Sidelined and relatively silent for 15 years, Bahaa Hariri is using Lebanon’s protest movement to make political inroads and is allying with his brother’s rivals
Bahaa Hariri speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos (Flickr)
The threat that Lebanon’s protest movement would be co-opted by the country’s political elite has loomed large for Lebanese since demonstrations first broke out in October.
Those concerns appeared realised on Saturday, as a controversial protest in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square saw supporters of the Kataeb and Lebanese Forces parties facing off against those of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement.
Among the crowd, however, were supporters of a man who wears one of the most prominent names in Lebanon, but who has been noticeably absent from the political scene for years: Bahaa Hariri.
As the older brother to Saad Hariri, former prime minister and head of the predominantly Sunni Future Movement, Bahaa has kept out of politics almost entirely since the assassination of his father, Rafik Hariri, in 2005.
Since February, however, the construction business magnate has hinted at an interest in returning to politics through the support of a youth forum led by a former member of his family’s party.
His return to visibility raises questions about his relationship with Saad, the younger Hariri’s place as Lebanon’s most prominent Sunni politician, and where the loyalties of Saudi Arabia and the UAE lie.
Founded in April 2018, the Beirut-based Political Economic Social Forum is self-described as a collective of civil society actors, creating a space for Lebanese youth to discuss pressing issues and policy-based solutions.
The project was founded by Nabil el-Halabi, a lawyer who also heads the Lebanese Institute for Democracy and Human Rights.
However, over the past year the forum has expanded, with offices opening in Tripoli, Akkar, Sidon, and other Lebanese governorates.
El-Halabi said that this came with the support of Hariri, someone he said he has known for over a decade.
“He isolated himself from political talk and public affairs,” El-Halabi told local television station Al-Jadeed. “Now he has a vision for Lebanon… [but] he has no interest in becoming prime minister… I can confirm that.”
El-Halabi has since been acting as a de facto spokesperson for Bahaa Hariri on Lebanese media. On 10 May, he announced that Hariri would be launching his own television station within the next two months.
Ahmad Halawani, coordinator at the forum’s Tripoli branch, said they want to turn slogans into enforceable policies.
“Our goal is building a state of institutions,” Halawani told Middle East Eye. “We want to translate the slogans of all the political parties to make them actions, not just sayings.”
Though supportive of the Lebanese uprising against corruption and political mismanagement, Halawani said that the differences separating the various groups in the movement is a problem the forum believes needs to be resolved.
“The problem with the revolution resembles Lebanon itself,” he said, describing it as an issue of “management and administration”.
Halawani added that the forum has communicated with different groups from Lebanese civil society, some whom he described as “friends of Bahaa,” though there are clear differences between them.
‘He has a vision for Lebanon… [but] he has no interest in becoming prime minister… I can confirm that’
– Nabil el-Halabi, Hariri associate
“We need to move from the ‘I’ to the ‘we,'” he said, urging Lebanese to “focus on where we intersect rather than where we divert”.
But the issue of Hezbollah, too, seems key.
Hariri’s supporters in the protest on Saturday told MEE they were there to protest against the Iran-backed party’s arms, and it appears the forum has become a platform to promote this and other policies that Hariri supports.
Though they both agree on the need to dismantle Hezbollah’s military wing, and have previously accused the party of being responsible for their father’s assassination, Saad Hariri has taken a far more diplomatic approach in his rhetoric on the matter over the past decade.
And it appears that this more aggressive rhetoric is a unique selling point for the older Hariri, particularly at a time where Hezbollah and its allies are gaining political ground.
Bahaa’s press adviser, former CEO of Voice of Beirut radio station Jerry Maher, tweeted a picture of them together, praising Hariri for saying “what others wouldn’t dare to say about the corrupt and their relationship to Hezbollah’s arms”. In a short column in Saudi newspaper Arab News in mid-May, Maher described Bahaa as a potential “saviour” for Lebanon.
From business magnate to political patron
With a net worth of around $2bn, Bahaa’s economic endeavours have fared far more favourably than those of his younger brother, whose assets have declined from around $3.3bn in 2008 to around half that value today.
Unlike Saad and other siblings and relatives, who often intertwine various ventures and sectors, Bahaa appears to have cut a path somewhat separate from the Hariri family business.
He sold his stake in family-owned construction company Saudi Oger to Saad in 2008.
In 2002, Bahaa founded Horizon Group Holdings, a property investment and development company, with operations in Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and projects in the first two.
‘Bahaa knows that on some level his support for the Center offers him access in Washington that he wouldn’t have otherwise. That is a main reason wealthy people donate to think tanks after all’
– Source close to the Hariris
The elder Hariri told local newspaper The Daily Star in 2014 that he had his eyes set on investing more in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq by the turn of the decade.
In Jordan, he was notably involved with the Abdali project in Amman, a joint venture between Horizon and the Jordanian government. The project, worth $5bn, is the development of an old downtown district, including luxury shopping, residences and offices.
That said, it appears that politics was never out of the question for Hariri. In May 2011, US think tank the Atlantic Council launched the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, with Bahaa as its founding sponsor.
But a Washington source close to the Hariris told MEE that he did not invest much time into garnering influence and support in the US capital. Whether that was by accident or design is unclear.
“Obviously Bahaa knows that on some level his support for the center offers him access in Washington that he wouldn’t have otherwise. That is a main reason wealthy people donate to think tanks after all,” the source said.
