Lebanon: The Billionaire Solution

Article excerpt

Lebanon has a new prime minister. The difference is that he does not belong to the established and largely discredited political elite. He is also a naturalised Saudi citizen. Giles Trendle reports from Beirut that Rafic Hariri may represent Lebanon's last chance to revive its fortunes.

IMMEDIATELY AFTER the designation of the billionaire businessman, Rafic Hariri, as Lebanon's new prime minister, the Lebanese pound began to regain value on the local foreign exchange market. The rise in value of the national currency was an indicator of the hope and confidence that the Lebanese place in their new prime minister.

Hariri, a 48-year-old Sunni Muslim, born the son of a farm-hand in the southern Lebanese town of Sidon, is today rumoured to have a personal fortune of over $3bn. He made his money in Saudi Arabia where he enjoys very close ties to the Saudi royal family and in 1978 was granted the rare privilege of Saudi nationality.

An overwhelming number of Lebanese are now looking to Hariri, well-known for his philanthropic donations in the past, for deliverance from economic depression and ruin. People hope that with his vast wealth, his international connections and his proven business acumen, Hariri can emulate his personal rags-to-riches success by rejuvenating Lebanon, currently in economic tatters.

It is still too early to see if such unbounded popular optimism is justified. Hariri's nomination may help reestablish confidence in the country, indispensable to a return of foreign and local investment. But this mammoth task could prove too big a challenge even for this well-connected money baron.

Hariri will head a ministerial cabinet, already being referred to by the local press as the "government of salvation," with the primary task of reversing the country's economic crisis. The new government's aim will be to beat back monetary collapse (already auspicious signs on that front), reconstitute foreign exchange reserves in the Central Bank, and attempt to reach budgetary equilibrium as soon as possible.

Hariri's government is also expected to reduce the bloated public administration, tackle the politico-economic problem of war refugees (The Middle East, September 1992), and initiate the vast reconstruction programme for Beirut and the rest of the country. All this adds up to a heavy work load.

The new prime minister is expected to inject a lot of his own cash into the country's recovery. But how deep are his pockets?

The selection of Hariri is an interesting indicator of Syria's self-assured position in Lebanon today. …