The irony is that "Mr. Lebanon," the big man who came to define his country to those outside it, wasn't one of them. Hariri was the son of a Sunni fruit picker from the southern port city of Sidon, a nobody from a family of unknowns. Leaders love to boast about their humble origins, but in Lebanon's tribal kakistocracy, for a peasant to ascend as far as a Parliament seat is still rare. For such a man to become a successful prime minister was almost unthinkable.
Hariri followed the path to success trod by so many young Lebanese: exile. In Saudi Arabia, his talent for getting construction projects done in record time made him a favorite of the royal family. As the desert kingdom's envoy to Lebanon, Hariri funneled cash and diplomacy to various parties during the fifteen-year civil war, all the while waiting patiently for his prize: Lebanon's reconstruction contract.
In 1989, toward the end of the civil war, Hariri helped broker a summit in the Saudi resort town of Taif, where he had built a luxury hotel for his royal patrons. In the resulting Taif Accord (which some even claim Hariri wrote himself), the various warlords who had spent the past fourteen years butchering other Lebanese granted each other immunity, an act of collective amnesia that set the tone for the country's postwar orgy of forgetting. Accountability, truth and reconciliation, restitution or even acknowledgment of crimes committed--none of these were invited to Taif. Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad, an American ally at the time, had killed thousands of his own people and countless Lebanese (including at least some of the 17,000 Lebanese who disappeared during the civil war, their bodies never found). But with Saudi and American blessings, the Taif Accord installed the Syrian regime as the occupying power charged with Lebanon's postwar "security."
For a country sick to death of warlords, Hariri seemed like a godsend. Here, at last, was a man with no blood on his hands; where others sprayed bullets, he spread the soothing salve of Saudi cash. Unlike the landed zaims, who mainly helped their co-religionists, Hariri made charitable donations that crossed sectarian lines. His Hariri Foundation, established in 1979, gave out tuition loans for young Lebanese students. Over the next twenty years, he subsidized the education of 35,000 young students regardless of sect--in a tiny country like Lebanon, a significant chunk of a generation's youth.
And so by the time he became prime minister, in 1992, Hariri was immensely popular. When he proposed a dramatic renovation of Beirut's old downtown, using a private company with sweeping powers to expropriate land from its owners, he had the backing of most of the country's financial and intellectual elite. In 1995 writer Philip Khoury gushed that "investment in Solidere more closely represents a wager on a country than an investment in a company." To be against Hariri, then, was to be against Lebanon itself. The young man from the hinterlands had become the country's biggest zaim.
Instead of letting the rebuilding founder amid the factional infighting and corruption that curse the Lebanese state to this day, Hariri proposed an alternative: A private company, not subject to civil-service hiring requirements, would use the authority of the state to seize several hundred acres of privately owned land. Freed from the shackles of bureaucracy, this new company would revitalize the shellshocked old city center. And if the 20,000 or so souls who lived or owned land downtown were upset at being forced to render it up, the company had a plan for them: The value of their claims would be determined by special committees--paid for, indirectly, by Solidere--that would award them compensation in the form of Solidere stock. If Kenneth Lay had been governor of Texas and granted Enron sweeping powers to seize Texans' homes and land, giving the homeowners nothing but Enron stock in return, it would have been something like Solidere.
To call Solidere's contract a sweetheart deal is like calling Enron a troubled company. Hariri was a major shareholder in Solidere, whose board of directors included his lawyer, his past and present employees and reportedly his Saudi business associates; at the same time, he was also the prime minister of the government that granted Solidere this extraordinary power to seize other people's private land. The deal was negotiated between Hariri's company, Hariri's government and one of Hariri's former employees, who was head of Lebanon's reconstruction authority. "One can thus assume that these 'negotiations' took place in a rather cordial atmosphere," Reinoud Leenders dryly notes in his forthcoming book Divided We Rule: Reconstruction, Institution Building and Corruption in Post-War Lebanon. This well-sourced and painstakingly footnoted investigation reveals how Solidere reaped millions (and possibly billions) that should have swelled the coffers of the Lebanese state--which today, with a rapidly rising $41 billion public debt, boasts one of the highest debt-to-GDP ratios in the world. Leenders--a former analyst for the International Crisis Group who teaches at the University of Amsterdam--combed through reams of financial reports and newspaper morgues in English, French and Arabic, carefully sifting through documents and depositions to critically evaluate the allegations of rampant corruption in Lebanon, including those about Hariri and Solidere. (Some of the most damning details in his book come from interviews with the company's own officials.) The result is a devastating indictment of Solidere, and of the man who founded and effectively controlled it.