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Middle East: Hariri Death Leaves Lebanon's Economy In Dilemma

  • Peyman Pejman

http://gdb.rferl.org/FE0689EE-61B4-4953-898D-41DE74E02F2C_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/FE0689EE-61B4-4953-898D-41DE74E02F2C_mw800_mh600.jpg The bomb blast that killed Lebanese former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on 14 February. The car-bomb explosion that ripped through central Beirut nearly one month ago -- killing former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and nine other people -- threw the country's political scene into chaos. But it also imposed a new economic reality. Hariri ran Lebanese governments for more than a decade in the wake of a ruinous civil war, but his greatest impact was arguably on the country's economy. A real-estate magnate and friend to powerful Arab and Western interests, Hariri was a conspicuous part of virtually any discussion of Lebanon's economic fortunes.

Beirut, 11 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- If there is one thing that his supporters and detractors agree on following Rafiq Hariri's assassination, it is that the loss has put the country in a financial dilemma.

"Well, it has put the Lebanese economy in jeopardy," said Nichollas Chammas, a financial analyst in Beirut. "Because we have been fighting an uphill battle for the past 12 years -- ever since Rafiq Hariri came to power. All in all, Hariri was a bulldozer who has put the Lebanese economy back on track and back on the world map."

Hariri's legacy was the rebuilding of Beirut's old commercial district, which had been destroyed by years of civil war and Israeli invasions. But the project cost $30 billion -- money that Lebanon did not have and probably could n-o-t have borrowed if not for Hariri's personal connections to Arab and Western governments and investors.
"Syria is making something between 10 to 20 billion dollars per year from Lebanon. You know, they are partners in everything. [If] the [Lebanese] government wants to give you a new project to open a road, you have to have a partner, a Syrian partner -- the harbor, the same thing. [This is] a network that they have been able to build up of money laundering, of businesses, of commissions, of everything -- mafia, anything that you want."


But many in Lebanon have criticized Hariri, saying the reconstruction project cost far more than it should have. They have accused the former prime minister of caring less about proper planning than about the kind of lavish spending that marked his personal and political life.

In addition to the reconstruction debt, Hariri's governments regularly ran deficits that represented more than a quarter of overall spending.

The counterargument is that Lebanon had to spend heavily after the end of the civil war in 1990 to rebuild and expand the infrastructure before it could hope for sustained economic growth.

Yusuf Shibl, an economics professor at the American University in Beirut, is one of those who say Hariri spent more than he should have. "I think, as an economist, that Rafiq, being a successful [building] contractor in Saudi Arabia, he was impressed by the Saudi model during the oil boom, which was to build big projects," Shibl said. "He is a contractor, not an economist."

Hariri made billions in Saudi Arabia building palaces for members of the royal family. His strong ties within the Saudi kingdom secured much of the political and financial capital that Lebanon needed under Hariri's leadership.

Now that Hariri is gone, many economists wonder how the country can continue on a path of renewal, service its debt, and attract new investment all at the same time.

Chammas says Lebanon needs to organize an international conference along the model of "Paris II," which was held in the French capital in November 2002. Hariri's brainchild, "Paris II" infused billions of dollars in Arab and Western cash into Lebanon's ailing economy.

"My hope is that we will be able to organize another round of restructuring," Chammas said. "Perhaps we don't need another 'Paris II.' Perhaps that can be done locally through the banking system, through the financial community. Because there is a lot of liquidity around here in Lebanon. I think that the solution can be found in Lebanon. It can be found with Arab private investors -- and no more [with] the governments."

There are some who would like to see a Syrian military withdrawal from Lebanon accompanied by a diminished financial role for Damascus in the Lebanese economy.

Jibran Tueini, publisher of the respected "An-Nahar" newspaper, says Syria has created a pervasive financial network in Lebanon that siphons off billions of dollars from the economy each year -- money that could otherwise be reinvested into his country's economy.

"Syria is making something between 10 to 20 billion dollars per year from Lebanon," Tueini said. "You know, they are partners in everything. [If] the [Lebanese] government wants to give you a new project to open a road, you have to have a partner, a Syrian partner -- the harbor, the same thing. [This is] a network that they have been able to build up of money laundering, of businesses, of commissions, of everything -- mafia, anything that you want."

Meanwhile, there is a difference of opinion among economists over whether Lebanon can sustain the unprecedented economic growth of 5 percent that the country enjoyed last year.

Where they do agree is in believing that the make-or-break test for pushing the country's economy forward has nothing to do with economics. Instead, it revolves around whether the country can peacefully weather the current political crisis.
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