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In Lebanon, Hariri's rise has much to do with his image

BEIRUT, Lebanon—Lebanon's latest heartthrob is young, filthy rich and fluent in four languages. Women swoon over his deep brown eyes and men ask their barbers to re-create his trademark goatee. Breathless fans have taken up his favorite hobbies, from motorcycle rides to diving trips.

Who better, then, than Saad Hariri to lead a country known as the playground of the Middle East?

Hariri's meteoric rise has a lot to do with his famous last name: He's the son of the beloved former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the billionaire businessman who was killed in a car bombing in February. The younger Hariri's anti-Syrian alliance swept Lebanon's parliamentary elections this month, which means the prime minister spot is his for the taking. While he's kept mum on the post, his supporters say he has more than just the right pedigree and politics for the job: He also happens to be a hunk.

"Want to see where I put Saad? Here, my darling, right here," gushed Juhaini Baghdadi, a 54-year-old mother of five who fished a photo of Hariri from her bra. "Saad is the moon and we are just the stars."

The public's idolization of the handsome 35-year-old Sunni Muslim—who only recently shed his curly ponytail—says as much about his hometown as about him. Beirut is the region's den of pop stars and plastic surgery, the glitzy metropolis built on the ashes of a devastating civil war. Hariri's father is credited with restoring much of the war-ravaged capital, though some Lebanese grumble that it lost part of its Arab soul in the process.

Beirut is now a land of air kisses, see-and-be-seen nightspots and Arabic spoken with a healthy sprinkling of French. One bar has even made the war seem chic, with a menu of "shelter food," helmet-wearing waiters and sandbag decor. Designer boutiques flourish on blocks where many buildings still sport bullet scars. Billboards for a popular Lebanese diner show a beautiful young woman with a post-op bandage across her nose. The slogan? "Come as you are."

"Bush is all right for America, I guess, but we're Lebanese," said Rima Abdul Ali, 32, a medical worker. "We have to have someone gorgeous, like Hariri. He's not even from here—he's from heaven."

Before his father's death, the Georgetown University-educated Hariri ran a family business in Saudi Arabia, where he lived out of the public eye with—sorry, ladies—his wife and two children. When his father was killed in the bombing, which has been widely blamed on Syrian security agents, he returned to Beirut to don his father's mantle and spur his anti-Damascus coalition to electoral victory.

His camera-ready looks certainly didn't hurt the campaign. Schoolgirls skipped their final exams to attend his political rallies, which drew tens of thousands of supporters who screamed as if welcoming a rock star.

"A lot of his popularity is based on his family name, but his image definitely plays into it," said Ruby Khouri, 20, a college student. "My friends were all happy that he's the one who took over the family because he's the cutest."

If fashion-obsessed Beirut is a giant catwalk, the city's election-season look is all about Hariri. Posters of him cover the capital like wallpaper.

There he is, flashing pearly whites with a garland of flowers around his neck. And there, triumphantly giving the victory sign. And again, looking angelic in front of a cloud-dotted, porcelain-blue sky.

Droves of young men visit salons, demanding to have their beards styled "you know, like Saad's," said Abdullah Nabulsi, a hairdresser who paired his hip-hugging jeans with a tight, red Hariri T-shirt.

"Don't think it's just the women," Nabulsi cooed with a wink. "At the rally last week, the boys were running after him more than the girls!"

Hariri might be an attractive political novice, said his spokeswoman Amal Mudallali, but he also has strong business acumen, an exhausting work ethic and the ability to build alliances that strengthen Lebanon, which is vulnerable after the withdrawal of Syrian forces this spring ended the 29-year military dominance of their smaller, Mediterranean neighbor.

"He's not only a handsome, rich young guy, he's a real leader," Mudallali said.

His father's popularity ensured him a seat at the reconfigured political table, but Mudallali said Hariri never expected such an outpouring of public adoration. Laughing, she described cruising the beachfront and noticing no small number of young men imitating her boss's trim goatee, gelled-back hair and smart suits.

"There's definitely a Saad look now," she said. "He's an idol."

At a recent pro-Hariri gathering north of Beirut, hundreds of women of all ages hoisted homemade placards in the air and chanted, "Our souls, our blood, for you, Saad!" Rima Ghouraoui, 22, sat with a circle of friends, trying in vain to steer a conversation on Hariri's looks back to his politics.

"We weren't used to seeing him and then he just appeared on the scene, so popular," explained Ghouraoui, an engineering student. "We don't want the Syrians here and we think he can—"

Her 45-year-old mother, Hala Ghouraoui, cut her off when she found out the topic of discussion.

"Saad Hariri!" the older woman screamed, blowing kisses in the air and patting her chest. "Do I love him? With my blood! Look at that face."

"For her, he's a dream," her daughter said, rolling her eyes.

Hariri's fairytale ascent from the sands of Saudi Arabia to his family's opulent mansion in Beirut is perfectly summed up in a recent online posting by a Lebanese blogger. The aptly titled "Saad in Wonderland" is a valentine to Beirut's man of the hour:

"Once upon a time, in a land far, far away

"Lived a people long doomed to fighting and dismay

"Until a handsome prince came from brotherly lands

"Vowing to take matters in his very own hands."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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