Rafiq Hariri’s path to power during Lebanon’s civil war
In just a decade, he became a millionaire and surprisingly a close advisor to the Saudi king
The archives of the international press that followed closely developments in Lebanon during the country’s Civil War barely mention Rafiq Hariri before he became Prime Minister in 1992. The New York Times published just three articles referring to him during the violent decade since the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982, when Hariri was weeks before coming back as a “Saudi mediator of Lebanese origin.” But it was during this decade that he shaped his political future.
Rafiq Hariri was already a very wealthy man when he landed in Beirut in the fall of 1982. By that time, he had been living in Saudi Arabia for many years. He went there as one of the 300,000 Lebanese seeking their way into the oil-rich country. In just a decade, he became a millionaire and surprisingly a close advisor to the Saudi king. His company Ogier became the main construction firm used by the Saudi Royal family for all of their important developments.
Inexperienced in politics, Hariri started to be known in Lebanon for his philanthropic work. In 1979, he launched the first association in his native Sidon, a coastal city a few kilometres south of Beirut, to help young kids continue their studies.
“In the first years, he became well known because he was very active on the social, humanitarian and educational levels,” says Sami Nadr, who directs the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs and focuses on economics and geopolitics of the Levant.
Those who knew Hariri explained that the first thing he did when he came to Lebanon in 1982 was to finance the cleaning of central Beirut. He brought the necessary machinery to remove the rubble that had piled up after years of war, reconstruct roads and also enhance hospitals with new equipment.
“He came to Lebanon and financed from his own pocket the cleaning of the streets as well as projects and reconstruction,” explains Marwan Iskandar, who was a friend and collaborator of Rafiq Hariri since the 1980s.
The war didn't allow him to develop the plans he had to rebuild Beirut. A decade later, in 1994, he was the driving force behind the establishment of Solidere, a corporation charged with the reconstruction of Downtown Beirut. The company has been criticized by some in Lebanon for supplanting the destroyed and once lively center of the capital with a Gulf-style urban planning with shops and expensive real state.
From a wealthy man to trouble-shooter
His philanthropic work his close relations with the Saudi king opened many doors for Hariri in Lebanese politics.
“His political ambition was legitimate because he was already rich and was entrusted by the Saudis,” says Sami Nadr.
Months after his arrival in Beirut, the new crown king of Saudi Arabia chose him as an envoy to seek a cease-fire in Lebanon and to conduct all the negotiations as a representative of the kingdom.
“He didn't have the political experience, but he was the envoy of Saudi Arabia and was seen as a representative of a powerful country in the region,” explains Nicholas Blanford, author of Killing Mr. Lebanon, a book that focuses on the political situation surrounding the assassination of Rafiq Hariri the morning of Saint Valentine's day in 2005.
“You need to put yourself in the mood of the 80s: it was a time when Saudi Arabia was rising and becoming a powerful country in the region,” Nadr says, “and Hariri profited from a very good and powerful network thanks to it.”
Another important and essential asset he enjoyed during the war as a negotiator was his position as outsider.
“He wasn't seen as a threat by political leaders in Lebanon,” relates Iskandar.
“It was easy for him to talk to everybody without letting them feel he was part of the internal problems.” This helped him to act as a leverage between the different sides. “Furthermore, he also was a likeable man” in a time of conflict when it was difficult to be trusted.
“He could be charming when he wanted to be so,” says Blanford, who interviewed the late leader once, but was getting “very short answers to very sharp questions” when Hariri was questioned on the tense political ambience in Lebanon.
A self-made man who was raised in a poor farmer family in Sidon, Hariri believed that having a personal relationship with people, from political leaders to ordinary people, “was the key to success.”
“When we met, he used to ask me the questions, as if I was the politician,” says one Lebanese journalist who met the Lebanese leader on many occasions.
“He was always very challenging.”
This position allowed him to be part of the organization that engineered two conferences in Switzerland within six months between the fall of 1983 and the following spring. These conferences in Geneva and Lausanne gathered local and international actors in the Lebanese conflict with the goal of securing a cease fire amid a raging conflict in parts of the country.
While continuing his efforts in Lebanon to broker a cease-fire, Hariri focused on diversifying his business and raising more money for the Hariri Foundation, founded in 1983. He invested in banking and real state in the UK and France and increased spectacularly his personal assets. By the time of his death, he had left behind him houses in at least a dozen places all around the world, four planes and two yachts.
One of his big successes was being part of the team that brokered the Taef agreement in the Saudi city of the same name in 1989. The deal is recognized as “the beginning of the end of the war.”
“Hariri and the others wrote the agreement and helped to reach a deal” says Iskandar.
According to various accounts, Hariri also helped to reunite the lawmakers of the last Lebanese parliament who had been dispersed in different parts of the world during the war.
In the same city where Rafiq Hariri won the favour of the Saudi royal family, he paved the way for his leadership in Lebanon for the years to come. Three years later, he was elected prime minister of Lebanon and would never abandon the political forefront.
“His killing was without a doubt the event in which Hariri was involved that shaped Lebanon the most,” said Blanford.