They want to keep the country sick. No one has an interest in killing a sick person . . . and they reject curing him.”
Ghassan Charbel Al-Hayat – 13-17/2/06
Does a journalist have the right to publish interviews with
someone who had stipulated that they not be published before receiving approval, “because timing in politics is important”? I asked myself this question a few hours after I heard that Prime Minister Rafik Hariri had been assassinated. The shock was a big one and the climate was emotional; I was afraid of enflaming people’s feelings, since some content might not have been desired by the subject of the interview. I dropped the project. A few days before the first year commemoration of the earthquake of 14 February 2005, I found myself facing the same question. However, I decided this time to publish most of what took place in those interviews in the hope that it will be a salute to the late prime minister and help readers who are searching for details about the path of an exceptional person.
Readers have the right to know the story of these discussion sessions, which were the result of meetings held in Sardinia, Paris, and Beirut over many years. In 1994, I telephoned Prime Minister Hariri, asking him to participate in a series of “X remembers,” which was being published by al-Wasat magazine. He hesitated for a while, then agreed. I went to Monte Carlo on 26 December and spent two days with him. This produced three installments, which were published in al-Wasat beginning on 27 February 1995. That day, he told me that “I consider the interview just a beginning, since my political position and responsibilities prevent me from going into many details.” He added, “I promise that we’ll have another session of discussion later.”
In the summer of 1999, I resumed contact. Hariri was out of government. He agreed and I went to Sardinia with a small tape recorder for several sessions on his yacht, where he resided. At the end of the second day, he spoke frankly to me: “It’s still too early to talk about what’s more important. What do you think about not publishing this now, and we’ll spend two days in Faqra later. I’ll stop my calls and free myself to gather memories and you’ll discover that I was present in one way or another in every phase after 1982.”
“While awaiting this appointment, you can ask me what you want, whenever we meet in Lebanon or elsewhere, and you can record my answers, even if we’re talking by phone. My only condition is that you not publish anything before I approve. I don’t want to hurt the media with politics; can you promise me?”
I promised and began to steal a part of the interview every time we met. Unfortunately, the meetings were few and far between. Hariri returned to office in 2000. The strange thing was that Hariri would remind me of his promise of a private session at his mountain residence in Faqra, but when I saw him for the last time in Qoraytem, two weeks before his assassination, the atmosphere didn’t permit taking advantage of such an opportunity. I felt a good deal of tension in his voice as if weighing the likely repercussions of a victory by the opposition in the coming elections.
It’s not strange that the personality of Rafik Hariri would intrigue any journalist following Lebanon’s present and asking about its future. When, in the “X remembers” series, I tried to gather stories of the war and attempts to exit it, especially in the 1980s, the name Hariri kept coming up, even though in those days he sought to keep his role away from the spotlight and hide his true political clout, to avoid provoking hostility. Rafik Hariri left his fingerprints on every phase, from the abolition of the 17 May Lebanese-Israeli agreement to the “Tripartite Agreements” among the big militias, and up to the Geneva and Lausanne conferences, and the period of the two (warring) governments, followed by the Taif Accord.
The question that occupied me in the 1990s was how Rafik Hariri succeeded in becoming a “top figure” in a period that one assumes didn’t allow for such people in Lebanon. I asked Hariri this once, and he asked me for the answer.
“Your financial ‘strike force’ equals the strength of a militia, one which is bigger than the militias that exist,” I said.
“God forbid such a comparison,” he answered. “I don’t deny that money, if used well, can give you an opportunity, but let me tell you – with your money you can buy a big palace you can’t use money to buy the affection of a worker in the palace’s garden. There’s trust, and follow-up, the ability to give people hope.”
He added: “They don’t waste any means in destroying my image, they’ve tried them all. They told the Shiites that I’d come to reduce their political weight. I didn’t answer. You know Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and Speaker Nabih Berri, why don’t you ask them? They told the Christians that I’d come to Islamize the country. Why don’t you ask the Maronite Patriarch (Nasrallah Butros Sfeir) for his opinion? Can you believe that I feel sad when I read about the rise in emigration levels, especially among Christians? More than this – the absence of Maronites in Lebanon robs it of its distinguishing features, and perhaps of the justifications for its existence. I mean what I’m saying. This doesn’t do away with my feelings toward some Maronite politicians who don’t know the importance of the role of their sect and its importance in Lebanon’s role in the region and the world. I have no problem with keeping the presidency for a Maronite, if that reassures them. I have no problem with delaying the abolition of political sectarianism for decades, because I’ve realized through experience that none of the sects is ready to discuss without sectarian considerations.”
Hariri dreamed that after rebuilding Beirut, he would rebuild the Lebanese formula, based on the Taif Accord. Most likely he was waiting for another president in Baabda, to continue the process of rebuilding. He didn’t expect that he would be on an assassination list, because “this is a big decision, one that is dangerous and costly.”
Al-Hayat: How are you, Prime Minister?
PM Hariri: Excellent.
Al-Hayat: Can you explain?
PM Hariri: (Laughing) Why are you surprised that I’m excellent? Can’t a person be comfortable?
Al-Hayat: No, but I believe that being out of office not enjoyable for a politician with the weight of Rafik Hariri.
PM Hariri: Not enjoyable for Rafik Hariri or the country?
Al-Hayat: I have questions, not answers.
PM Hariri: If you look at me, don’t you feel that I’m comfortable?
Al-Hayat: I think that you’re confident.
PM Hariri: The problem of my rivals is that they’re afraid of the people and resorting to them. I accept what the ballot boxes say.
Al-Hayat: What will they say?
PM Hariri: I think people will vote in the country’s interest.
Al-Hayat: You seem sure about the results of the Beirut election battle.
PM Hariri: Why are you limiting it to Beirut? There are elections throughout the country, and I’m involved in all regions.
Al-Hayat: Do you mean you will (contest races) in all parts of Lebanon?
PM Hariri: Not in this way. Certain regions have special characteristics, which I respect. However, we have friends, or allies. There are people with which we have things in common.
Al-Hayat: Can I say that you will be the leader of the opposition in the elections?
PM Hariri: (Laughs) You know that the “opposition” is made up of several different “oppositions.” They won’t accept me among the loyalists.
Al-Hayat: Who’s they?
PM Hariri: You know them.
Al-Hayat: Will you try to repeat the experience of 2000, i.e. imposing yourself once again as prime minister?
PM Hariri: As long as this is not being published, except at the suitable moment, I’ll speak frankly. I won’t be prime minister during the mandate of (President Emile) Lahoud.
Al-Hayat: Is this certain, and regardless of the election results?
PM Hariri: This is final, and there’s no going back. I’ll say it more clearly: not in Lahoud’s mandate or anyone whose presidency resembles his.
Al-Hayat: Like who, for example?
PM Hariri: Anyone who arrives (in office) in the same way, with the same goal, and the same considerations.
Al-Hayat: This means that you won’t be prime minister.
PM Hariri: I don’t know if your conclusion is accurate, and for how long a period of time.
Al-Hayat: Should I understand that shortening Lahoud’s mandate is possible if the opposition takes a majority of seats in Parliament?
PM Hariri: I don’t know. President Lahoud’s domestic problem is just part of his problem.
Al-Hayat: Are you referring to UN Security Council Resolution 1559?
PM Hariri: That resolution and other things. If you stay the same in a changing world, you’re making a mistake.
The Resolution and the Fingerprints
Al-Hayat: They talk about your fingerprints being on Resolution 1559.
PM Hariri: There are people who want me to make me responsible for the results of mistakes that they’ve made. I ask you, can a politician in the world, from a small country, get the Security Council and great powers involved in his country, especially regarding a resolution of this kind? Even the great powers cannot pass a resolution like this if without a series of conditions, facts, mistakes, and meetings of interests.
Al-Hayat: It’s said that President Jacques Chirac played a big role.
PM Hariri: President Chirac and I have an old, deep friendship, and I’ve always benefited from this in order to bring political or material support for Lebanon; I’ve also used this friendship to assist Syria, and Syrian officials know this. I benefited from the relationship with President Chirac to support the Taif Accrod, and the idea of reconstruction, and the right of the resistance in south Lebanon. I’ve done more than this. I’ve sought to see a French position that understands Lebanon’s special conditions, including the presence of Syrian forces on its territory. I took part in improving the relationship between Paris and Damascus. However, everything I’ve done in this regard has been lost, due to mistakes. The story of how France and the US have come to meet, or agree, about the situation in Lebanon, after their dispute over Iraq, is a long one, and involves several issues.
Al-Hayat: What did you request in return for agreeing to (Lahoud’s) extension in office?
PM Hariri: Nothing, just to (step down as prime minister).
Al-Hayat: And why did you bid farewell to Lebanese with that tragic-sounding statement the day you left office?
PM Hariri: For the reason that I disclosed to you, meaning my decision that I would not be prime minister during the presidency of Lahoud or anyone like him. My decision worried me, because they can force me out of office but they can’t move the country one step forward; they can’t even stop the deterioration.
Al-Hayat: This means that you’ve tied the country to yourself.
PM Hariri: No, this means that they don’t have a program. Their only program is domination, and their only policy is hindering everything that Hariri does.
Al-Hayat: Who do you mean by “they”?
