Hariri’s Son Emerges As Lebanon Kingmaker

By SAM F. GHATTAS, Associated Press Writer

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BEIRUT, Lebanon – At 35 and presiding over a multibillion dollar business empire, Saadeddine Hariri was a stranger to Lebanon’s intricate and sometimes violent politics. But the massive bombing that killed his father and shook a nation to its core three months ago also thrust him to the political forefront.

For Saad, as he’s better known here, it has been a crash course in politics since the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri

There is even talk about Saad becoming the next prime minister, though he has not said whether he would seek the job.

Saad, who holds a Georgetown University degree in international business, stepped into his father’s limelight after the assassination.

“My father served Lebanon all his life, and we will keep serving Lebanon also, like him,” he told reporters the day after the blast, speaking on behalf of his family as he stood near the explosion site.

Last month, the family announced that Saad would assume his father’s political mantle, skipping over his brother, Bahaa, several years his senior.

The family gave no explanation for favoring Saad, but it is clear that he’s the one with the stature — and the income — to lead the family. He is, after all, the one his father chose 11 years earlier to oversee, develop and expand his major businesses.

Saad launched immediately into his new role.

Since April, the young Hariri has met French President Jacques Chirac and Vice President
Dick Cheney. He has emerged as a major player in the opposition, with the challenge of trying to keep diverse sectarian and political coalitions under the same umbrella.

His Future television station’s regular images of Saad greeting supporters, shaking hands and holding babies has catapulted the young Hariri to prominence in every corner of the country.

But Saad seems to have retained humility despite his riches and sudden political fame.

In a recent speech, the soft-spoken, goateed Saad acknowledged his inexperience and urged supporters: “Warn me when I’m wrong.”

Saad is running for his father’s seat in Beirut, leading a ticket of 19 candidates that is expected to sweep the capital’s race. His Future Movement is also likely to win big nationwide; the local media is predicting he will control the biggest bloc in the legislature and, together with his opposition allies, win a solid majority.

There is already talk about Saad becoming the next prime minister. All the requirements are there to propel him to that post: he is Sunni Muslim — the sect allocated the premier’s job in Lebanon’s sectarian-based political system; he will likely have a majority in Parliament; and the backing of Saudi Arabia, a major Arab player. The Hariris carry Saudi citizenship and are close to the ruling family.

So far, Saad has not publicly said whether he will seek the job but with such an expected majority he will be at the least the political kingmaker.

Saad has already weathered the first storm of his political career, putting off the announcement of his Beirut electoral ticket by several days in order to negotiate a compromise with Christian allies who had sought to put forward a different candidate. Although he had the power to press ahead without a deal, his negotiations prove his philosophy of inclusion.

Saad told his mainly Sunni supporters at the mid-May launching of his ticket: “When you wake up every morning, I want you to say three times ‘national unity,’ and before you sleep say ‘national unity, national unity, national unity.’ “

For now his focus is to win the election, effect change and follow up on the international investigation into the bombing that killed his father and 20 others. The killing sparked anti-Syrian protests and intensified international calls that forced Syria to withdraw its army last month and end 29 years of dominance.

“The blood of Rafik Hariri will not go in vain,” Saad said, promising to follow the footsteps of his father, who is credited with rebuilding Lebanon from the destruction of the 1975-90 civil war and work to solidify national unity while preserving the country’s independence.

Though a political novice at home, Saad’s father had employed him on private missions abroad.

During Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah’s visit to the
United Nations in 2000, Saad was seen mingling with senior members of the delegation. When Saudi Arabia was involved in a deal with Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf for the release and exile to the kingdom of Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 2000, Saad Hariri was there, walking on the airport tarmac with Sharif.

A globetrotter like his father, Saad has been since 1994 general manager of Rafik Hariri’s $4 billion company, Saudi Oger, which employs 35,000 people. He also heads several businesses with interests in telecommunications in the Middle East and Africa. He has a special interest in communications and high-tech equipment.

Saad is married to Lara al-Azem, a Syrian who was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, and has two children, son Hussameddine, 6, and daughter Lulua, 3.