How Will History Remember Rafiq Hariri?

Interview by Steven Gertz

On February 12, 2013, CCAS Visiting Assistant Professor Hannes Baumann presented at Georgetown research from his doctoral dissertation on Lebanon’s former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri. CCAS interviewed Dr. Baumann to find out more about his research and the legacy Hariri has left behind in Lebanon.

What interested you in studying Rafiq Hariri for your dissertation?

I was studying Arabic in Damascus when Rafiq Hariri was assassinated in Beirut on February 14, 2005. One month later, on March 14, I went to Beirut to observe a big demonstration demanding the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon. This demonstration gave the name to the “March 14” coalition led by Rafiq Hariri’s son Saad, which was confronting the Hizbullah-led coalition of Syrian allies gathered in “March 8.” At the same time, an international investigation into the assassination of Hariri got underway.

While the investigation and the media focused on Hariri’s death, I became more intrigued with Hariri’s life. The reason is that Hariri’s biography allows us to examine various aspects of Lebanon’s politics. Hariri was a businessman, and as such deeply influenced the political economy of Lebanon. He was also an ally of Saudi Arabia, which raises the question as to how other countries in the region affected Lebanon. And while Hariri initially tried to stand above sectarian politics, electoral considerations meant that, over time, he had to style himself as a specifically Sunni leader, which allowed me to study the reproduction of Lebanon’s sectarian culture. I therefore put Hariri’s rise and rule into the context of wider structural changes in Lebanese politics and learned a lot about the country’s political economy, international relations, and political culture.

Let’s begin with your first point. What kind of legacy did Hariri leave in economic terms?

Hariri’s economic legacy is a mixed one. First and foremost, we may credit him with rebuilding some of Lebanon’s infrastructure after its devastating civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990. Even before he became prime minister of Lebanon in 1992, Hariri participated in brokering the peace accord in Taif, Saudi Arabia, that ended the war. Hariri focused his reconstruction efforts on central Beirut, building Gulf-style infrastructure consisting of roads and luxury real-estate housing offices, shops, hotels, and restaurants in the hope of attracting investors from abroad. As a billionaire contractor who had made his fortune in Saudi Arabia, Hariri was able to realize this ambitious project.

But Hariri also put in place policies that would lead to economic failure. Firstly, the reconstruction of central Beirut benefited primarily a small stratum of wealthy Lebanese and Gulf investors. Beirut’s urban poor and Lebanon’s peripheral regions saw little benefit. Secondly, Hariri together with his finance minister Fu’ad Siniura and the central bank governor Riyadh Salame raised the value of the Lebanese currency and eventually pegged it to the US dollar. While this avoided the crippling currency crises of the 1980s, it also resulted in skyrocketing government debt. The mechanism was complicated, but in essence, Hariri, Siniura, and Salame used high interest rates on government debt to push up the value of the currency. Again, a small group of Lebanese and Gulf investors were the main beneficiaries. This excessive borrowing drove up the government’s debt to 165 percent of GDP in 2004, the year before Hariri’s death, making Lebanon one of the most indebted nations in the world.

In 2001 and 2002, Lebanon came close to financial crisis, as investors became concerned that the government would default on its loan payments. The high cost of debt servicing left fewer resources for public services such as education or healthcare, which in turn tended to be mismanaged by former Lebanese militia leaders who used these “service ministries” as patronage resources. Because banks found it so easy to lend to the government, they had little incentive to lend to private households and businesses that were then “crowded out” of the market. This has contributed to slow economic growth, unemployment, poverty, etc.

Talk a bit about Hariri’s influence on Lebanon’s relations with other players in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia and Syria.

Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Lebanon began before Hariri ever came to power. Previously, Egypt and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had been the main foreign allies of Sunni politicians in Lebanon. Egypt’s defeat by Israel in 1967, however, and the expulsion of the PLO from Lebanon in 1982, created an opening in Lebanon for Saudi Arabia. Hariri’s election as prime minister further increased Saudi Arabia’s influence there, since Hariri had amassed his personal fortune as part of Saudi Arabia’s “contractor bourgeoisie.” As an oil-rich and rentier state, Saudi Arabia often relies on businessmen like Hariri to influence politics outside their borders.

Saudi Arabia’s influence in Lebanon, however, has always been checked by other powers, notably that of Syria (and more recently Iran as well). Syria’s primary interest in Lebanon is that it does not want it to make either peace or war with Israel independently of Syria. In 1984, when Hariri was only beginning to engage in civil war diplomacy, Syria blocked a US-brokered agreement that would have mandated both Syria and Israel withdraw from Lebanon. From that moment on, Hariri was forced to pragmatically accept the Syrian role in Lebanon. In turn, the Syrians permitted Hariri’s rise to power and his reconstruction project in the 1990s. But with the breakdown of the Syrian-Israeli peace process in 2000, the second Palestinian intifada, the September 11, 2001 attacks, and the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Syria came into increasing conflict with the US and its ally Saudi Arabia, which in turn led to deteriorating relations with Hariri. This was the context of Hariri’s assassination.

In your presentation at CCAS, you mentioned that Hariri began as a non-sectarian politician but then changed tactics to play to his Sunni base in Lebanon. Can you speak more about this?

As a successful businessman, Hariri ensured support through broad patronage and clientelism, and he was not naturally inclined to sectarianism. Hariri only started fostering a “Sunni base” in the late 1990s when he came under greater pressure from Syria and its Lebanese allies. I should also add that this was not the only means of securing his power. For instance, the technocrats that Hariri recruited to develop and implement his neoliberal policies were drawn from various sects. Hariri had to speak many different political languages to different constituencies. He interacted differently with Washington and the UN than he did with the Lebanese nation as a whole or the Sunni community in particular. Lebanon’s political culture is deeply sectarian, so Hariri had to adopt the language of a specifically Sunni politics as part of his election strategy.

Given the complex—and complicated—legacy Hariri has left Lebanon, how do we see his imprint on Lebanese politics today?

Hariri is still ubiquitous in Lebanese politics. The international tribunal has issued indictments against four suspects linked to Hizbullah. The judicial process, which is a hybrid of Lebanese and international procedures, is therefore highly politicized. Rafiq Hariri’s image is a constant presence in the Hariri-owned media, street posters, and his burial site in the Beirut city center. Rafiq Hariri’s son and political successor Saad relied on a “Hariri myth” to bolster his own legitimacy. When I call it a myth, I am not talking about a factually incorrect invention but a selective memory of his father, stressing his opposition to Syria, his philanthropy, his brokering of a modus vivendi between Hizbullah and Israel in 1996, etc. Also, internal power struggles notwithstanding, the Hariri network is still alive and well. It consists of technocrats, Lebanese politicians, and patronage networks built up by Rafiq Hariri and extended by Saad.

Needless to say, Hariri’s Lebanese opponents have engaged in their own mythmaking, vilifying Rafiq Hariri as a rapacious capitalist and a tool of Saudi designs. As far as I’m aware, my work will be the first book-length academic study of Rafiq Hariri that places the political career of the businessman-politician into its wider structural context rather than judging whether he was “good” or “bad.”

Let me finish by saying that Hariri’s economic policies are still shaping Lebanon’s political economy today. Government debt has been reduced to 135 percent of GDP in 2012 but this is still high. Lebanese banks and depositors are still earning handsome profits. Meanwhile, several studies of poverty and deprivation in Lebanon have found only modest improvements in living standards.