PM Hariri: President Lahoud and those who support him.
Al-Hayat: And what if you lose the elections?
PM Hariri: If I lose in free elections, I’ll bow to the will of the people. Let’s put modesty aside for a moment. I can win in the most difficult district in Beirut. I can win in other districts. Maybe your residing abroad prevents you from meeting with people outside Beirut. Do you think that I’m weak in Tripoli, and the north, or the Western Bekaa, or Iqlim al-Kharroub, or elsewhere?
Al-Hayat: Why won’t you return as prime minister?
PM Hariri: I have sacrificed a lot, and compromised a lot. I did this for the sake of the country, not Rafik Hariri. In many circumstances, my interest as a politician would mean leaving office. Being in office, facing this level of obstruction, eats away at a politician’s popularity. Nonetheless, I would continue because I felt that destroying everything that we had built would not be a source of anxiety for them. I acted like a responsible politician, facing his conscience, the voters and the people, and as a believer, responsible before the Lord. This time, it’s a matter of dignity. If the price is my not being prime minister (…) and if the price is a smaller parliamentary bloc (…) from now on, there won’t be any solutions at the expense of my dignity.
Al-Hayat: Let’s go back to Resolution 1559.
PM Hariri: The resolution is related to big developments, which began with the attacks of 11 September, through the war in Iraq, the position on this war, confronting the Americans there, up to the Palestinian issue, and then what is taking place in Lebanon and how influence in Lebanon could be used in other issues. This resolution could have been avoided or delayed at the last minute. Did the decision to extend Lahoud’s mandate deserve such a price?
The Role of “Reports”
Al-Hayat: Did you support the presidency of someone else, from among Damascus’ friends?
PM Hariri: All of the names that were being discussed fell into this category. It would have been impossible to see a president hostile to Syria, or one who was a political enemy or rival of Syria. A president of this kind cannot rule. He can’t even be elected in the first place.
Al-Hayat: So, why did the extension take place?
PM Hariri: I don’t understand it. Reports played a decisive role.
Al-Hayat: Where did these reports come from?
PM Hariri: They were Lebanese, and Syrian reports. Imagine that one of them, as someone told me, claimed that I was preparing for a coup against Syria via the elections, and that I gave President Jacques Chirac the name of MP Nassib Lahoud at the summit at the Black Sea with President (Vladimir) Putin and Chancellor (Gerhard) Schroeder. (Laughs) Nassib Lahoud is a respected individual, there’s no doubt about that. I believe that if he became president he would think about another person as prime minister. It’s a simple issue. Ask Nassib Lahoud himself.
Al-Hayat: Do you believe that the great western powers have take a decision to change the regime in Syria?
PM Hariri: I don’t think that there’s a decision of this kind. Arriving at such a decision depends on the behavior of the Syrian authorities in the coming phase, and the way that they deal with this resolution. As Lebanese, we have no interest in disturbing the stability of Syria, or bringing down the regime there. We have an interest in a stable and prosperous Syria, a Syria that sees a Lebanon that is stable and prosperous as being in the interest of both countries.
Lahoud and the Shadows
Al-Hayat: Why can’t you reach an understanding with President Lahoud?
PM Hariri: Because Lahoud’s program, from the beginning, was directed at the program based on which I became prime minister. The core of this project involved security; it was based on complete conformity, and left no room for Lebanese partnership, even if modest, with Syria in administering Lebanon.
Al-Hayat: Was it because of your fear of these feelings that you worked to extend the presidency of Elias Hrawi in 1995?
PM Hariri: Yes.
Al-Hayat: You supported the extension of a president who suited you and opposed the extension of one who didn’t?
PM Hariri: I opposed extension because it didn’t suit the country. Despite my convictions, I didn’t want a clash with Syria, and I didn’t want to be a reason for igniting a crisis whose limits are unknown.
Al-Hayat: Was it impossible to arrive at a permanent understanding with Lahoud during the marathon meetings that used to take place between you two?
PM Hariri: Actually, these meetings were never just him and me. There was always a shadow, or shadows, present in our sessions.
Al-Hayat: Shadows of whom?
PM Hariri: Jamil Sayyed, Rustom Ghazaleh, or others.
Al-Hayat: It’s said that your last meeting with President Lahoud was extremely pleasant.
PM Hariri: That’s true. He told me that I was a patriot and that each of us was serving the country in his own fashion. He was frank with me. I told him that my leaving the prime minister’s office did not mean I would obstruct things. I said that my relationship with the authorities would be ruled by my relationship with him, and I hoped that there would be no return to the practices that targeted me at the beginning of his term. He became agitated and said that he would personally oppose any targeting or harassment. I also informed him that I would be running in the elections and that I had no problem in Beirut, whatever the shape of the districts.
Al-Hayat: Has the door between you and Damascus been closed permanently?
PM Hariri: I haven’t closed the door. I have no demands. I’m not in an official position, one that would require coordination.
Al-Hayat: Are you headed for testing Syria’s strength via the elections?
PM Hariri: I don’t want such a test, and I’m not searching for it; it would not help the country. I agreed to the extension so that I wouldn’t give such an impression.
Al-Hayat: There are those who have compared your situation at the time to that of Ayatollah Khomeini, when he discussed the drinking from the poison cup after agreeing to a cease-fire with Iraq.
PM Hariri: Have I tasted the poison, or has the country?
Al-Hayat: Why don’t you make it easy for someone else to arrive (in office)?
PM Hariri: I was open to any other name. It was no secret that the decision to extend (Lahoud’s mandate) was not a popular one in Lebanon, but it was taken. I didn’t want to be a reason for a big crisis in the country. I restrained myself, and overcame my personal feelings. I knew that Syria had the last word in this matter, for many reasons, but I expected that the feelings of Lebanese would be respected. I didn’t ask for Hariri to be a partner. I hoped that Lebanon’s right to be a partner in something Lebanese would be respected.
Al-Hayat: What is painful to you about this experience?
PM Hariri: It pains me to see the existence of a team, gathering civilian, security, political and party officials, who live only to obstruct the program to promote the country. They aren’t concerned by a plan to build the state, or reconstruction, or prosperity, or people’s daily bread. Their actual interest lies in seeing the country remain sick, and in the hands of the (security) agencies. What they’ve done in the judiciary and elsewhere is no simple matter.
Al-Hayat: Do you wish that you were born in another country?
PM Hariri: Why?
Al-Hayat: Because the make-up of Lebanon puts limits on political leaders. The Syrian military presence sets down addition limits. In other countries, the leader rules and he carries out his will.
PM Hariri: You want the truth? It pains me that many Lebanese don’t know the importance of Lebanon. Our country is important, provided that we deal with national and political affairs in a spirit of responsibility.
How many people can you ask about what they’ve done for the country, and who can list their accomplishments? The future won’t be built by statements and showing off, and repeating the boring stuff about being keen on seeing (state) institutions.
The Relationship with Damascus
Al-Hayat: What is the core of the problem with Syria?
PM Hariri: In the 1970s, a situation in Lebanon arose in which a regional and international belief formed, stating that the war in Lebanon could not be ended without Syrian military intervention. Which was correct. The factors were interconnected; Lebanese, Palestinian, Israeli and international elements were intertwined. After the Syrians entered, the region saw huge events – the Israeli-Egyptian peace, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and we can’t forget the Iranian Revolution and the Iraq-Iran War. Without going into details, there arose in Damascus a conviction that Syria’s regional role had become linked to its presence in Lebanon, and this presence was a first line of defense of this role, and the regime.
The Taif Accord involved a double objective: conducting a settlement among Lebanese that would allow for the rise of the Lebanese State, and concluding a strategic partnership with Syria that would reassure it and lead it to drop its management of Lebanon. Big regional developments then took place, such as the (Iraqi) invasion of Kuwait, and the Syrian leadership considered that its former tasking (to run Lebanon) had been renewed, and in an open-ended way.
Sometimes, countries are afflicted by the same things that afflict individuals: becoming addicted. Syria became addicted to running Lebanon. We should make an observation here, namely that Syria under Hafez al-Assad continued to retain Lebanon, but it usually observed the balances that needed to be preserved among sects, or within the sects. In the 1990s, there was a trend toward destroying these balances, and this was translated on the ground in Emile Lahoud’s becoming president in 1998, and the trend became deeper.
Based on my acknowledgement, and appreciation of the role that Syria played in ending the war, I hoped that it would take the opportunity of the Taif Accord to get out of the details of Lebanese daily matters, and content itself with the strategic relations that reassured it in the fields of security, and the position on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Unfortunately, the program that was prepared for Lahoud and was implemented after he became president supported exiting Taif, and didn’t take into consideration internal balance, or sensitivities, and it didn’t take note of changes that had taken place in the world.
Al-Hayat: Was your relationship with Abdel-Halim Khaddam, the former Syrian Vice president, one of the reasons why your relationship with the rulers in Damascus declined?
PM Hariri: This relationship began with a request from President Hafez al-Assad and part of it turned into a personal relationship. After President Bashar al-Assad took over, we talked about this topic, and he didn’t oppose my seeing Abu Jamal (Khaddam) during my visits to Damascus. Of course, I knew that the Lebanese “file” had gone to others, and my relationship with him was a personal one. I knew who was making decision. I didn’t make a mistake in reading these things.
