Spotlighting Rafiq Hariri’s political friends around the globe

French President Jacques Chirac, right, and Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri chat during their meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris Friday, July 18, 2003. (AP)

There is probably no state in relation to its size that has attracted more international attention than Lebanon in the last half a century. The war that engulfed the country for 15 years from 1975 was fought not only by local actors but by regional players. Despite the end of the war in 1990, political instability continues to this day.

Lebanese political leaders have recurrently appealed to foreign powers for survival and to maintain or upgrade their status. They have always been conscious that little can be done without various international actors, even if their interests do not match. Rafiq Hariri, prime minister for three discontinuous terms between 1992 and 2004, cultivated a personal relationship with many global leaders, even before his entry into politics.

His most well-known relation was with former French President Jacques Chirac, whom he first met in the 1970s. Back then, Chirac “was the mayor of Paris and I was there. A friendship arose, based on trust, and became a family relationship,” Hariri said shortly before his assassination in Feb. 2005.

Their first meeting came at a time when Hariri had just invested in French construction company Ogier, which would become the main corporation that helped him enter the list of the 100 richest people in the world.

This personal relation with Chirac helped Hariri as prime minister to convince global economic institutions and countries to financially help Lebanon. The country was on the brink of economic meltdown with the new millennium, with crippling debt that represented more than 165 percent of gross domestic product.

Hariri “used to say that a good personal relation with leaders is half the way to solving any problem,” said Ali Hamadeh, a journalist with Lebanese newspaper al-Nahar who was in charge of the political section and accompanied Hariri on many of his diplomatic trips. “He managed to find his way by building personal relationships with a variety of persons from culture, business, politics, journalists etc.”

Political debut

Hariri’s entry into politics came in the 1980s during negotiations for a ceasefire in Lebanon, where he met and established relations with leaders of warring parties and militias. “He had the support of Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries,” said Marwan Hamadeh, a minister during the war and then with the first government formed by Hariri. Hamadeh added that Hariri was able to achieve short ceasefires in Beirut so he could cross dividing lines and meet various leaders.

Hariri, a Saudi-Lebanese national, was selected to represent Riyadh in Lebanon as a negotiator due to his friendship with King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, which opened many doors, said Hannes Baumann in his doctorate research at Georgetown University.

His political career cannot be separated from his business. Marwan said Hariri “already had a plan to rebuild Lebanon, to reconstruct Beirut and its infrastructure, and was working on projects even if the war was in full swing. At a certain moment, Hariri realized that he wouldn’t be able to fulfil his dream - rebuilding Beirut - without a political career. He aimed to become prime minister, then got support from Saudi Arabia and Syria.”

Hariri won a parliamentary seat during the 1992 elections and became prime minister. He then got approval to develop his urban plans from the two main regional powers in Lebanon, Syria and Saudi Arabia.

“He won those elections against the traditional Sunni politicians with an American-style campaign,” said Tomas Alcoverro, Spanish correspondent for La Vanguardia who arrived for the first time in Beirut before the outbreak of the war. Hariri “introduced a new way of doing politics, but we can’t forget that he had loads of money and the support of Saudi Arabia.”

International appeal

The combination of business and political power with a likeable character enabled him to have close personal relations with the most important political leaders. “How could a politician of France forget that [Hariri] bought $400 million in shares of BNP, the most important bank in the country?” asked a close aide to the late prime minister. “He could go to London, and in only two days decide to invest half a billion in Shell.”

Ali said he saw Hariri “on private trips calling political leaders such as [former British Prime Minister] Tony Blair or [former German Chancellor] Gerard Schroeder on a Sunday.” Ali also recalled a trip Hariri took as part of a government delegation to Russia “on his birthday, and President [Vladimir] Putin received him with a cake. Remember that he wasn’t the prime minister of a big country, but from a tiny Mediterranean state.”

Alcoverro, who interviewed Hariri twice, said he was “a man of the world who had access to all kinds of leaders due to his position and wealth, and Lebanese noted that.”

Syria

Where Hariri struggled most was in regional diplomacy. Neighboring Syria was allowed to maintain a military presence in Lebanon after the war, in what was known as Pax Syriana. Damascus was always part of any major decision-making in Lebanon, and controlled the security apparatus.

While with Hafez al-Assad, president of Syria until 2000, Hariri had a cordial relation, he clashed with Assad’s son and successor Bashar. “The relation with Syria was always cautious, but it totally deteriorated with Bashar from day one,” said Marwan.

Among the Lebanese, from political leaders to ordinary people, there has always been a bitter feeling of submission to external actors. “Allegedly the war concluded in 1990,” said Marwan, “but the battle for Lebanon is ongoing, and its end doesn’t depend on us.”

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:45 - GMT 06:45
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