In the Middle East, politicians often double as businessmen and make lots of money after they have secured a seat in the government. In the case of Rafiq Hariri, however, things worked the other way round. He was a businessman, and had made lots of money, before he rose to the top of Lebanese politics by becoming Prime Minister in 1993.
By the time he died in an explosion that struck his motorcade in Beirut, on 14 February 2005, Hariri was not only one of Lebanon’s richest men but also one of the region’s politicians with the most extensive international connections. The enquiry into his murder has already become a major issue of regional and international politics, affecting, most specifically, both Syria and Lebanon. It is also clear, as Marwan Iskandar shows in this compelling book, that Hariri’s death accelerated the ending of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon and may well have changed key aspects of Lebanese politics for years if not decades.
The way Iskandar’s book reads one gets the impression that he started it as a study of the economic policies of the successive Hariri governments before the former prime minister was murdered. While Iskandar is clearly sympathetic to Hariri, his book is not an apologia let alone a panegyric. One of Lebanon’s most distinguished economists and journalists, Iskandar is offers a sober assessment of Hariri’s successes and failures both as prime minister and opposition leader.
Iskandar begins by offering a fast-paced portrayal of Lebanese politics in the past five decades. One figure that clearly wins his sympathy is the late Emile Boustani, a businessman aspired after the presidency of Lebanon before his sudden death in mysterious circumstances. Iskandar says that Boustani had developed Communist sympathies while attending school in the United States but later became an ardent advocate of pan-Arab nationalism. And, yet, Iskandar adds that the Soviet secret services, the KGB, would have been glad at news of Boustani’s death.
Did Hariri take Boustani as his model? Iskandar hits at the possibility but does not provide a clear answer. All he does is to insist that Hariri was as much of a pan-Arab nationalist as Boustani had been. This is not surprising. Hariri’s own life was shaped by influences far beyond Lebanon. Born into a family of poor Lebanese farmers, Hariri received an Egyptian education, married an Iraqi lady, and went to live and work in Saudi Arabia.
The decision to go to Saudi Arabia proved to have been a turning point for Hariri. There, he began by shining as a professional accountant before launching business ventures of his own. In the process he attracted the attention of several senior Saudi princes and, in time, rose to become unofficial advisor on Lebanese matters to Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal and Saudi Ambassador to the then United States Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Those connections helped Hariri secure a role in shaping the Taef Accords that led to the end of the Lebanese civil war.(Iskandar even says that the accord itself was actually written by Hariri.)
The Taef Accord, the implementation of which was guaranteed by Saudi Arabia as well as Syria, made Hariri the natural choice for prime minister in the post-Civil War period. But Hariri had also cultivated other relationships both in Lebanon and in Europe. Iskandar says that Hariri had two principal political mentors in the 1980s. One was Johnny Ado, a controversial but charismatic figure; the other was Suheil Shammas, one of Lebanon’s most experienced diplomats. A third mentor, according to Iskandar, was France’s president Jacques Chirac , who was at the time Mayor of Paris. More importantly, Hariri won the precious friendship of Syria’s leader Hafiz al-Assad and cultivated a personal friendship with his number-two Abdul-Halim Khaddam.
With President Hafez al-Assad’s death, Hariri had to start building his Syrian connections all over again.
Soon this proved difficult. Bashar al-Assad, who had succeeded his father as President of Syria, had developed an antipathy towards Hariri from the start. Iskandar suggests that this might have been due to Bashar’s resentment of a self-made man as well as an age difference.
At any rate, as Iskandar shows convincingly, Hariri could not have had the kind of political future he wanted in Lebanon as long as Bashar al-Assad was President of Syria with while the Syrian army controlled much of Lebanese territory.
Hariri must have known that. This is why, as Iskandar hints without elaborating, the late prime minister began working behind the scenes to build international pressure on Syria to withdraw from Lebanon. It is not clear what precise role Hariri might have played in securing the United Nations’ Security Council resolution 1559 that calls for an end to Syrian occupation and the disarming of armed militias in Lebanon.
But , as Iskandar suggests, Damascus put the blame on Hariri.
Nevertheless, Hariri took extra care not to antagonise President Bashar al-Assad. Hariri had consulted Syria not only on the composition of every one of his Cabinets but also about what names to put on his electoral list. And, each time, he accepted the name that Syria insisted upon- although in some cases, as Iskandar suggests, he hated the individuals in question. Most importantly, Hariri agreed to a possibly illegal extension of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud’s term- something that Bashar al-Assad had urged without a fight.
Although the international investigation into Hariri’s murder is yet to be completed, Iskandar assumes that Syria must have a hand. He provides several reasons why at least some in the Syrian leadership would have wanted Hariri out of the way forever.
In some fascinating passages, the book lifts part of the curtain on the reign of corruption and terror than Syrian military presence generated in Lebanon. We meet a gold digger who becomes head of one of Lebanon’s biggest banks and uses its assets to enrich Syrian intelligence officers. We also encounter wheeler-dealers who , staring with nothing, end up as multimillionaires because of shady deals that turned Lebanon into the world’s most indebted nation per capita in just two decades. Iskandar estimated that Syria profited from its domination of Lebanon to the tune of $25 billion over less than three decades. And that does not take into account the remittances of over 300,000 Syrians who worked in Lebanon, often while the Lebanese themselves had to emigrate to find jobs abroad.
Iskandar’s book opens with a moving introduction by Robert Fisk, the celebrated British reporter and author who has lived in Lebanon for 30 years and who personally knew Hariri.
Although a must red, Iskandar’s books suffers from the recent general decline in British copy-editing and fact-checking standards. Or example, he writes of Nasser’s efforts to make a deal with ” Prince Faisal of Saudi Arabia on Yemen in 1967. As we know, Faisal was at that time King of Saudi Arabia. Iskandar says the late Shah of Iran objected to oil nationalisation. He did not. In fact he ratified the nationalisation bill into law in 1951, not 1952, and appointed Muhammad Mussadeq, the parliamentarian who ad led the debate on the subject, as prime minister. There never was an Anglo-American oil company in Iran as Iskandar suggests. Nor did the Soviets have any troops in Iran in 1953 to cause President Eisenhower to issue an ultimatum to Moscow. Nasser did not nationalise farmlands in Egypt but divided them among peasants under a land reform project. The coup in Yemen was not the result of a Soviet plot but an indigenous event inspired by Egypt. Khomeini never decreed that Iranian oil production be fixed at 2 million barrels a day. It is unlikely that the meeting between Presidents Bill Clinton and Hafez al-Assad in Geneva in 2000 was the work of Hariri, Assad had met all US presidents since Richard Nixon and did not need anyone’s intervention to arrange a summit with Clinton. Malaysia does not have a president because it is not a republic. Thus, Hariri could not have been a friend of the Malaysian President. King Muhammad V of Morocco could not have endorsed the Taef Accords in 1989 because he had died in 1961.
It is also intriguing that Iskandar presents Algeria’s President Abdul-Aziz Bouteflika and the former Syrian Vice-President, now dissident leader, Khaddam as pioneers in a new liberal and democratic movement in the Arab world.
Even worse, Iskandar is, at times, more enigmatic than he needs to be. For example, he writes that President Bechir Gemayel was killed by “a member of the pan-Syrian Nationalist Party”, as if this had been an operation initiated and carried out by a single individual.
Later, he writes that President Rene Muawwad was killed “in a bomb blast”, as if this had been some kind of an accident.
Overall, however, Iskandar’s book is perhaps the best account of Hariri’s political lfie currently available in English.