Al-Hayat: Did he oppose Lahoud’s extension?
PM Hariri: He was aware of the dangers.
Al-Hayat: Was he among those who advised you, at the beginning of Lahoud’s term, to leave the prime minister’s position and let the president lose momentum, then return after the elections.
PM Hariri: These topics require a detailed, precise discussion, which I will leave for the future.
Al-Hayat: Is it true that ministers in your various governments would write reports and relay the secrets of Cabinet sessions, and even your personal meetings with them?
PM Hariri: Yes, written reports and oral ones. (Laughs) There were those whose handwriting improved, they wrote so much. Ministers, MPs, and security people.
In fact, there were always different points of view. The first said “keep Hariri out of power, but fear the repercussions.” The second said that “keep Hariri as a partner in government, but wear him down by setting traps in the Cabinet, Parliament, parties, and unions.” Should I tell you that had they known from the beginning that rebuilding Beirut would return Lebanon to the regional and international arena, they wouldn’t have agreed to it? The indicators of success prompted them to prepare a counter-project, which was Lahoud’s project.
Al-Hayat: Who engineered this project?
PM Hariri: The biggest role went to Brigadier General Jamil Sayyed. Of course, Sayyed was part of the group. Imagine, Lahoud himself couldn’t get rid of the Director of Sûreté Général.
Al-Hayat: But in the 2000 elections, you succeeded in hitting at Lahoud’s presidency and you returned to power on a white horse. There are those who say that Brigadier General Ghazi Kenaan (the former head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon) and Jamil Sayyed helped you. Was there a connection to internal Syrian considerations?
PM Hariri: I was never once part of an internal Syrian calculation. I always rejected even talking about such a topic. The relations I established with Syrian officials in the 1980s and 1990s were done with the knowledge of President Hafez al-Assad. These relations weren’t mysterious or secret. This holds true regarding my relations with Abdel-Halim Khaddam, Hikmat Shehabi, and Ghazi Kenaan, and others.
Al-Hayat: But these relations weren’t stable in recent years.
PM Hariri: I did everything that I could. Perhaps it’s connected to the considerations of others, and perhaps chemistry played a role.
Al-Hayat: What will be your official capacity after the parliamentary elections.
PM Hariri: Head of a parliamentary bloc. Why don’t you believe it?
Al-Hayat: Because I feel that you renovated the Government Serail in order to reside there.
PM Hariri: I repeat, I will not be prime minister with Emile Lahoud, or anyone like him.
Al-Hayat: Was the assassination attempt against Marwan Hamade (in October 2004) a message?
PM Hariri: It was an ugly crime, before being a message.
Al-Hayat: Are you afraid for your life?
PM Hariri: First of all, I’m a believer. Second, I don’t have a spot of blood on my hands. Third, my conscience is clear. Fourth, I believe that I have good security measures. Fifth, I have the conviction that any decision to assassinate me is improbable; this is a big decision, one that is dangerous and costly, and no sane person would take it. Therefore, I don’t think there will be an attempt to assassinate me physically. As for attempts to assassinate me politically, they haven’t stopped, and won’t stop. They are aimed at keeping the country sick, forever. No one has an interest in killing a sick person, and they reject curing him.
Al-Hayat: Can’t you reach a minimum level of understanding with President Lahoud?
PM Hariri: He is unable to reach an understanding with me. Put simply, let me tell you that I’ve served the resistance in south Lebanon many times over what Lahoud has done for it. And served Syria many times over compared to Lahoud. However, I serve Syria from my position as a Lebanese, and Arab, and what I believe serves the interest of Lebanon and Syria over the long run.
The Hijacked Plane
Al-Hayat: There are those who say that you’ve made many compromises.
PM Hariri: That’s true. I’ve made many compromises here in Lebanon, because I believe that relations among the sects and political forces in Lebanon should be “natural” ones, even if this means making compromises, whether both sides make them or only one. This style isn’t comforting for some people. They don’t want me to have a natural, or strong relationship with the Christians. The same with the Shiites.
I’ve also made compromises regarding relations with Syria. I used to dream that a time would come in which Lebanese and Syrian stability, and Lebanese and Syrian prosperity, would be strengthened and see the rise of natural relations between the two countries, linked by many ties. A relationship in which a Lebanese-made decision would not be seen as a project to threaten ties with Syria, or a source of anxiety for Syria.
Al-Hayat: Going back to Resolution 1559 – did you have a role in “maturing” the conditions for its passing?
PM Hariri: No. It could have been avoided.
Al-Hayat: Did you have prior knowledge about it?
PM Hariri: No, but it was no secret that Lebanon was the topic of discussion between Paris and Washington. I believe that Syrian diplomacy made a mistake when it considered that Lebanon was not important, that it would be enough to show flexibility in Iraq, so that the situation in Lebanon could remain the same. The option of extending (Lahoud’s mandate) was considered a confrontational stance.
Al-Hayat: What do you expect in the coming period?
PM Hariri: It will be a period that requires patience and wisdom by all. A difficult phase. Let me sum up the issue of compromises in a comparison, although I don’t know how accurate this is. If you’re facing a hijacked civilian plane and you can’t free the hostages by force, what do you do? My answer is the first priority is the safety and rescue of the passengers. Merely saving Beirut and Lebanon will be a punishment for the kidnappers.
On the eve of General Emile Lahoud’s election as President of the Republic on 15 October 1998, I went to meet Prime Minister Rafik Hariri at the Grand Serail. One of the television stations was replaying the election session and PM Hariri was following the scenes as if searching the pictures for MPs who had been forced to support “the new president” like he had. He appeared to me as if trying to read, via the pictures, the meaning of Lahoud’s arrival, in terms of Lebanon and Syria. Hariri knew that Syria was the number one and most important voter when it came to the Lebanese presidency; however, he had dreamed of being its Lebanese partner in the eventual selection of the president. He was unable to do this, and the presidency went to the person who he had hoped to keep distant.
PM Hariri was a statesman and would demand that his mind work to tame his feelings. I tried to provoke him, saying, “Your Excellency, how long do they need to dispense with your services?” He smiled and raised two fingers. I asked if they needed two years, and he answered, “They need two presidential terms, if they are concerned with the interest of the country. My interest is in leaving, and the country’s interest is in my staying. I’ve decided to put the country’s interest first.
Hariri excused himself from forming the first government in the Lahoud era, after a dispute about the delegation of MPs’ votes, which left Lahoud with the freedom to name the prime minister-designate. In fact, some of his friends advised him to leave office, and one of them was then-Syrian Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam. Khaddam told him that Lahoud was beginning his mandate in a Buick that was fresh from the dealer, while “you’re driving an Opel that has been ground down by exercising power.” Khaddam suggested that Hariri let Lahoud use up some of the power of his car, and then they would see. This is what happened when Hariri returned to power in 2000 after a clear election victory, a victory that did not anger some Syrian parties that had not been enthusiastic about Lahoud in the first place.
In the summer of 1999, I went to see Hariri in Sardinia. He appeared busy with Beirut, instead of the magic of the place where he had anchored his yacht. During the discussion, which lasted almost all day, Hariri would take advantage of the breaks to make telephone calls, via his advisors and friends, to journalists, asking about conditions in the country and any new developments.
Late Lebanese PM visiting contruction sites (90’s).
Al-Hayat: When did your wealth reach $1 billion?
PM Hariri: That’s a pretty big question.
Al-Hayat: When did your wealth reach $100 million?
PM Hariri: When I was 33. That was the boom time, and work was falling down like rain.
Al-Hayat: In 1982 you had become a millionaire?
I PM Hariri: n 1982 or 1983.
Al-Hayat: Forbes estimated your wealth at $4 billion; is this close to the truth?
PM Hariri: The truth is that I don’t know precisely. Estimating wealth has to do with prices of shares, and land, and companies, and this differs. Praise be to God, I say.
Al-Hayat: Is that figure close?
PM Hariri: Not far away. Our work is ongoing.
Al-Hayat: Four years ago, you told me that you had 25,000 employees.
PM Hariri: Yes, that’s still the case.
Al-Hayat: Has your work declined?
PM Hariri: No, It’s increased. In 1998, the turnover in Saudi Arabia was at the highest level it’s ever been, even when I was there – $2.2 billion.
Al-Hayat: Are you involved in maintenance?
PM Hariri: Maintenance of all the projects that we execute. We perform maintenance on airports and other facilities.
Al-Hayat: You business in Saudi Arabia is being run by your son, Saad?
PM Hariri: Yes, and there’s a board of directors.
Al-Hayat: What else can you say about your wealth?
PM Hariri: Once again, I can confirm that I’m not obsessed with entering the kind of clubs they talk about in the media, like the richest 500 people in the world, or richest 100 in the world. I don’t care about that.
Al-Hayat: What things do you still want? You’re a billionaire and you’ve become a prime minister. What do you want?
PM Hariri: Nothing, I don’t want anything. This is why no one can blackmail me with al-Assad.
Al-Hayat: You have a strong relationship with King Fahd bin Abdel-Aziz (of Saudi Arabia). With whom do you also have a strong relationship in the Arab world?
