Lebanon's Hariri: political scion and Hezbollah critic

(MENAFN- The Peninsula) BEIRUT: Saad Hariri, who resigned as Lebanon's prime minister this month, is the son of assassinated billionaire ex-premier Rafik Hariri, and a fierce critic of Iran and its powerful Lebanese ally, Hezbollah.

The stocky 47-year-old, who sports trademark slicked-back hair and a closely cropped beard, was thrust onto the political stage after his father was assassinated in February 2005.

But he has struggled to fill his father's shoes, with both of his terms as prime minister ending abruptly while he was outside Lebanon.

On November 4, Hariri announced he was stepping down in a televised statement delivered from Saudi Arabia, where he was born and has spent much of his life.

Hariri said he was resigning over Iran's "grip" on Lebanon, adding that he feared assassination.

Hariri's political career has been defined by harsh criticism of Iran, the Syrian government and their close ally, the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah.

He blamed Hezbollah for his father's death but has had little success in reining in the movement, which was the sole faction to retain its arsenal after Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.

Rollercoaster political career

Hariri launched his political career at the urging of his family, after his father was assassinated in a car bomb attack in Beirut.

He left his post in Saudi Arabia running the Oger firm that was the basis of his family's business empire.

Back in Beirut, Saad played a key role in mass demonstrations that culminated in the end of the Syrian government's 30-year military presence in Lebanon.

His political career has been something of a rollercoaster, beginning with his August 2007 formation of the Future Movement.

In Lebanon's 2009 legislative elections -- the country's last -- the Sunni-majority bloc won just over a quarter of the parliament's 128 seats.

Hariri has been regarded as the de facto leader of Lebanon's Sunni Muslim community, despite the occasional ribbing of detractors who mocked him as a political novice with sometimes hesitant formal Arabic.

Hariri is generally soft-spoken during his public pronouncements, eschewing the table-thumping style preferred by some of his political rivals.

His close friends say he enjoys cooking and exercising, and was known for making appearances at Beirut bike rides and the city's annual marathon.

Deposed, exiled, returned

Hariri began his first term as prime minister in November 2009, forming a unity government with Hezbollah and its allies after marathon negotiations.

But the confrontations with the Iran-backed movement had begun six months earlier, when Hezbollah fighters seized parts of Beirut following street battles with Future Movement supporters.

Hariri stayed on as prime minister for several rocky years, but in January 2011, Hezbollah and its allies abruptly withdrew their ministers from Lebanon's cabinet.

The move collapsed Hariri's first government while he was meeting with then-US president Barack Obama in Washington.

The deposed premier stayed in self-imposed exile in France and Saudi Arabia for several years, citing "security" concerns.

But in 2016, he decided to back a presidential bid by his rival, Hezbollah ally Michel Aoun, a move that ended more than two years of political stalemate and saw him return to head a unity government that again included Hezbollah.

Hariri's return to Lebanon, and to the premiership, gave him the chance to once again assume leadership of the Sunni community, though some detractors criticised his willingness to make "deals" with Hezbollah.

Saudi Arabia has long accused Iran and Hezbollah of effectively holding Lebanon hostage, even pulling the plug on funding for Lebanon's under-equipped military to protest against what it deemed undue influence.

'I am free'

Despite that, Hariri's resignation appeared to come as a shock to even the closest members of his entourage.

His announcement from Saudi Arabia, and on the kingdom's Al-Arabiya news channel, fuelled theories that he was stepping down under pressure from Riyadh.

Both his allies and detractors have suggested Saudi authorities could even be holding him against his will, though he firmly denied those claims in an interview on November 12.

"I am free here. If I want to travel tomorrow, I will," Hariri said on Sunday, pledging to return to Beirut "in two or three days".

Hariri's absence has created the fear of a power vacuum in the country, and questions about who could replace him.

He has faced criticism from within the Sunni community for failing to contain Hezbollah and for his lengthy absences from the country, raising the prospect of challengers from within his core constituency.

Hariri has Saudi citizenship and has tirelessly praised the kingdom, but the change of the guard in the country appears to have left the Lebanese leader with fewer allies in Riyadh than his father had.

His wife Lama Bashir-Azm, who is of Syrian origin, and their three children live in Saudi Arabia and remained there during his tenures as prime minister.


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