When I heard that President Macron was ready to whisk Lebanon’s kidnapped prime minister to Paris with his family – victims of the gentlest hostage-taking in the history of Saudi Arabia – I couldn’t but recall what Saad Hariri said to me a few years after he first became Lebanon’s premier in 2009. I was sitting in his office in his Koreitem Palace – a vast, ugly monster of a building not far from the Hamra district of Beirut – and I asked him if he liked being prime minister of Lebanon.
He had only two advisers with him. “I am following in my father’s footsteps,” he said repeatedly. He was talking about his father Rafiq, the former Lebanese prime minister murdered in Beirut four years earlier, in 2005. But he was always talking about his father’s footsteps and people mocked him for this. But really, I asked again, what did it feel like to be prime minister of Lebanon? His answer quite shocked me, though it should not have done.
“You know this is my duty,” he said. “But I miss Saudi Arabia. I miss being able to take my family out in the car and drive through the desert at night and feel the desert wind in our faces – and us, just alone. No policemen, no security, no soldiers.” Well, I guess that from now on, he’s going to associate Saudi Arabia rather than Lebanon with policemen, security and soldiers. But it was an interesting reflection on the Hariri family.
I knew his father rather better. When he was assassinated with 21 others by a suicide bomber on the Beirut seafront in 2005, I saw Rafiq Hariri’s body lying on the roadside. He was a plump man and I thought at first he was the man who sells thyme bread on the Corniche until I saw the hair over his collar. His socks were on fire. With a colleague, I had first met Rafiq Hariri not in Beirut but in Riyadh, the Saudi capital where his son is now incarcerated, albeit in the luxury to which the family was and still is accustomed.