PM Hariri: With President Hafez al-Assad.
Al-Hayat: When did you meet him for the first time?
PM Hariri: At the end of 1982, or beginning of 1983, as I remember. I was with Prince Bandar bin Sultan and the objective was a cease-fire in Lebanon. The relationship continued. I don’t think that anyone outside Syria had this many meetings with President al-Assad and spent this much time with him. The relationship has continued for 17 years and I’ve met him about 50 times.
Al-Hayat: What distinguishes President al-Assad?
His strategic mind; at the same time, he’s concerned with the details. Politicians usually have one of these two traits, but President al-Assad.
PM Hariri: combines the two. He’s strategic, and he’s concerned with the smallest details. This is in addition to characteristics such as loyalty, and taking the long-term view of things. President al-Asad has given Syria status in the world. Observe now that all eyes are turning to Syria regarding peace; there can be no hope of peace without (Syria).
Al-Hayat: When did Damascus discuss the prime minister’s post with you?
PM Hariri: In 1992.
PM Hariri: As I told you before, it wasn’t discussed with me before that. Perhaps with others.
Al-Hayat: They say that President Elias Hrawi proposed your name right after he was elected.
PM Hariri: That’s correct.
Al-Hayat: And he was told, “It’s too early.”
PM Hariri: Yes, too early.
Al-Hayat: Why did it become suitable in 1992 after being “too early” just shortly before that?
PM Hariri: I think that conditions changed, after the parliamentary elections in Lebanon. A new phase, a new policy course. A new speaker of Parliament.
Al-Hayat: Before being named, you met with President al-Assad. What did you reach an understanding about?
PM Hariri: About the alliance between Lebanon and Syria. I think that from our side, we implemented what was agreed, and they did too. President al-Assad supported the relationship between Syria and Lebanon and I did everything while prime minister to strengthen this relationship. I believe the relationship moved from one situation to another. No doubt President Elias Hrawi played a fundamental role, and Speaker (Nabih) Berry as well. In Lebanon, there isn’t a single “top leader.” Each person does what he can, from his position (in government).
Al-Hayat: During this session, did you try to receive a “wider” authorization to form a Cabinet?
PM Hariri: President al-Assad is a person who has a special attractiveness. I didn’t discuss names of ministers with President al-Assad.
Al-Hayat: Did Saudi Arabia play a direct role in your becoming prime minister?
PM Hariri: No.
Al-Hayat: It’s said that you asked King Fahd bin Abdel-Aziz and he hesitated in supporting you.
PM Hariri: I asked King Fahd, and he told me, “May God assist you; we are concerned with the interest of Lebanon.” King Fahd feared for me, regarding security incidents.
Al-Hayat: Have you ever faced an assassination attempt?
PM Hariri: No.
Al-Hayat: Have you received information about plans to assassinate you?
PM Hariri: There have always been reports.
Al-Hayat: Who’s responsible for your security?
PM Hariri: The Internal Security Forces (Lebanon’s police).
Al-Hayat: Have mafias targeted you, for example?
PM Hariri: There’s been a lot of talk about that. I don’t allow myself to be affected by these reports. At first, I was more careful, and so were those who were responsible for my security. I’m a believer, and I am not obsessed about assassination.
Al-Hayat: Did your parents approve your getting involved in politics?
PM Hariri: No, they were always against it.
PM Hariri: First of all, because I’m not from a “political family,” meaning no tradition of this type. My father always used to say, “Politics has no religion.” He would tell me, “God has blessed you and you want to help the world, help it. If you want to get involved in politics to help your country, there’s another way, besides politics.”
Al-Hayat: Is fear about your fortune one of the reasons?
PM Hariri: No, I they didn’t have this problem.
Al-Hayat:And your mother?
PM Hariri: She had the same position, that one could help without getting involved in politics. No one in our house wanted me to get into politics. My wife didn’t support it. I got my sister involved in politics.
Al-Hayat: Do you want me to believe that your wife was happy when you left office?
PM Hariri: They threw me a party, it was like a big holiday.
Al-Hayat: Usually a woman would want her husband in politics; perhaps your wife thinks that you will remain in the spotlight.
PM Hariri: If you want to make sure, ask her. She’s now afraid that I’ll return to office.
Al-Hayat: When did your relationship with President Elias Hrawi begin?
PM Hariri: In 1982.
Al-Hayat: You met each other at an initiative by Johnny Abdo. You met at Hrawi’s house, and the bed broke under you.
PM Hariri: That’s correct.
Al-Hayat: You played a role in Hrawi’s becoming president?
PM Hariri: Yes.
I Al-Hayat: It’s said that you didn’t support the presidency of Rene Mouawad.
PM Hariri: That’s not true.
Al-Hayat: What do you remember regarding the presidency, post-Taif?
PM Hariri: Even before Taif, there was an understanding between Syria and Saudi Arabia over Rene Mouawad.
Al-Hayat: Who helped set up this understanding?
PM Hariri: Many people helped, and his personality was also a helping factor. He was known by all sides.
Al-Hayat: When did Syria support Mouawad?
PM Hariri: Before Taif. It wasn’t final, but the talk was there. After Taif, the idea was translated into reality.
Al-Hayat: What’s the story of your secret trip to Syria after Taif and your meeting with President al-Assad?
PM Hariri: MPs from Lebanon came to Paris. One day, it was said that Mouawad was absent. That day, he was in Syria. He went with my plane and met President al-Assad, then the election took place.
Al-Hayat: Your first candidate was Elias Hrawi?
PM Hariri: I knew him more, and knew that he was an aggressive person, in a good way, taking the initiative. I thought the time needed such characteristics, and later on I was proven right.
Al-Hayat: Did Mouawad discuss with you giving a certain post?
PM Hariri: No.
Al-Hayat: What happened after Mouawad’s assassination?
PM Hariri: I visited his family in the house in Paris, and was asked what should be done. I said, elections. We telephoned MPs who were in Paris.
Al-Hayat: When Hrawi’s name was proposed, what other names were proposed?
PM Hariri: There was George Saade, God rest his soul.
Al-Hayat: Was Jean Obeid mentioned? Did he meet with al-Assad?
PM Hariri: There was a meeting between him and Abdel-Halim Khaddam and Hikmat Shehabi. This happened after Mouawad’s martyrdom.
Al-Hayat: They say that the presidency was offered to Pierre Helou.
PM Hariri: There was talk of this, but I’m not certain about it. It’s said that Speaker Hussein Husseini relayed the offer, but that Helou answered that the issue of Michel Aoun would only be solved by force, and that he (Helou) wasn’t ready for this.
Al-Hayat: And Jean Obeid?
PM Hariri: He said that President Franjieh’s name was on the table, and that he couldn’t come before Franjieh; this was a position of loyalty to Franjieh.
Al-Hayat: So you tipped the balance toward Hrawi with Syria?
PM Hariri: I was among those who worked with Syria, and Saudi Arabia as well.
Al-Hayat: What did the Americans want?
PM Hariri: The election of a president.
Al-Hayat: Did Hrawi meet al-Assad prior to the election, like Mouawad did?
PM Hariri: I think something like that happened.
From the First Day
Al-Hayat: After his election, did Hrawi tell you that he would propose you as prime minister?
PM Hariri: Yes, he had this in mind from the first day.
Al-Hayat: You had differences with him after you became prime minister.
PM Hariri: We differed a lot, and we agreed a lot. Let me tell you something. Each of us had a personal weakness regarding the other. Even when we were in disagreement, and he was skilled in maneuvering, I couldn’t hate him, and he couldn’t hate me. The truth is that I have a weak point. I like funny people, and President Hrawi, in addition to his other traits, is funny. I don’t like stuffy people, and I’m not a hateful person. For example, I like Nabih Berry, despite all of the differences. I would sometimes get angry at his maneuverings, and stop talking to him, then discover that I had become madder than he was. In my like, I’ve been unable to build a strong relationship with someone who’s too serious, or obnoxious, no matter what my financial or political interest might be. That’s my nature. Perhaps we can meet, but I feel like I’m being forced to. Sometimes I would get hurt by a person who is funny, and even so, I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from liking this person.
Al-Hayat: Let’s talk about some funny things regarding President Hrawi.
PM Hariri: Oh my. He’s a “professor” when it comes to making jokes and setting people up. And when you catch him setting up a gag on someone, he laughs.
Al-Hayat: Did funny things happen during Cabinet meetings?
PM Hariri: All the time. The story of the civil marriage issue, isn’t that a funny one? He passed out the text to ministers, saying it was “for information,” then carried it out behind my back, and put it to a vote.
Al-Hayat: And there were periods of anger?
PM Hariri: Always. At high, medium, and low levels, although we always continued to like each other.
Al-Hayat: Did you retain the personal relationship with President Hrawi after he left Baabda Palace?
PM Hariri: Yes.
Al-Hayat: Do women play a role in poisoning relationships?
PM Hariri: Yes, they play a role in poisoning them, and repairing them.
Al-Hayat: Is your wife like this?
PM Hariri: Nazek doesn’t get involved.
Al-Hayat: Doesn’t she have sensitivities about certain politicians?
PM Hariri: No.
Al-Hayat: And Mona Hrawi, the wife of President Hrawi?
