Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri arrived in Paris on Saturday. Many saw it as exile, but the PM – who announced his resignation from Saudi Arabia – denied being taken hostage in the kingdom. The conflict highlights a complex situation in the Middle East and Lebanon, inflicted by international and regional interferences.
Al-Hariri, who claimed to fear for his life, is the son of former PM Rafik Al-Hariri, who was assassinated. The family has been an ally of the Saudi Kingdom, but nowadays faces a complicated situation, being at the heart of different regional powers’ fight for their interests.
Who was Rafik Al-Hariri?
Rafik Al-Hariri was a prominent Lebanese figure in the 1980s and 90s until his assassination in 2005. As a politician and business tycoon, he played an important role in shaping the modern Lebanese state’s infrastructure and internal politics. Al-Hariri is well-known for his vision of prosperity for his country and efforts in post-war construction.
Al-Hariri was born in 1944 in Sidon, southern Lebanon, to a Sunni Muslim family. He accompanied his father in travelling across the country. He also spent time in Cairo studying, where he was influenced by the rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Arab nationalism. According to CNN, Hariri attended Beirut Arab University and worked with the Arab Nationalist Movement.
His journey in Saudi Arabia began in 1965, when he worked several jobs there until settling in the construction field. A couple of years later, Al-Hariri bought the initially French firm which later became known as Saudi Oger.
As he was able to execute a major project in little time, paving his business with ties to the royal family, becoming particularly close to Prince Fahd bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud. Al-Hariri eventually became King Fahd’s personal emissary to Lebanon, CNN reported.
In 1978, Al-Hariri was given the Saudi nationality. He soon expanded his business empire in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, establishing projects in Lebanon, trying to serve his country through his firm. Among those, was the Hariri Foundation, established 1979, which aimed at providing student scholarships inside and outside Lebanon.
The Taif agreement
As an ally of the Saudis, Al-Hariri played a major role in bringing about the Taif Agreement, aimed at ending the civil war in Lebanon. The agreement was negotiated in Saudi Arabia’s Taif and adopted in 1989.
According to a copy available on the Lebanese presidency website, four chapters defined the agreement. First, the principles of internal political reform, which focused on uniting different sects and abolishing political confessionalism.
Second, Lebanese sovereignty over its territories, which stipulated the election of a president, the formation of a government of national unity, and the control of Lebanese forces over territory within two years, with the assistance of Syrian forces.
The third chapter stipulated full elimination of Israeli occupation from the south of Lebanon. The document’s last words were dedicated to preserving the interests of Syria and Lebanon, thus still approving of Syrian guardianship over the country.
The Hariri-led reconstruction of Lebanon
A documentary chronicling the life of Al-Hariri, written by Georges Ghanem and directed by Pierre Sarra, released in 2015 gave Al-Hariri credit for restoring transportation and public facilities, infrastructure, and technological development, stating that Lebanon was the first country in the Middle East to use cellphones.
An article featured on Forbes’ website, dated 25 October 2000, read, “in 1993, Hariri’s controversial ‘spend now, pay later’ plan to rebuild a civil war-torn Beirut was considered one of the largest, most ambitious development projects of the time. The project was expected to cost an estimated $10bn. Critics were concerned about the price tag, but Al-Hariri argued that in peacetime, Beirut could once again return to its former status as the commercial hub of a booming Middle East economy.”
Forbes said that the project went forward despite unconvinced Lebanese high-ranking officials, leaving Lebanon with $21bn in debt. “In 1996, the Beirut stock exchange was reopened, old buildings were torn down, and new high-rises appeared,” said the American business magazine, which listed Al-Hariri among its list of richest men.
But it was two years later that Al-Hariri would resign, amid mounting criticism, partly concerning public debt.
Al-Hariri served as Prime Minister from 1992 to 1998 and again from 2000 to 2004. According to CNN, Hariri was first elected to parliament in 1992 and was appointed prime minister in December of that year. He formed two other governments from that point until December 1998, and two more between October 2000 and his October 2004 resignation.
Meanwhile, BBC wrote how Al-Hariri was well-regarded among international leaders and that he was a close friend of then-French President Jacques Chirac. “When he returned from Saudi Arabia in 1992 as prime minister, he was seen as a breath of fresh air in a country dominated by former militia leaders,” BBC said. Al-Hariri also had good relations with the US.
But his political career had started nearly a decade before 1992. According to Al-Arabiya, “it was during this decade that he shaped his political future.” Al-Hariri participated in 1983 as a mediator in national reconciliation dialogues held in Geneva and Lausanne.
As his political engagement in Lebanon increased, Ghanem’s documentary indicated that Al-Hariri’s control of affairs wasn’t as tight as his influence, as Syria would not give him emergency powers. As such, Al-Hariri soon realised that as the saviour of a fragile country, the system managed by Syria would prevent him from being a key participant in power.
