Lebanese pin great hopes on premier's deep pockets


BEIRUT -- If rebuilding Lebanon will require a joint venture o the gods, then Rafik Hariri may be the one to put the deal together.

Mr. Hariri, confirmed as Lebanese prime minister this month, is a high-flying businessman with vast international finances at his command.

One of Forbes magazine's "100 Richest Men," Mr. Hariri, 48, has been frequently compared to Ross Perot: a self-made businessman, never held public office, suspicious of the press, an anti-politician who promises to get things done.

The comparison might more accurately be Ross Perot as president of Delaware. Mr. Hariri's personal fortune, estimated at $3 billion dollars, could dwarf the Lebanese economy.

Hopes that he will spend a goodly chunk of that to personally rebuild Lebanon brought fireworks to the Beirut skies. His appointment Oct. 22 caused a rush of confidence in the Lebanese pound, which regained nearly one-third its deflated value.

But some believe that, like Mr. Perot, Mr. Hariri will find himself frustrated by politics.

"I don't think the picture of him is realistic," says Talal Salman, editor of the daily As-Safir. "No one-man team can make much of a success of Lebanon."

His style may indeed trespass on political domains. His first day in the prime minister's palace, he called his workmen to throw out the old furniture and install bullet-proof windows, to the astonishment of the manager.

It is a typical results-oriented approach. To get the parties in Lebanon's long civil war to sit down together, he personally paid for the peace conference in Taif, Saudi Arabia, that ended the Lebanon civil war in 1990.

Mr. Hariri, the son of a Lebanese farmer from South Lebanon, quit college to work in Saudi Arabia. He started a construction firm there and won the king's confidence by quickly delivering a new Islamic Conference Center.

He holds dual Lebanese and Saudi citizenships, and his international connections include nine French banks and the huge Bechtel corporation. He reputedly gives $90 million a year in charity to Lebanon, including scholarships for some 12,000 Lebanese students to study abroad.

"He'll make this into New York, and fast," says a merchant.

But he has detractors: "His group just buys out the opposition," says a former government member.

Still, only the dozen new Islamic members of Parliament, suspicious of his capitalist credentials, voted against Mr. Hariri's appointment.

"He will be the first to profit," said Zuhare Obeidi, an Islamic deputy. "He will get his money in eight months and be gone."

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