PM Hariri: I admire her, but she has a different kind of personality.
Al-Hayat: What did President Hrawi say about your trips outside the country?
PM Hariri: Nothing. He’d take it with a joke. After a trip abroad, he would tell me, “Of course, you’re going to tell me that they said hello to me, and that they miss me.”
Al-Hayat: Why didn’t he go?
PM Hariri: He didn’t like to.
Al-Hayat: Did you suggest it to him?
PM Hariri: I would suggest that he go with his entourage. He didn’t like this. There are many criticisms of his presidency, but he was a democrat, and stood up for the regime. He was angry about some of the provisions of the Constitution, but he did not violate them. He tried to amend them through democratic means. This is a point in his favor. I didn’t like some of the provisions, but I didn’t violate them.
Al-Hayat: In the disputes between you, you would resort to Syria for “arbitration.” Couldn’t the two of you sit in Baabda Palace (and resolve things)?
PM Hariri: We did sit in Baabda, and we didn’t resort to Syria for everything. We were all subject to concentrated campaigns (of criticism). There were many people who were against me.
Al-Hayat: Is it true that before the formation of your first Cabinet, you thought about forming one like the one formed at the beginning of Lahoud’s presidency?
PM Hariri: Yes. I wanted the government to be like this: I wanted a Cabinet with 30 ministers, and I still support this. Experience proved this point. Politics in Lebanon is a big deal, and you have to give some posts to politicians, while bringing in technocrats to work. A government of veteran politicians or one of passive technocrats won’t help, and won’t work.
Al-Hayat: In the first Cabinet, what did you propose?
PM Hariri: I wanted all governments that I formed to retain a general, nationalist line; however, this should be represented by people with a good reputation, with no black mark against them. We didn’t succeed at this, for several reasons. This is something that I’m blamed for. What happened in Ireland? Attempts to let the fighters participate in power, then the logic of the State would prevail. Ending the war in Lebanon, or ending the militias, saw two attempts. There’s the method that Michel Aoun used. He proposed ending the Lebanese Forces by force. He used artillery, and what was the result? The eastern areas were destroyed, so was the army, and the militia remained. Elias Hrawi proposed something different. He told the militias that the State was open for all. Turn over your weapons to the State, and participate. This began in 1990, and I don’t want to take credit; it began before I became prime minister. Let me ask you, where are the militias today? They melted away. The experience of Michel Aoun was destructive, regardless of the objectives. Hrawi ended the civil war in another way. Now, the State is stronger.
Al-Hayat: Why did you support an extension of Hrawi’s mandate (in 1995)?
PM Hariri: The regional situation required keeping things the way they were. There was consultation with all parties, inside and outside the country, and we arrived at an agreement. Hrawi’s mandate was extended. This met with fierce opposition by various forces, and it continued until the end of his term.
Al-Hayat: After Hrawi’s term was extended, was he a weak president?
PM Hariri: I think that all of us could have done better than we did during the extended mandate. Perhaps it would have been better for President Hrawi to leave after completing his 6 years. But this is what happened, and we can’t go back in time.
Al-Hayat: Is it true you proposed an extension to prevent General Lahoud from becoming president?
PM Hariri: No, if extension hadn’t happened, another person would have become president.
Al-Hayat: Did you propose names at the time?
PM Hariri: There were always names on the table, including Jean Obeid.
Al-Hayat: Why Jean Obeid?
PM Hariri: Because he’s trusted.
Al-Hayat: When did you meet Jacques Chirac?
PM Hariri: Twenty years ago. He was the mayor of Paris and I was there. A friendship arose, based on trust, and became a family relationship.
Al-Hayat: It seems like you like acquire beautiful homes. Where do you own houses?
PM Hariri: Yes. I have homes in Marbella, and Palma, Cannes, Monte Carlo, San Maxim, in and around Paris, and New York, Washington, Switzerland, Riyadh, Jeddah, Amman, Damascus, and in Lebanon, in Beirut, Sidon and Cannes.
Al-Hayat: Which one do you like the most?
PM Hariri: All of them. The Riyadh home has a special meaning for me. I lived there for a long time, and my children were born there.
Al-Hayat: Who’s responsible for maintaining these houses?
PM Hariri: The maintenance department of our company.
Al-Hayat: How much do you spend a month? Five million dollars?
PM Hariri: As personal expenditures, no. Most of my expenditure is on social assistance.
Al-Hayat: How much do you spend annually?
PM Hariri: More than $150 million, between personal expenditure and assistance.
Al-Hayat: The personal part is around $30 million a year?
PM Hariri: Perhaps.
Al-Hayat: You own two yachts. What are their names?
PM Hariri: Nara, and Narana.
Al-Hayat: And how many planes?
PM Hariri: Four planes. Two are Boeing 727s, one is a G3, and the fourth hasn’t arrived yet.
Al-Hayat: When did you buy your first plane?
PM Hariri: I think in 1978 or 1979, it was a Sapper Liner.
Al-Hayat: That year, you gave a plane as a gift to Prime Minister Salim Hoss.
PM Hariri: Yes, it is at the disposal of the Lebanese State.
Al-Hayat: When did you buy your yacht Nara?
PM Hariri: In 1982. The second one is new.
Al-Hayat: You had meetings with Samir Geagea, the former leader of the banned Lebanese Forces, inside and outside Lebanon, didn’t you?
PM Hariri: During the war and at its end, I met with everyone.
Al-Hayat: When did the relationship with Walid Jumblatt begin?
PM Hariri: At the end of 1982. Most of these relationships began after the (1982) Israeli invasion of Lebanon. In fact, the political ties with most groups began after 1982. Before that, I wasn’t involved in the details of politics.
Al-Hayat: Your relationship with Walid Jumblatt is either hot or cold, isn’t it?
PM Hariri: I’ve known Walid since 1982, and my relationship with him became firm after that date. It never became a cold relationship. The hot part might fade, but it never got to the point of cold.
Has the current opposition (movement) united you?
PM Hariri: No, it was before that. Before the presidential election he visited me in Faqra, to have dinner. We spoke, didn’t agree, and he left without having dinner. He was strongly opposed to General Lahoud’s becoming president. He stated his opinion frankly.
I Al-Hayat: s Syrian intervention what made you support General Lahoud’s becoming president?
PM Hariri: That’s one element, in addition to the general climate. A smart marketing campaign was organized to guarantee General Lahoud’s election, and it was clear that if he didn’t become president, there would be frustration in the country. There was a wide-scale attack against the political class in Lebanon, which made it easy to attack this class, because of the wars between its various sides. So, Lahoud’s presidency became a demand (by the public), which is what the campaign was aimed at.
Al-Hayat: With General Lahoud, what did you agree about before his election?
PM Hariri: Everything.
Al-Hayat: The formation of the first Cabinet?
PM Hariri: There was nothing we didn’t discuss, and the understanding between us was a complete one.
Entering, and Leaving Government
Al-Hayat: Let’s talk about two important days. The first was when you were tasked to form your first government, and the second was when you left the Presidential Palace, during another president’s term, excusing yourself from forming a Cabinet. What do you remember about the first occasion?
PM Hariri: On the first occasion, there was a lot of caution, over every word. All of my remarks were written. In my address, I said that the reconstruction process will have begun by spring. The politicians picked up on this, and called it “springtime promises.” I meant that we would need 10 years. They changed this, and made it as if I had said everything would be completed by spring. Our politicians are clever. Of course, people learn, and gain experience in life.
Al-Hayat: What did your wife tell you the day you headed your first Cabinet?
PM Hariri: She wasn’t happy.
Al-Hayat: She had concerns about your security?
PM Hariri: A number of things. Our life had changed. There was no longer enough time for the children. If Nazek was with me in Beirut, she would be worried about the kids, in Paris. If she lived with the kids, then she’d be worried about her husband. It was a difficult period for our family, perhaps the toughest in my life.
Al-Hayat: Were you afraid that the formation of your first Cabinet would be hindered?
PM Hariri: No.
Al-Hayat: And the day you declined to form a Cabinet. Is it true that you were carrying two papers. One for your acceptance and one for turning down the job?
PM Hariri: No, I went up there (to Baabda Palace) with a paper for my acceptance. But I was surprised by the issue of seeing MPs’ votes delegated to the president (placed at his disposal). I had told the president that I would be obliged to decline, if this happened. He told me that it wouldn’t happen. I asked him why it did happen, and he said the MPs ahd forced him to. So I declined.
Al-Hayat: What was his reaction?
PM Hariri: He asked me “How?” and I said, “I decline, like I said.”
Al-Hayat: Is it true that you waited for a telephone call from Syria, but it didn’t come?
PM Hariri: That’s not true. And I didn’t call.
Al-Hayat: When did you meet Abdel-Halim Khaddam?
PM Hariri: In 1982.
Al-Hayat: And your relationship became stronger after that time?
PM Hariri: Yes, I always coordinated with Syria, and he was the vice president, and responsible for Lebanon, with Hikmat Shehabi and Ghazi Kenaan.
Al-Hayat: Don’t politicians in Lebanon complain about Khaddam’s style?
PM Hariri: Abu Jamal (Khaddam) represented an important phase in Syria’s history, and particularly in Lebanon.