A power struggle erupted between Al-Hariri and Syria-backed Lebanese President Emile Lahoud.
Al-Hariri resigned from the cabinet in 1998.
In the 2000s, Al-Hariri re-emerged as a political player amid the death of Hafez Al-Assad and the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon, while the focus was shifted towards the end of Syrian control in his country, which he wanted to gradually achieve. At the same time, Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah was gaining the support of Al-Assad’s rising son, Bashar.
On 14 February 2005, an explosion targeted the convoy of Al-Hariri outside the landmark hotel of St. Georges, killing and injuring dozens, including his bodyguards and civilians.
The UN Security Council voted in 2007 to set up the Special Tribunal for Lebanon to try those behind the assassination. According to the BBC, in 2011, “the tribunal indicted four suspects connected with the powerful Lebanese Shia political and militant movement Hezbollah.”
In an article published on the 10th commemoration of Al-Hariri’s assassination, the New York Times said the case was, “one of the most expensive, significant and controversial criminal investigations ever conducted.” The report accounted for an early claim of the assassination by a Sunni Muslim, for whom Al-Jazeera had published a confession statement right after the event, but that investigators found implausible.
In May 2015, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt’s account, reported by Middle East expert Robert Fisk, alleged that Bashar Al-Assad had threatened Al-Hariri to “break and destroy” Lebanon if his ally Lahoud’s term was not extended.
The BBC said that Al-Hariri had, “again fell out with his pro-Syrian government colleagues during the crisis over the extension of Lahoud’s term in office. He never overtly came out against Syria in the dispute, but his resignation in October 2004 was taken as a clear protest against the Syrian pressure to keep Lahoud in office,” suggesting this could have cost him his life.
There have been other reports linking the assassination to high-ranking Syrian officials.
Saad El-Hariri, continued ties with Saudi Arabia
Saad Al-Hariri followed into the footsteps of his father. Born in Saudi Arabia in 1970, the young Al-Hariri inherited the chairing of Saudi Oger in the 1990s, which declared bankruptcy in 2017. Head of Tayyar Al-Mustakbal Party and the “political heir of his father”, as many put it, he has been the Lebanese Prime Minister since December 2016, also serving in the post from November 2009 to June 2011.
Recent reports alleging plots to assassinate the younger Al-Hariri have increasingly emerged.
An alleged attempt had supposedly taken place a few days before he announced his resignation from Riyadh, to be faced with claims from Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Hezbollah that he was detained in the kingdom. In response, Al-Hariri strongly condemned Iranian interference in Arabs affairs.
It was with Saad Al-Hariri that the rift widened between him, backed by the Saudis, French and other international players on one hand, and Syria, supported by Iran on the other.
After his father’s assassination, he was one of the founders of the 14 March Alliance, a coalition of political parties which opposed Syrian presence in Lebanon, which initially included prominent figures such as Samir Geagea and Walid Jumblatt.
Al-Hariri was also involved into anti-Syrian protests, known as the Cedar revolution, which resulted in the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in April 2005.
Yet, Hezbollah’s dominance continued inside Lebanon. The recent resignation of Al-Hariri comes in a context of growing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, also reflected in the Qatari crisis.
On Thursday, Fisk’s article in The Independent read, “the world – which then meant the United States – accused the Iranian-funded Hezbollah of murdering Hariri, and so when Saad became prime minister, he too feared the Hezbollah, though many (including myself) had doubts about just who his father’s murderers really were.”
Fisk continued, “and with Hezbollah’s ministers in the government – freely and fairly elected, we should add – Saad Hariri found himself in a different kind of danger when he immediately returned as prime minister last year. As a Sunni citizen as well as a Lebanese citizen, the Saudis expected him to tame the Shia Hezbollah. But he had to rule a united Lebanon, not lead it into another civil war.”
“So when 32-year old Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia tried to destroy the power of Shia Islam, Lebanon (and Hariri) were bound to be targets of this dangerous young man’s fury. The prince had tried to destroy Bashar al-Assad’s Shia regime. He failed. He launched a war against the Shias of Yemen. It turned into a disaster. He tried to economically strangle Qatar – because of its close relations with Iran – and liquidate the Al-Jazeera channel, and he failed. So now he turned his massive irritation against Lebanon,” he further wrote.
The name of Saad’s older brother, less involved in politics, was recently mentioned as the possible Saudi-backed candidate to replace him. Bahaa broke his silence on the resignation in a statement to the Associated Press on Thursday, in which he fully supported Saudi Arabia and argued in favour of the Lebanese Prime Minister’s stepping down.
Thus, he accused Iran and Hezbollah of “seeking to control Lebanon”. “Only a pernicious outside actor, such as Iran and its surrogate, Hezbollah, can upset the balance as this group now seeks to take control of Lebanon,” the AP reported him saying.