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Monday, 4 September, 2000, 16:38 GMT 17:38 UK
Rafik Hariri: Billionaire politician
Rafik Hariri
Rafik Hariri celebrates his election victory with wife Nazek
By BBC News Online's Kathryn Westcott

Rafik Hariri, people say, loves to project himself as 'Mr Lebanon'.

He dominated post-war political and business life and was widely credited with getting the country back on its feet after the devastating 15-year civil war.

Using his financial clout, the billionaire entrepreneur attracted foreign investment and set up private redevelopment firms to rebuild the business heart of Beirut.

But in the process he saddled the country with big debts and departed from power in 1998 after a row with President Lahoud.

Saudi fortune

Unlike many key figures in Levantine politics, Mr Hariri did not come from a political family or powerful clan. Rather, he was born in 1944 to a poor Sunni Muslim family in the southern port of Sidon.

After training as a teacher, he followed a path well trodden by many of his countrymen, to the Gulf to make his fortune.

He found employment in a construction firm in Saudi Arabia, eventually establishing his own firm, Saudi Oger.

Beirut's sea front
Mr Hariri created grand schemes to rebuild Lebanon
He became the personal contractor for Prince Fahd, now king of Saudi Arabia, amassing a fortune that propelled him into the US magazine Forbes as one of the richest 100 men in the world.

One conservative estimate puts his fortune at $2bn, and his business interests in Lebanon include owning a vast media empire.

A flamboyant figure, he has long been well regarded among international leaders, counting Jaques Chirac as a close friend.

Even after he left the premiership and joined the opposition, he continued to receive high-powered international guests.

Last year, he received acclaim at home for bringing Pavarotti to Beirut, with the tenor being flown in by Mr Hariri's private Boeing 727.

High hopes

When he returned from Saudi Arabia in 1992 as the country's prime minister, he was seen as a breath of fresh air in a country dominated by former militia leaders.

Ordinary people pinned hopes on the dynamic tycoon to restore Beirut's pre-war reputation as a leading financial centre.

He put the country back on the international financial map through the issuing of Eurobonds and won plaudits from the World Bank for his plan to borrow and beg for reconstruction money.

But his economic record was mixed: his ambitious borrow-and-build schemes left massive public debt and budget deficit, which pushed up interest rates and slowed growth.

Street scene in Beirut in the early 90s
The former prime minister was accused of not doing enough for the poor
He was accused of ignoring the poor, despite his long record of funding charitable causes.

Ordinary Lebanese began to judge him by the same standards of cynicism applied to other politicians, many of whom had made their fortunes in civil war activities.

He left power in 1998, after a clash of egos with Mr Lahoud, during which Mr Hariri withdrew his candidacy for re-election.

This came about partly because Mr Hariri was reluctant to play second fiddle to the former army chief, who cut a more imposing figure as president than his predecessor Elias Hrawi.

Mr Hariri's legacy was further tainted by accusations that his government had sucked the country dry, after a number of government officials were investigated for corruption.

But, despite this, mounting apathy towards the government of Prime Minister Salim Hoss has boosted Mr Hariri's image as the country's only hope to save it from economic collapse.

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See also:

03 Sep 00 | Middle East
The battle for Lebanon's premiership
20 Jul 00 | Country profiles
Country profile: Lebanon
29 Aug 00 | Middle East
Opposition victory in Lebanon election
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