Al-Hayat: Are you afraid of peace in the region?
PM Hariri: I’m not afraid, but we should be realistic. I think that peace for the region is necessary, and important, if it is comprehensive. However, I think that it won’t solve all the region’s problems. It will solve a type of problem, and create huge challenges. Giving the impression that peace will solve al of our problems isn’t right. I don’t feel that there are those in Lebanon trying to understand these challenges or study their repercussions on the country. There is talk by top officials in the country, saying that all of the problems will be solved by signing a peace deal. I think that this is a big mistake. There are many problems: the camps, Hizbullah, normalization, economic problems, and national and cultural challenges. Peace is no picnic, and simplifying the problems leads to avoiding a search for solutions.
Al-Hayat: Do you fear that peace will create terror?
PM Hariri: On both sides, there are those who oppose peace, among the Israelis, and the Arabs. And these groups will express themselves using various means. I hope that violence isn’t one of them.
Al-Hayat: Are you now under surveillance?
PM Hariri: Yes.
Al-Hayat: Would you like to have been in power during this period?
PM Hariri: (Laughs) No.
Rafik Hariri: My radar quickly picks up those who try to get close to me because they want money.
Ghassan Charbel Al-Hayat – 17/02/06//
Two years ago, I was in Paris and learned by chance that Prime Minister Hariri had just arrived. I telephoned him and went to see him. He appeared worried about the Iraqi and Palestinian situations. He said that Lebanon needed a new political climate and that the policy of obstruction followed by the team of President Emile Lahoud had prevented any accomplishments from being recorded. He also discussed the negativity of the Christian street, criticizing the way that it was being deal with.
He said, “The Christians who are participating in government are the least representative. Michel Aoun, in exile, has more popularity than they do, and Samir Geagea, who’s in prison, is also more popular.”
I asked him if there were channels of communication between him and Aoun, and he answered: “This issue is not with me. Frankly speaking, I’m not permitted to get involved in it. If a dialogue were opened with Aoun, they would consider it plotting a coup against both Lahoud and Syria.
I asked him about Aoun’s pending judicial cases, and the accusations against him. Hariri responded, smiling, “Whether or not you agree with Aoun, you certainly have to admit that the case is political. Unfortunately, they have succeeded in ‘programming’ the judiciary, which is a dangerous thing.”
I asked if it wasn’t for that reason that Geagea’s friends doubted the story of the bomb attack in the Zouq Mosbeh church, which caused him to be detained, and then imprisoned. I was surprised to hear Hariri answer, “I also have question marks about that incident. It’s a difficult topic, and I don’t want to discuss it.”
Below are the interviews from that occasion, when Hariri was busy reading the regional and international situations, as well as the earlier published interview at his home in Sardinia, in the final installment of this three-part series.
Al-Hayat: I’d like to ask about where you were born and grew up.
PM Hariri: It’s a simple story. My mother, God rest her soul, had five children, of whom two died. The first was born in the ninth month and died, and the second lived 10 months and died after contracting an intestinal disease. Medicine wasn’t so advanced back then, like today. So the three of us grew up together – me, my brother Walid, whom we call Shafik, and my sister Bahiya, who’s an MP in Parliament today. I was born in a family of modest means, but we were very tight. My father and mother were believers, in Almighty God, and they loved people. They were the kind of simple religious and human values based on loving your kin, and your neighbor. And respecting others. When I was young, I never heard bad talk about others, or bad language. My father and mother’s families were linked by strong relationships, based on visiting each other, helping each other, and taking part in all kinds of occasions.
I can say that I grew up in a natural environment. The mother gave her family all the compassion and care that she could, and the father gave them as much effort, interest, and affection that he could. The financial difficulties that the family experienced did not lead to a tense atmosphere, or feelings of hatred and jealousy. Perhaps these difficulties increased my father’s determination to provide an atmosphere of love, compassion and empathy. In the traditional family, there was no such thing as selfishness. The parents gave to their children, without keeping track. The brother gave his brother what he needed, for nothing in return. I was born in a house outside Old Sidon, near Nijmeh Square at the beginning of the road to Jezzine.
Al-Hayat: And your family situation?
PM Hariri: My grandfather, God rest his soul, had some property. His situation was acceptable, or reasonable, based on what my father told me, but I never met him. My father inherited some small pieces of land, and worked in commerce; he was keen on his reputation, his name. I remember, although I was very young at the time, that there was a snowstorm in Lebanon and it did away with the crops. My father incurred big losses, because he had a stake in the crop, covering a group of orchards. My father had to sell everything he had to repay his debts, so that he wouldn’t have to declare bankruptcy. This incident dominated our thinking in two ways. First, there was the importance of loyalty to commitments, whatever the price. Second, there was no State to compensate for the losses, or some of them, meaning no social solidarity or assistance-type program by the State. The person directly handled the entire burden, and society didn’t help. Without meaning to, my father taught me a valuable lesson, namely that it’s better to lose your money instead of your reputation. It’s better for your financial situation to take a hit, but not see other people’s confidence in you take a hit. In fact, money comes and goes, while a reputation can’t handle being lost. It’s easier to rebuild your capital in the bank than rebuild your capital with people, regardless of the size and strength of either.
Later, I learned that the amount my father received from selling everything wasn’t enough; my mother, who’s from the Hijazi family of Sidon, resorted to selling her jewelry so that the commitments could be met. Thus, my father became an employee after being an employer. When the snow disaster took place, I was less than 7 years old. It really affected our lives; my father had to work harder than before, so that we could live and study. I was small, but what took place remains etched in my memory. I remember that my mother was very affected by what happened, and that my father kept his head, and told her, “This is God’s work, and we must go on.”
Al-Hayat: And afterward?
PM Hariri: I felt also that I had to handle my responsibilities regarding the new situation, and during days off from school I would accompany my father and work with him in the orchards of the south. I know the orchards of the south because I worked in them while going to school.
Al-Hayat: Where were you a student?
PM Hariri: My parents sent me to Faisal School, which had low tuition costs. The school exempted me from the tuition because my grades were good. Then I went to al-Makassed, and then to Beirut Arab University. In fact, they were difficult years. I worked during the weekends and the summers. Of course, the situation was painful for my father. There’s a difference between being an employer and working for others. Beginning then, I would repay this man if God blessed me and my situation were to improve some day.
Al-Hayat: Was your father strict?
PM Hariri: He was instinctively smart and goodhearted, and close to people. He had a good relationship with people. He would laugh and joke and people would respond in the same way. My father wasn’t strict, and the same goes for my mother. Of course they were totally committed to religious and moral values.
Al-Hayat: But as an adolescent, didn’t you clash with your father?
PM Hariri: I didn’t have an adolescence to class with anyone because of it. I was in school, or at work, or paying attention to the affairs of the day.
Al-Hayat: What about your political affiliation when you were younger?
PM Hariri: I was one of the young people interested by the idea of Arab nationalism and I met a number of leaders of this group before I reached the age of 20.
Al-Hayat: They say that you joined the Organization for Communist Action.
PM Hariri: No.
Al-Hayat: You didn’t join any party?
PM Hariri: No, I had inclinations and friendships. I was part of the Arab Nationalist Movement trend and worked for some time at the magazine al-Hurriyeh, where Mohsen Ibrahim, Mohammed Kishli, Sami Mshaqo and Ghassan Kanafani, God rest his soul, were at the time.
Al-Hayat: Is it true you handed out pamphlets denouncing the split (end of unity) between Egypt and Syria?
PM Hariri: Yes, while walking in demonstrations. I remember that I was carrying Sami Shaar, who was fatter than today, on my shoulders at demonstrations. At Beirut Arab University, I was elected to the Student Union.
Al-Hayat: Did this period establish your friendship with Mohsen Ibrahim?
PM Hariri: There was a friendship, but the years put a distance between us, because of my travels and his involvement in the Palestinian issue. When I was in office, we were on different sides. But Abu Khaled (Ibrahim) is a funny guy. You can differ with him in politics but agree with him about humor.
A Different Perspective
Al-Hayat: You grew up in Sidon. Who was your role model, Gamal Abdel-Nasser?
PM Hariri: I’m part of the generation that woke up to the idea of Arab nationalism, distant from sectarianism. There was the Palestine issue. At the time, the young generation warmed to the slogans that Abdel-Nasser was using. When the defeat of 1967 took place, many questions were asked, and we had to ask about what had been right and what had been a mistake. There was a fierce wave of support for Abdel-Nasser, without examining what was correct and what was a mistake. A group of young people began to look at things differently. By that time, I had ended up in Saudi Arabia. There I began to see things from a different perspective. In the past, we liked what he heard from Abdel-Nasser and the left about the oil states, and we didn’t know the reality there. When I went to Saudi Arabia I saw the situation differently. I lived Saudi Arabia’s experience from 1965 until the present. I realized that these states had been able, in the end, to build infrastructure and develop themselves, building their societies, and become an influential force in the region and the world. All of this took place calmly, and with no big slogans, exaggerations, or commotion. These states achieved continuing progress, and it wasn’t slow. They didn’t jump ahead of themselves, but actually overcame the period of backwardness that had existed for hundreds of years. They used their wealth to see a transformation by people, in these states, especially in Saudi Arabia, from one situation to another. These states created an important middle class. The progress was great in terms of people, before the progress manifested itself in facilities and roads. There were opportunities to learn and the social insurance system was one of the world’s most advanced. There was health insurance. All of this took place calmly.
