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Jun / Jul 2007
Out of the Shadows

WRITER: Warren Singh-Bartlett

Bahaa Al Hariri is a very private man. As the eldest of Rafic Al Hariri's children he may have been born into fame but he chooses to live on his own terms. In this rare interview he speaks candidly about business, fatherhood and the relationship with his own father.


Although his assistant asked that we submit our questions in advance of this exclusive interview, Bahaa Al Hariri confesses he hasn't read them. "It's been really busy," he says by way of apology as we shake hand. "Anyway, I don't like to read the questions beforehand, it makes me nervous."

If he is nervous now, he's doing an excellent job of hiding it. The eldest son of the late Rafic Al Hariri, Bahaa exudes the same air of quiet confidence his father displayed, the confidence of a man used to getting what he wants. It is clear that Bahaa al-Hariri is used to having his wishes obeyed but it is also clear that he is not the kind of man who gets what he wants by intimidation. I watch as he greets the people assembled in his Riyadh residence, petitioners, business partners and domestic staff alike, with a warmth and affection that would be impossible to fake. Taking his time with everyone in the room, the informality of it all is pleasantly surprising and instantly disarming.

I say surprising because even though he is still quite young – at 40 only slightly my senior – Bahaa is already a force to be reckoned with, one of the new generation of Arab entrepreneurs who are helping to remake the region.

As vice-president of Saudi Oger, the multimillion dollar multi-company construction, communications and logistics conglomerate his father created, chairman of Lebanon's Al-Mustaqbal newspaper and general manager of his own Horizon Development Holding Company, he has had to learn how to deal with massive projects, from the multibillion dollar urban redevelopment project in the Abdali neighbourhood of Amman to a soon-to-be-announced construction on the Red Sea coast.

He is the son of a former Prime Minister, confidante and business partner of Saudi royalty and, together with his siblings, an annual feature on the Forbes list of billionaires. His personal fortune, estimated at some 2.2 billion USD, may be a modest amount by Saudi Arabian standards but is still enough to secure several armies of 'yes' men. Given all this, Bahaa Al Hariri could probably get away with being frostily formal, even a little rude. Others with far less substance certainly do.

That such a thought does not appear to have crossed his mind is a testament to his character. As, for that matter, is the quiet but dignified way Bahaa Al Hariri has carried himself and handled his grief during the two years since the cruel and vicious assassination of his father.

When we finally sit down to talk, his answers are direct and often tinged with gentle, self-deprecating humour. He steers clear of controversy and the closest he comes to making a political statement is when he tells me that that many of the region's most pressing problems would be better solved by businessmen. His unwillingness to talk politics does not mean Hariri is unaware of what is happening. Over dinner, conversation ranges from Iraq to an incisive discussion of the relative merits of the French elections. Rather, it is that he prefers to leave his family's political inheritance in the hands of younger brother Saad and aunt Bahia, to better concentrate on running the family businesses.

He is very much the son of Rafic Al Hariri and fiercely proud of the fact but following in his father's footsteps does not mean living in his shadow and as I soon discover, Bahaa Al Hariri is also a man with a very clear vision of where he wants to go.

As the main family business, how is Saudi Oger run today?
Saudi Oger is a successful company, in construction, in telecoms, utilities, it's organised, competitive, especially in the construction and maintenance sphere – let us not forget that it has been here for over 30 years – but you know, we are at the end a family and as any family business everyone participates and contributes as much as he can. This is where Saudi Oger stands today. No one overlaps the other. I would like to look at it more as a family business where everyone can contribute, from the oldest to the youngest.

I understand you are also involved in projects outside Saudi Arabia, for example, you have a redevelopment project in Amman. Is this also part of Oger?
Abdali is more under the Horizon auspices. Horizon is a company that I have established. It's more a land development company and as you may be aware I'm the chairman of the Abdali project. We are also involved in a project in Aqaba [a holiday village of about 20km south of the port], and soon we will be involved in building a new city within another country.

Where do you see Horizon in ten years time?
For me it's not about the finances, making money, what is important is the achievement. My dream in life is to make Horizon into an institution. I have seen the death of my brother and the death of my father and this has taught me that it is what you achieve, not how much money, which is important. As my grandmother said, "we used to eat bread, now we don't any more." Money is not the issue at all. Take [Henry] Ford, for example. As long as there are Fords being driven in the world, his name lives. I want to institutionalise Horizon so that one day when I'm gone, there will be something in the world that says I did this.
   Hopefully many more projects and most of them in the region, that provides a quality of life to those who live in them. When you are in Paris, you know you are in Paris. When you are in London, you know you are in London. I hope this is what Horizon gives to every thing we are building, to every urban regeneration project we are doing, some soul. Something that people will remember, a place that is known for being distinct, a living environment that is ideal whatever the scenario, whether touristy, logistic, industrial, comfortable, quality developments.

