Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Mini-Hariri in Baghdad. Amer Mohsen wrote this for Iraq Slogger: "In recent days, a visit by Lebanese leader and businessman Sa’d al-hariri to Iraq has fueled speculation and analysis in the Arab Press, with several reports published to investigate the significance of the trip, in which Hariri - a “Sunni” leader, pro-Saudi and pro-American - met with the entire top tier of Iraqi leadership, in addition to Ayatollah Sistani - who, at some point, was depicted in the Western Press as a hermit-like character, aloof from daily politics and reticent to meet with politicians (nowadays, the high Shi’a cleric is often paid several weekly “visits” by Iraqi and foreign officials.) In the Lebanese al-Mustaqbal daily, founded and owned by the Hariri family, Wissam Sa’adeh wrote on the alleged benefits of the Hariri visit, contemplating a meeting of minds between Shi’a and Sunni Arabs who support the “project of the state” (ostensibly, individuals like Hariri and Maliki, allied with governments like Saudi Arabia and Jordan) against those Shi’as and Sunnis furthering a project of “sedition” in the Middle East (with references made by the author towards Iran and Syria, the common target of the Hariri-owned media in Lebanon.) In the op-ed, the author argued that recent bouts of civil strife in the Middle East (specifically in Iraq and Lebanon) were employed and furthered by radical forces using sectarianism to hamper the “project of the state.” On the other hand, he claimed, Iraq and Lebanon are witnessing a bright model of state-building that eschews radicalism and sectarian violence. The author added that the representatives of this project (such as PM Maliki and PM Siniora) are also making advances, citing the recent “successes” of the Iraqi government forces “from Mosul to Basra, passing by Anbar.” Sa’adeh ends his article by expressing dismay at those who “deny the qualitative security improvement (in Iraq) or dismiss its importance,” equating such a stance on behalf of “the anti-globalization and anti-imperialists” with “wishing for … the death of the largest number of Iraqis.” The same visit was read quite differently by Lebanese daily al-Akhbar, a left-leaning secular publication that generally opposes US policies in the region. The paper’s Iraq correspondent, Zaid al-Zubaidi, said that Hariri’s visit was mainly for business purposes, with his “informal” high-level meetings devoted to delivering a political message from Saudi Arabia. On the political aspect: Sa`d Hariri – who holds Saudi citizenship - is occasionally sent on “missions” by high-level Saudi officials. According to many observers, including al-Akhbar, the visit may have included a Saudi message of “rapprochement” with the Maliki government. On the business aspect, the paper cited skeptics who claimed that Saudi-Iraqi relations are decided on a “higher level” and that Hariri’s visit merely represented the commercial side of Saudi-Iraqi detente. These analysts point out that Hariri met with figures close to the Oil Ministry, that his visit to ‘Ammar al-Hakeem was labeled by Iraqi media as a “business meeting,” and that Talabani’s statements after meeting with Hariri focused on Iraq’s need to emulate the “success” of the “Hariri companies” in Lebanon’s post-war reconstruction. Furthermore, the paper revealed, a company owned by Hariri is currently bidding for a major Baghdad development (in terms of scale: the project – called al-Rasheed - is situated over 150 million Sq feet of land in the capital and – when completed – will include residential units for 400,000 people.) Lebanese commercial involvement in Iraq is not a small matter, a report in the Economy section of al-Akhbar said. Billions of dollars are currently invested by Lebanese businessmen (often managing, partnered with, or acting as fronts for Gulf capitals) in the high-risk environment of Iraq. And in the Middle East, where commerce often mixes with politics, the names of many members of the Lebanese and Iraqi elite are found in these investments. For example, on the same day of Hariri’s visit, it was announced in Arbil that a Lebanese-financed $60 M hotel project will be constructed in Kurdistan’s capital. A ceremony was held for the announcement, attended by Kurdistan’s Prime Minister and the Lebanese ex-Minister of tourism, a political ally of Sa`d Hariri. During the ceremony, Kurdish officials announced that Lebanon is the second-largest investor in Kurdistan, with projects in the pipeline amounting to Billions of Dollars (including a $2.9 Bn oil refinery, cement factories and banking enterprises.) A quick look at the names of investors and companies cited by the Iraqi sources reveals the extent of business interests joining a section of the Lebanese elite and post-2003 Iraqi leaders. In the days of Saddam, it was alleged that many Lebanese politicians (and their relatives) acted as business intermediaries for the Iraqi dictator – amassing large fortunes in the process. Political figures involved in these deals allegedly included MPs, Ministers and even the son of an ex-President. With a new regime for a “New Iraq,” new (?) patterns of political/commercial partnerships seem to be emerging between the two countries."