Al-Hayat: You worked at Sayyad Publishing?
PM Hariri: Yes, I worked in the accounting department of Sayyad and at night I was a proofreader at al-Anwar newspaper. I was studying at Beirut Arab University in the Accounting and Business Department.
The First Salary . . and the Harvest
Al-Hayat: What was the first salary you received?
PM Hariri: When I was little, and working in the orchards, I would get LL 5 a day, or about $2.5. I would take part in the harvest and carry boxes. In the summer, I worked in harvesting apples and canning apples. I worked in towns in Mount Lebanon, the Bekaa and the North. I know them from my work, not from summer trips. I saved some of what I earned in the summer to continue my studies in the winter. Yes, I worked in apples, in Besharre, Ehden and Kesrouan. I don’t remember my exact salary, but it was around LL 200.
Al-Hayat: What were your hobbies?
PM Hariri: No hobbies. There was no time, and the situation didn’t permit it. Perhaps for this reason I know the meaning of a student being deprived of attending a good school, or having hobbies, and I know how families suffer regarding a situation of this sort.
In Saudi Arabia
Al-Hayat: When did you decide to go to Saudi Arabia?
PM Hariri: It was just a coincidence. In a local newspaper, I read an ad talking about the need for a teacher, and I applied. I believe that I was the only Lebanese who went that year (1965). I went and began to teach in a school in Jeddah. I was 21, and I was married. My salary was about 600 Riyals, or the minimum. There were no taxes taken out, except for the “road stamps,” or 2%, which was 12 Riyals. This means that I was getting 588 Riyals a month. So, I began to work in the afternoon in an accounting office. Between these two jobs, I gave private lessons to students. This made my salary range from 1,200 to 1,300 Riyals a month. I began with an agreement for 600 Riyals, but after only 20 days, I tried to get a raise.
My decision to go to Saudi Arabia was prompted by my feelings that this country had work opportunities that weren’t there in Lebanon, and my opinion was correct. I taught for 7 or 8 months and then worked in the accounting office for more than a year, then moved to a contracting company.
The World of Contracting
Al-Hayat: How did your “take-off” happen after that?
PM Hariri: As I said, I worked in a contracting company for about 5 years, when I learned the business. My situation began to improve and I went through periods of rising and falling. When the 1973 war took place, oil prices went up after we had taken on jobs for low prices. Oil prices rose and so did those of primary materials. The cost of our commitments was very high and we incurred big losses. In 1973, I had begun to work on my own, after learning the basics of contracting. We did subcontracting, like works on roads, small bridges, and areas on the sides of roads. In 1973, the prices of contracts that we had signed remained the same, while material and labor prices and rose, so we lost. We had to be patient. Later, we were lucky to get more work and the market started to stabilize. We made money on the new project and paid off our debts. That was the first step in building trust with financial institutions and the market.
Al-Hayat: And the building project in Taif?
PM Hariri: During that period. I didn’t take the project, it was subcontracting. The profit was low but we had some interest, and used it to pay off debts. I was working with others for a while, then we agreed to split up, since each one of us had his own work style. The split was amicable, with no disputes.
The First Million . . . and Vanity
Al-Hayat: What about your first million? When did your account say that you had $1 million?
PM Hariri: I was 31 when I got my first my million.
Al-Hayat: Where did it come from?
PM Hariri: From work. I was only involved in contracting. I received no money, not from commissions or other things. Contracting was my only field.
Al-Hayat: Did you get it from the Conference Palace project in Taif?
PM Hariri: From a number of projects, including Taif, and al-Huda, and a hospital. After we established Saudi Oger. When it was founded, I think in 1976, my share in it was very small. After that, I bought the others’ shares.
Al-Hayat: What does a person feel like when he has his first million dollars?
PM Hariri: Let me answer you with complete honesty. When a young person gets such an amount, he becomes afflicted by a type of vanity, or feelings of success, perhaps superiority. This is an unhealthy situation. I admit that I was afflicted by some of this. Thank God it didn’t last long with me. Perhaps it lasted 7 months.
Al-Hayat: You felt at the time that Rafik Hariri was strong?
PM Hariri: (Laughs) I felt that Rafik Hariri was strong, a tough guy, smart, and funny. The joke that he tells makes people laugh. The idea that he puts forward is excellent, and interests people. It’s the exaggeration of youth. Thank God that period didn’t last too long, and this is due, in my opinion, to two things: the first is education in the home, and the second is the general climate in Saudi Arabia. The general environment there is ruled by modesty, and this kind of behavior isn’t accepted. The atmosphere doesn’t permit being vulgar or showing off; it stresses retaining simplicity and values, and respect for others. Not respecting such things makes you a stranger, and ostracizes you. Perhaps there was some justification for a young man like me, who came from Lebanon, from a devastated financial condition, who underwent tough circumstances, to become a bit vain when his conditions improved. It wasn’t just my situation; most of those who worked in contracting at the time experienced the same thing. I was lucky to close the page of this intoxication quickly, while there are those who have retained it until today.
Al-Hayat: Does one experience a similar 7 months when one becomes prime minister?
PM Hariri: Money, positions, political power, are all types of power or authority. If you have the readiness to become vain and haughty, and if your feet aren’t on the ground, as they say, perhaps one can become vain for many years. God Almight blessed me in many things, but the most important of these is that the period of vanity ended quickly?
Al-Hayat: Does the army of flatterers play a role?
PM Hariri: One should be honest with one’s self and have the courage to know one’s limits. A person occupying a political position can be exposed to what you’ve mentioned, or some of it? You say something ordinary, and then a person comes and tells you that what you said was wonderful and brilliant. You weigh 130 kilos, and you come across someone who thinks that you have a svelte figure. Some of it said with good intentions, and some of it is a part of someone’s style. The important thing is being courageous enough to look at yourself. I’m not saying that a person shouldn’t be happy with his success, or what he achieves. People like success and its their right to be happy with the fruits of their efforts. However, someone with money or power doesn’t have the right to be struck blind, and only see the colors he wants to see, or only hear the voices he wants to hear.
Al-Hayat: And is someone afflicted by a different kind of 7 months when leaving office?
PM Hariri: (Laughs) There are some who become bitter, not vain. This isn’t the case for me. My role didn’t begin with becoming prime minister and it didn’t end with my leaving office.
Al-Hayat: There are people who say that you love power and being out of power bothers you.
PM Hariri: If I love power, as you say, then I would have stayed put. Staying in power involves a goal, and success regarding this goal has conditions. It’s better for a politician to be outside power when the conditions for success aren’t there.
Al-Hayat: They say that the title “former prime minister” can hurt?
PM Hariri: Perhaps hurtful for the person whose role is linked to his presence in office. In a democracy, there are no permanent titles, and no permanent posts.
I Didn’t Dare Dream
Al-Hayat: When you went to Saudi Arabia, did you have in mind the example of someone who had been a successful Lebanese? Emile Boustany, for example, or someone else, perhaps?
PM Hariri: Here, I should confess something. I didn’t dare dream of attaining what I did. I achieved things that I didn’t dream of achieving.
Al-Hayat: What do you feel when you stand in front of the mirror?
PM Hariri: Sometimes, I can’t believe that Rafik Hariri started with nothing and was able to arrive at something beyond his dreams. Of course, I’m not now like I was a few years ago. Experience is a school, for whoever can read. However, I’ll say that one of the things that I’m proudest of is that things inside me haven’t changed.
Al-Hayat: Such as?
PM Hariri: I still look at myself and take into consideration the fact that I’m a young person who started out poor, worked in orchards, has family and relatives who are simple people, linked by affection. On social occasions, we invite our relatives and I feel that these people’s affection toward us, it’s very beautiful, pure and intimate thing. Money doesn’t produce such feelings. There are people who aren’t benefiting from you and aren’t asking for anything, aren’t receiving anything. You see these people approaching you with their affection, without any objectives in mind.
Al-Hayat: Don’t you feel that those who approach you want money?
PM Hariri: There are such people. I know this and I am sensitive about this subject. My radar quickly picks up those kinds of people, whether I show this or not. However, it’s unjust to think that everyone who shows you affection wants something. I say this in light of my experience. For example, I still have my old friendships.
Al-Hayat: They say that you are very attached to your daughter.
PM Hariri: Yes, I’m attached to my family. Hind is my little girl, and is very funny.
Al-Hayat: How do you try to protect your children from the fact that you’re rich, famous, and in the spotlight?
PM Hariri: I think that we’ve been successful so far.
Al-Hayat: Can they live a normal life?
PM Hariri: We try to give them this.
Al-Hayat: Did it succeed with the boys?
PM Hariri: Yes. They live a normal life. They behave with modesty, and responsibly. They’ve all graduated from college, except for the youngest.
Al-Hayat: Are you irritable and do you see your morale go down when you lose – do you get irritated and does this affect the atmosphere at home?
PM Hariri: God forbid, and then again, I haven’t lost in politics. Others are losing. So that you understand, you should know a basic fact. I don’t value money. Money doesn’t mean anything to me.