You mentioned that most of your projects will be in the region. Does this mean that you are also looking, like Dubai, to Asia?
No need. The Middle East is doing very well, whether Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, or Bahrain, Kuwait. There is tremendous opportunity now and hopefully in Iraq in the future. I don't believe that Iraq will stay like it is now forever. Sooner or later, it is going to stabilise, the Iraqis will have their chance and hopefully we will be ready to expand there. The opportunities created by the oil boom we are experiencing today will tremendously benefit the whole region. We want to take advantage of them.

This boom seems to be leading in a completely different direction. What has changed?
This boom is private-led. Wherever you go in the region, the governments are very keen for this boom to be private-led, even in Egypt, which is witnessing strong growth and doesn't have oil, they're going on a major privatisation drive because I think they've realised that the only way for growth is for the private sector to thrive. True, the government is the regulator of these new economic cities, it makes sure there is no price discrimination…but it is not the force behind them. The private sector is. Governments should facilitate development but not be the drivers of the economy. There is no single economy in the world that is fully government-driven. The Soviets tried that and they collapsed. The Chinese saw the collapse happening and so they came up with their ‘one country, two systems” policy.

You mentioned Ford and the legacy he left behind, looking around this region, awash with possibilities, talent and money, how far do you think it is from creating the Arab Ford or the Arab Bechtel?
Well, I think we are really on our way and you will see something like this in the coming twenty years. We already have SABIC (Saudi Basic Industries Corporation) and ARAMCO today, giants mainly in the oil and petrochemical industry but we also have the MCB Bank, the Arab Bank, and these are big institutions. In the coming years, with the boom now underway, I think we will see Arab industrialists becoming much bigger regional players.

But how long can the boom continue?
As long as China is there and Indian consumption is there, which I think are the two main drivers of oil consumption, even the best economists miscalculated their needs by the way, I don't think that there will be a fluctuation in the growth of the region. The debt we accumulated for past wars has almost been erased by the current oil money surplus, plus we don't see any change in oil production, whether in Kuwait or the Emirates or Saudi Arabia, everyone is increasing production, not decreasing. If you think this is a boom, wait another two or three years, then you are going to see a real overheating of the economy. But also you see that there is really careful planning. I mean look, today Saudi Arabia has become an exporter of capital, not an importer and the export is in the billions of dollars.

I'd like to shift away from business and get more personal, if I may. Let me begin by asking you, who is Bahaa Al Hariri?
Bahaa Al Hariri is the son of a farmer and proud of it.

How would you introduce yourself at a party?
I would introduce myself by my name, simple.

Where and when were you happiest?
When [my daughter] Bahiya was born. You know my marriage also make me very happy, and I should thank my wife for that, but when I took Bahiya in my hands, I felt I owned the world. For me that was something I will never forget. I was also happy when Dana was born, I love Dana as much as I love Bahiya of course, but you know being a father for the first time, when that child is in your arms, you can never forget that experience.

What is the most important thing you have learned as a father?
To spend as much time as you can with your children, it's the most important investment in life and [laughs] to never let them play cat and mouse with their parents, because you know children always try with the mother if it doesn't work with the father, so you always have to co-ordinate to make sure that doesn't happen.

Would you have followed the same path in life if you had the freedom to choose?
I would not change a little bit because the mistakes that I have made, have brought me to where I am today. If I didn't make the mistakes I did, I would not have learned what I have learned in life.

With which historical figure do you identify?
Rafic Al Hariri, no doubt about it. Because Rafic Al Hariri was a man who was able to succeed in every way. As a family man he succeeded, as a believer in God, as a businessman and as a politician. Very rarely you see people who can create change through their life and also their death and Rafic Al Hariri was able to do both. That is very rare in leaders.

What is your favourite memory of your father?
When I gave him Bahiya in Geneva and I put her in his arms. He was in tears, he became a grandfather for the first time, well not the first time, but the first time with me. I remember he was so happy to hold her in his arms.

What is the most important thing you have learned as a son?
To be close to your father, that is the most important thing. I am very proud to have a father like him because for me, every day was a learning experience with him, truly. Every day I learned something from Rafic Al Hariri, everyday there was a lesson to be learned, from the smallest detail to the deepest lessons that he could give you as a father. As a son, I learned to be a listener, not to talk, because (life with) a man like him, is not a school, it's a PhD at university. A man like him, it's a privilege to be his son. A great privilege.

How would you like to be remembered in the future?
Business-wise, as a man who achieved. One day some one will enter a building and see a picture of me, the founder, that's all I would like to be remembered for, that I founded something, turned it into an institution. Not for the money, for building a legacy, building a name, building an institution, for contributing positively to the Arab community. I think this is all that really lasts. One day my father asked me “What am I?” I told him, “You are Rafic Al Hariri.” He said, “No, no, no. What am I?” I told him, “You are a businessman.” He said, “No, I am Saudi Oger.” I will never forget that.

And so one day you will be Horizon?
Hopefully. Horizon and maybe others. Al-Hamdulillah, I don't think I will starve, so my dream is to achieve, really, to make a difference. 

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