party, that he believed his days were numbered.
On February 14, Hariri was assassinated by a massive car bomb explosion next to his motorcade in Beirut. He was 60 years old. He is survived by his wife, Nazek, and six children. More than a dozen other people were also killed in the bombing.
Hundreds of thousands of people, including members of normally feuding political parties, attended Hariri's burial in Beirut's Martyr's Square. During the funeral ceremony in the Sunni Muslim al-Amine Mosque, the neighboring St. George Cathedral, a Maronite Christian church, rang its bells in an unprecedented display of solidarity across Lebanon's religions. The funeral procession became a massive rally against Syria.
Though Syria denied any involvement in Hariri's death, many Lebanese blamed Syria and the Lebanese security forces allied with it for the assassination. The United States recalled its ambassador to Syria, and French President Jacques Chirac demanded an international investigation into the murder when he arrived in Beirut for the funeral. The following month, a preliminary United Nations report by Patrick Fitzgerald, an Irish police official, charged that Assad had personally threatened Hariri. It called for a thorough international investigation.
Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon in April of 2005, in response to the massive protests and pressure from the United Nations. It was the end of a 29-year occupation. In October of 2005, a second United Nations report, from German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, provided detailed accounts of Hariri's conversations with Assad and Mouallem. The report declared that high-ranking Syrian and Lebanese intelligence officers were responsible for Hariri's assassination.
New York Times, February 15, 2005; March 25, 2005.
Times (London, England), February 16, 2005.
Washington Post, February 17, 2005; October 21, 2005.
“Biography: Mr. Rafic Hariri,” Rafic Hariri, The Official Web site, http://www.rhariri.com/general.aspx?pagecontent=biography (December 16, 2007).
“Hariri, Rafiq Bahaa Edine al-Hariri,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online Library Edition, http://www.library.eb.com/eb/article-9438460 (December 16, 2007).
“Obituary: Rafik Hariri,” BBC.com, http://www.news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/world/middle_east/4264359.stm (December 16, 2007).