Al-Hayat: How many millionaires have exited your institutions, or have become millionaires because of friendship with you? Does your power to change people’s futures make you happy?
PM Hariri: I have helped many people in my life. However, you can’t help people all the time. You give an opportunity to a person, and if the person is qualified, he will continue the path.
Al-Hayat: Have you caused the birth of 200 millionaires, for example?
PM Hariri: Perhaps. I have helped many who have succeeded. Perhaps among them are those who I gave scholarships to, and they became millionaires. I have changed the future of 30,000 people by helping them attend school.
Al-Hayat: What do you feel from being able to change people’s futures?
PM Hariri: Once, I was sitting with my wife at City Café. A pretty girl came up and greeted me, saying, “I’m from the Hariri Foundation. I’m a graduate. I would like to invite you to my wedding, it’s next week.” These things have happened with me more than once. I don’t know most of those I’ve helped.
Al-Hayat: In politics, they say that you pay attention to people whose role is necessary for you, and when this role ends, you have the power to forget them.
PM Hariri: That’s not true. I’m the opposite. My weakness is that I retain my friendships.
Al-Hayat: Didn’t the rise of your star in the last decade affect your relationship with your wife?
PM Hariri: There’s been no problem. I love my wife. I love her seriously and appreciate her.
PM Hariri: Because she’s a lady, in every sense of the word.
Al-Hayat: Doesn’t she obstruct your aspirations?
PM Hariri: On the contrary, she’s a helping factor. She makes you look good in society and loves people and they love her; she’s elegant and smart.
Al-Hayat: Will you be in office in 2000?
PM Hariri: I’m now in the opposition.
Al-Hayat: Was the first day not being prime minister a difficult one for you?
PM Hariri: Yes, tough, but not a surprise. Believe me, I’m not (obsessed with hanging on to) power.
Al-Hayat: What colors do you like?
PM Hariri: In clothing, I prefer dark blue and colors like cream. I like blue shirts.
Al-Hayat: What place in the world attracts you?
PM Hariri: Here, Sardinia, because it’s calm.
Al-Hayat: Do you have time to read?
PM Hariri: Before my work in politics, I was a very good reader. History and religions. I read the entire Old Testament. I was a voracious reader. Arab and Islamic history. All of the books of Naguib Mahfouz, Tawfiq Hakim, Mustafa Lufti Manfalouti, and translations of the world’s classics: A Farewell to Arms, The Old Man and the Sea, War and Peace, Gorky, and Alberto Moravia.
Al-Hayat: Which singers do you like?
PM Hariri: Fairouz, Farid al-Atrash, and Abdel-Wahab.
Al-Hayat: Are you obsessed about history, and how you’ll be portrayed?
PM Hariri: It concerns me but I’m not obsessed about it. I think it becomes an obsession in a certain phase of one’s life, and political work.
Al-Hayat: What do you expect will be written about you in history?
PM Hariri: I expect that it will be written that I rebuilt the country.
Al-Hayat: Do you mean to link your name with the name of a city?
PM Hariri: Perhaps it’s now linked, or at least the reconstruction of Beirut and the work underway, despite all of the attacks and distortions.
Al-Hayat: Aren’t you afraid that history will be unfair?
PM Hariri: It would be difficult for it to be unjust if it’s written with fairness.
With King Fahd
Al-Hayat: How were your ties in Saudi Arabia strengthened?
PM Hariri: Nasser Rashid is a dear friend and brother. He studied in the US and received a doctorate in engineering. He took his own path, like I did. He didn’t think about commissions. He chose to be an adviser, and I chose to be a contractor. He’s worked in that until today. He would take work from the government and I would carry out work for the government. We weren’t concerned with the role of middleman, in the sense of foreign companies and getting commissions. Our way of work was different. He’s a very respected person and we’ve had a strong and continuing relationship, up to the present.
Al-Hayat: They say that he played a role in seeing a relationship established between you and King Fahd bin Abdel-Aziz.
PM Hariri: In fact, things happened naturally. Dr. Nasser Rashed was an advisor to King Khaled and Prince Fahd, who was the crown prince. We were in the company that did the work. That’s how the relationship arose. King Fahd was personally concerned with things that he considered important for the State. The relationship with King Fahd was built step by step, and it was based on a simple matter of trust. I think that in human relations, you can’t do anything without trust. Trust is the basis. A strong and permanent relationship cannot arise unless it’s based on trust. I was, and still am, honest with the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, and he granted me his trust and this was passed to my son (Saad) who has taken over the business. I rarely intervene these days. In fact, the relationship of trust is with King Fahd, Prince Abdullah, Prince Sultan, Prince Nayef, Prince Salman, and with the family as a whole. It’s a relationship built on mutual respect and trust.
Al-Hayat: What year did your relationship with King Fahd begin?
PM Hariri: In 1977-1978.
Al-Hayat: This relationship with King Fahd seems special; what were the various phases it passed through?
PM Hariri: The most valuable thing a person can obtain is the trust of others, and to behave with honesty, trustworthiness, and devotion. I’ve always thought that lying is short-lived.
King Fahd is a special, unique person. He loves work, doing good things, achieving things. Achievement is a fundamental mater with him and he has left his clear stamp on the Kingdom. His role in the rise of a middle class was decisive. One of the most important things in Saudi Arabia is the existence of a wide middle class, people who see their interest as lying in the stability of the regime. King Fahd’s role has been distinguished in building, education, and wise policies.
Relations with Prince Abdullah are based on the same principle. If you want to sum up Prince Abdullah’s personality in a word, you can say that he’s a knight. He has the attributes of courage, valor, and loyalty. I think that he will lead the Kingdom, after King Fahd, with wisdom, and toward the better.
Al-Hayat: Is it the element of trust that has seen your institutions continue to operate in Saudi Arabia, even during difficult financial conditions?
PM Hariri: All states experience difficulties. I think that the foreign press has exaggerated these difficulties, as part of a campaign against the Kingdom, due to its pan-Arab positions. There have been difficulties, but Saudi Arabia has the power to overcome them.
Al-Hayat: What do you remember from your personal experience with King Fahd?
PM Hariri: Once, during the Iraq-Iran war, Iranian planes penetrated Saudi airspace and they were confronted by Saudi planes and ground artillery. Two Iranian planes were shot down and another damaged. I was with King Fahd when he was informed of the incident. He waited a bit, then ordered that the announcement be made, that one plane had been shot down. We asked him why, and he answered, “If we announce that three planes have been hit, it is as if we are insulting the Iranian Army. We don’t want a confrontation, or a problem with Iran. If we openly insult the Iranian Army, it will feel a duty to respond. The Iranian Army will know what happened and there’s no need to bring the entire incident into the open.”
This indicates the wisdom of King Fahd, which appeared at other times as well during this war, which was very sensitive for the region. He dealt with the problem of the Hajj and the pilgrims in the same spirit. King Fahd always found ways to defuse tension that existed. With this policy, he succeeded in avoiding serious confrontations, which has now permitted the establishment of friendly relations between the two countries. Between these two countries, certain incidents have taken place, and the Iranians know that the Kingdom doesn’t want a clash to take place. However, it has acted decisively in some incidents. As King Fahd used to tell me, Iran is a State that has existed for thousands of years, and we are a nation that has existed for thousands of years. We cannot get rid of Iran, and neither they us. Some time is needed for people to calm down and sit at the same table to solve their problems, calmly. We should show openness, and patience. In fact, Syria played a role in calming the atmosphere between Iran and Saudi Arabia. I know about this topic; I had a role in it. I went on behalf of King Fadh dozens of times regarding this matter.
Something else that took place was when Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait and the Palestinians, whose position was known, tried to open a channel of communication between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. They called a group in the Kingdom and I was one of the people who was involved in preparation. They said that they had an urgent letter from President Saddam Hussein to King Fahd.
The letter reached King Fahd. It said that Saddam was ready to withdraw from Kuwait if King Fahd agreed to meet with him in a tent on the Iraqi-Saudi border. King Fahd, with his usual skill, sent an answer asking, “Why meet on the borders? I’m ready to go to Baghdad but we want a letter from the Iraqi President saying that he is ready to withdraw from Kuwait if we meet. We still have the letter and it’s still too early to disclose things that we have. King Fahd was serious and ready to go to Baghdad, based on what he told us, and announce that there was a withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Perhaps for that reason, the Saudi media delayed in mentioning the invasion. King Fahd explained this to us. He said that he thought Saddam might have been affected by the international reaction to the military act that he had carried out against Kuwait, so we should offer him a way to withdraw via Saudi Arabia. However, he didn’t exploit this opportunity.
Al-Hayat: They say that King Fahd was very pained by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
PM Hariri: Yes, he was. The entire Saudi royal family was. The Kingdom had supported Iraq throughout the Iraq-Iran war. King Fahd is a smart and brave ruler and he has a clear idea about regional and international politics. A skilled conversationalist and what he says is pleasant. His presence is attractive and he captivates the people he talks with. Loyalty is a trait of the Saudi royal family. Did you notice the centennial celebration of entering Riyadh? They honored all of those who were with King Abdel-Aziz, from the fighters to the cooks.