Anti-Hezbollah Hero or Saudi Pawn: Who Is Lebanon's Saad Hariri?

Beginning his reign in his father's shadow, the popular politician sometimes called 'too good' of a man now finds himself caught between the region's two powers

FILE PHOTO: Saad Hariri, in 2008, then the Lebanese Parliament's majority leader. Hariri waves to supporters marking the third anniversary of his father Rafi Hariri's assassination in downtown Beirut, Lebanon.
FILE PHOTO: Saad Hariri, in 2008, then the Lebanese Parliament's majority leader. Hariri waves to supporters marking the third anniversary of his father Rafi Hariri's assassination in downtown BeirutCredit: AP

Saad Hariri has seen a lot in his 47 years.

His father, Lebanon's charismatic leader and influential businessman Rafik Hariri, was assassinated in a 2005 bombing that rocked the country and thrust the young man into a political career before he was ready.

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He led an uprising that ended decades of Syrian military presence in Lebanon, and was later wanted by the government in Damascus for arming rebels seeking to overthrow President Bashar Assad.

He was ousted as prime minister by the militant group Hezbollah in 2011 while meeting with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office; years later, he formed another unity government with the same group, which was implicated in his father's death.

FILE - In this Jan. 12, 2011 file photo, President Barack Obama meets with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. Hariri who resigned from Saudi ArabCredit: Charles Dharapak/AP

But the most bizarre twist came two weeks ago, when he was summoned to Riyadh by his patrons, the Saudi royal family. The next day, on November 4, he resigned in a broadcast on Saudi TV.

The man who has played a balancing act for years in Lebanon's delicate, sectarian-based political system was cast onto an unknown path, as was his country.

Hariri finds himself caught between the region's two feuding powers, the Sunni kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, raising questions about the fate of the dynasty that has been the face of politics for decades in Lebanon.

>>Saudi Arabia has no Lebanon endgame in sight - and it’s bound to backfire | Analysis

"In many ways, Saad is a copy of Rafik Hariri, with the difference in circumstances," said Paula Yacoubian, the Future TV anchor who interviewed Hariri on Sunday in his residence in Saudi Arabia, where many Lebanese believe he is being held against his will.

His father was a self-made billionaire who amassed his construction fortune in Saudi Arabia and then helped rebuild a civil war-shattered Lebanon as prime minister. He was killed when his motorcade was struck by a truck bomb in Beirut on February 14, 2005, and four Hezbollah members are being tried in absentia by a UN-backed court for the killing.

The bombing immediately thrust Saad Hariri into the spotlight — and the political novice had to learn fast.

With an international business degree from Georgetown University, he moved into his new role, but the shadow of his father was always there. For years during meetings, he kept a large portrait of his father sitting on an empty chair next to his. A pin of his father still adorns the lapel of his suits.

Like his father, he lives in fear of being assassinated, traveling around town in elaborate security convoys.

File photo: Saad Hariri, Lebanon's now ex-prime minister speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.SCredit: Zach Gibson/Bloomberg

In his resignation speech from Riyadh, Hariri cited fears for his life as one reason for stepping down, in addition to blaming what he called meddling in the region by Iran and Hezbollah.

The resignation caught Lebanon by surprise, and many believed that Hariri, a dual Lebanese-Saudi national, was coerced by the Saudis. Lebanese President Michel Aoun refused to accept it until he returned home to Beirut.

In Sunday's interview of Hariri on Future TV, which is affiliated with his party, Yacoubian spent more than an hour trying to dispel speculation of coercion.

A sad and weary Hariri was emotional at times in the broadcast, appearing to hold back tears and sparking sympathy for him. But the interview did little to ease suspicions and only increased calls for his return.

Yacoubian said later that Hariri clearly seemed to be under pressure as he finds himself in a tough spot.

"Hariri is a kind man and politics sometimes needs foxes. ... He is a good man, that's what he is. Maybe in politics you shouldn't be that good," she said.

