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Rafiq Hariri: Driving Force Behind Beirut Reconstruction


Many Lebanese are in mourning following the death of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, killed in a bomb explosion Monday. The 60-year-old billionaire politician was a powerful political force in Lebanon and throughout the Arab world. And while he is considered the main driving force behind the reconstruction of Beirut, he has also been blamed for the near collapse of the Lebanese economy as the result of his reconstruction efforts.

Rafiq Hariri was born in Lebanon in 1944, the son of a Sunni Muslim farmer and grocer.

At the age of 20, Mr. Hariri enrolled at Beirut Arab University to study accounting. But, a year later he dropped out of college and moved to Saudi Arabia.

He initially worked as a mathematics teacher in Jeddah, and as an auditor for an engineering company. Then, in 1969, he founded his own subcontracting firm. As the result of the oil boom of the early 1970s, Mr. Hariri amassed a fortune in government and private contracts to build offices, hospitals, hotels and residential palaces. In less than a decade, Mr. Hariri owned the largest construction empire in the Middle East.

His business success won the respect of the Saudi royal family, and in 1978 he was granted Saudi citizenship. In the early 1980s he became one of the 100 wealthiest men in the world. He expanded his holdings to include a network of banks in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, as well as insurance, publishing and light industry companies.

During the 1980s, Mr. Hariri acted as a personal emissary to Lebanon for Saudi King Fahd.

It was believed that Mr. Hariri was a major financier of opposing militias in Lebanon during the country's civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990. His critics would later accuse him of helping to destroy downtown Beirut in order to rebuild it again and make billions of dollars in the process.

In 1990, Mr. Hariri returned to Lebanon and began negotiating reconstruction contracts with the Syrian-installed government in Lebanon. By 1992, he was at the helm of reconstruction projects in war-ravaged Beirut. In the same year, he won the backing of Damascus and was appointed prime minister of Lebanon.

He was considered the main driving force behind the reconstruction of Beirut. He slashed income and corporate taxes to a flat 10 percent, and borrowed billions of dollars to rebuild the infrastructure of the capital city. However, the cost of reconstruction left the country facing billions of dollars in foreign debt. Forty percent of the government budget went to service the debt.

Economic growth slowed from eight percent in 1994 to less than two percent in 1998. And, during this time, the Hariri government was accused of rampant corruption.

With the Lebanese economy on the verge of collapse, Damascus ousted Mr. Hariri as prime minister in 1998. But, just two years later, Mr. Hariri was again appointed prime minister after he and his political allies swept to power in parliamentary elections.

For the past four years, he worked to initiate economic reforms and was credited with reducing the size of government bureaucracy in Lebanon. He has also attempted to privatize public sector industries and cut government spending.

In October, following several long-standing public disagreements with President Lahoud, Mr. Hariri resigned as prime minister. Afterward, he moved closer to the opposition camp, in large part because of a dispute concerning the role of Syria in Lebanon.

The former prime minister publicly rejected a Syrian demand that President Lahoud remain in office for three more years. Pro-Syrian allies of Mr. Lahoud accused Mr. Hariri of leading a United Nations resolution, adopted last September, that demanded Syria withdraw its army from Lebanon and stop interfering in the country.

Following his death on Monday, the secretary general of the 22-member Arab League, Amr Moussa, called Rafiq Hariri a great Arab leader and a first class politician. Political analysts and observers said the death of Mr. Hariri could be a serious blow to the stability of the entire region.

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