“Having said that, it was up to him to capitalise on that access, which he obviously has not done.”
In fact, Hariri has kept a low profile in the think tank, despite also being on the advisory board. His public presence with the Atlantic Council has been minimal, except for a brief 2011 interview in which he broadly discussed political and economic issues in the Middle East and North Africa.
“He never once even mentioned his own political ambitions,” the source said.
Testing the waters in Riyadh
Since his father’s assassination in 2005 and Saad’s subsequent appointment as successor to lead the Future Movement, it appeared that whatever interest in politics Bahaa may have had at the time – if any – were to be limited.
However, on 4 November 2017, then prime minister Saad Hariri resigned in Riyadh on Al-Arabiya television, citing Hezbollah, Iran and his own safety as the key reasons. Hariri returned to Beirut later that month, eventually rescinding his resignation, which it was widely believed had been made under Saudi pressure.
UN Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard in a report said the prime minister was forcefully held by Saudi officials, verbally abused, and even beaten. It appeared that Hariri’s more diplomatic approach to Hezbollah upset Saudi Arabia, his key patron.
During that tumultuous period, the elder Hariri broke his silence with a public statement. He backed Saad Hariri’s resignation, condemned Iran and Hezbollah for “seeking to take control of Lebanon,” and praised Saudi Arabia.
On the surface, it may have been a show of solidarity from one brother to another. However, many saw this as a possible attempt to enter Lebanon’s kaleidoscopic political arena, over a decade after his father’s murder.
At the same time as Saad was held in Saudi Arabia, numerous reports emerged of Bahaa being there as well, with Riyadh planning to place the older brother in charge of the Future Movement. The reports added that family members were invited to fly in to pledge allegiance to Bahaa, but they declined.
“Bahaa Hariri has a great relationship with [Abu Dhabi’s crown prince] Mohammad bin Zayed… and good relationships within Saudi Arabia,” Lebanese political analyst Bachar El-Halabi told MEE, adding that this move ultimately ruined ties between Bahaa and Saad.
“They were seriously considering a swap, which took [the Hariris’] relationship to a point of no return.”
Bahaa only responded to these reports in a statement in February – three years later – saying they “have nothing to do with reality”.
“Anyone who gets invited by the kingdom meets the invitation, except for its enemies from the Iranian militias and their cronies,” he said.
Even a Facebook page was set up for the older brother around that time, further hinting at a political debut, but it was soon taken down.
Today Lebanon is facing a crippling and unprecedented economic crisis that has sparked a popular uprising, often dubbed the 17 October Revolution.
This apparently was the catalyst for Bahaa to try to enter the political fray on his own. However, it appears that, despite their fractious relationship, Saudi Arabia has put its full weight behind Saad and expressed its opposition to fragmenting Lebanon’s Sunnis.
Ever since Saad Hariri endorsed Hezbollah-backed Michel Aoun as president in 2016, some tensions began to surface within the Future Movement. Even loyalists were critical of the decision.
Ex-Internal Security Forces chief and justice minister Ashraf Rifi, who quit the party earlier that year, vowed to continue the legacy of Rafik Hariri while slamming Saad Hariri and the Future Movement for selling Lebanon to “the Iranian project”.
Rifi beat Hariri and other major parties in Tripoli’s 2016 municipal elections, but lost by a landslide during the 2018 parliamentary polls.
Once tipped as a prime minister by Saad Hariri himself seven years ago, Rifi has now found himself at the wayside.
It appears, however, that he and Bahaa could be potential allies. The two have had warm relations since Rifi’s time as head of the Internal Security Forces, when he concluded that Hezbollah and the Syrian government were responsible for Rafik Hariri’s assassination. In response, Bahaa has provided Rifi with armoured cars as protection.
‘He adopted the narrative of the revolutionary movement, thinking that this is how he can alienate himself from his brother and remove the baggage of political Harirism’
– Bachar El-Halabi, analyst
El-Halabi, the analyst, said disgruntled ex-Future Movement members like Rifi and Nabil el-Halabi are among Bahaa’s key targets.
“There are also Sunnis who feel that their position in Lebanon has been weakened and are not fairly represented,” he told MEE.
Following clashes between supporters of Bahaa and Rifi and backers of the Hezbollah and Amal on 6 June, Saad Hariri met with Lebanon’s Grand Mufti to quell the situation.
He then said that there were “infiltrators who want bloodshed and problems in the country,” hinting at Rifi and his brother’s more confrontational supporters.
At this point in time however, analysts told MEE, Bahaa is facing an uphill battle.
El-Halabi said Hariri is finding it difficult to come off as both anti-establishment and the true enforcer of his late father’s legacy.
“He adopted the narrative of the revolutionary movement, thinking that this is how he can alienate himself from his brother and remove the baggage of political Harirism,” El-Halabi said.
“But at the same time he wants to use his father’s legacy because there is no other way to come back.”
In addition to facing pushback from the Hariri family, the source in Washington said, the United States is relatively content with the status quo in Lebanon, and is not interested in an escalation “as long as the Israelis are OK, which they are”.
While his younger brother is seen as imperfect, the source said he has the upper hand with established ties with the US, and that “even the cabinet dominated by Hezbollah is more or less accepted”.
“Bahaa wants a fight with Hezbollah but has little popularity or regional support – and no military capability,” the source added. “The Americans are not stupid.”