The resignation, aiming to pressure coalition partner Hezbollah to stay out of regional affairs, instead has turned into a campaign for Hariri to return home and either formally resign or resume the job.

"If Hariri were a savvier politician, he could have used different words; he could have refused to resign, or insisted on doing so from Beirut," wrote Lebanon expert Thanassis Cambanis in the Atlantic.

His resignation appears to have caused cracks within the family and the Future Movement he heads, as rumors circulate about possible replacements.

In many ways, the soft-spoken Hariri has always been a stranger to Lebanon's intricate and sometimes violent politics.

Despite his wealth and sudden political fame, he has stayed humble, and comes across as affable and warm. At lunches with journalists, he is relaxed, but guarded, often receiving his own separate healthy menu of grilled chicken and vegetables, before lighting a long cigar over coffee and dessert. On social media, he often posts smiling selfies with journalists and politicians.

He ran in the annual Beirut Marathon and supported civil marriage, a popular cause stiffly rejected by conservative clergymen in Lebanon.

"I'm one of the people," Hariri said in the interview, affectionately thanking them for calling for his return. "I'm my father's son."

FILE - In this Nov. 13, 2016 file photo, then Lebanese Prime Minister designate, Saad Hariri, wearing number 3 runs in the 7K Fun Run of the Beirut marathon, Lebanon. Hariri who resigned from Saudi ArCredit: Hassan Ammar/AP

While he was always critical of Hezbollah and Iran, he has found a way to work with them.

In 2009, a Saudi and Syrian rapprochement after years of tension from the elder Hariri's assassination made it possible for the son to form a unity government. As part of easing strains, Saad Hariri had to meet Assad, whom he had accused of involvement in his father's killing. Yacoubian, who has interviewed him five times, said it was the only other time besides Sunday that she detected he was tense.

In his first term as prime minister, Hariri served for over a year, filled with political stress arising from investigations into his father's death, which at the time he blamed on the Syrian government.

In January 2010, Hezbollah ministers and their allies toppled Hariri's government by resigning from the national unity Cabinet, rendering him a lame duck just as he met with Obama in Washington.

After the demonstrations against Assad turned into an armed rebellion, Syria issued a warrant for Hariri's arrest in December 2011 on charges of providing weapons to the Sunni rebels.

For years, Hariri lived in self-imposed exile between Saudi Arabia and France, before he returned in 2016 to form a new unity government.

FILE - In this Dec. 19, 2009 file photo, Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, welcomes Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri, at Tishrin presidential palace in Damascus, Syria. Hariri who resigned froCredit: Bassem Tellawi/AP

In an article in The New York Times in September 2016, months before taking office, Hariri urged Iran to stop meddling in Arab affairs. His rhetoric against Iran and Hezbollah was not much different from his defiant words in the November 4 resignation from Saudi Arabia.

>> For many Sunni Muslim countries, Iran is not necessarily a threat | Analysis <<

"Iran can be part of the solution. But it must accept the extended Arab hand, led by Saudi Arabia, for normalized, neighborly relations, allowing Sunni Arabs to get down to the real task of getting rid of extremism," Hariri wrote.

In December 2016, another tacit agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran made Hariri prime minister again in a coalition government that included Hezbollah. It was yet another uneasy partnership that seemed to teeter on the edge of collapse, particularly as Hezbollah became more assertive in the region.

Still, in the days before he resigned, Hariri was enthusiastic about economic progress, tweeting and posting about parliamentary elections expected in the spring, and stressing the need for national unity above all else.

Hariri's last meeting in Lebanon before he was summoned to Saudi Arabia was with an adviser to Iran's supreme leader. Speculation has been rife that the meeting was the reason for Riyadh's surprise summoning. In the interview with Yacoubian, Hariri said he told Ali Akbar Velayati to end Iran's meddling in Arab affairs.

His comment prompted a back and forth with Velayati. What is clear is that Hariri got caught between the region's two feuding powers.

Hariri "wanted to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and we welcomed it," Velayati said.

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