When Lebanese and Georgetown University elites filled an overflowing Lohrfink Auditorium in 2009 to celebrate a $22 million gift honoring former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the audience and school did not know that fewer than 10 years later, the Georgetown alumnus who gifted the amount would be at the center of geopolitical instability and scandal in the Middle East.
The gift of Saad Hariri (MSB ’92) led the university to officially dedicate the Rafik B. Hariri Building, the newly renamed home of the McDonough School of Business, on Sept. 16, 2009. The son of the former prime minister, Saad Hariri, served as prime minister of Lebanon until Nov. 3, 2017 when he unexpectedly resigned during a surprise trip to Riyadh, plunging the region into crisis.
Saad Hariri is at the center of strife in the Middle East, and he is not alone. Through its ties to a Lebanese political dynasty and the Saudi royal family, Georgetown finds itself uncomfortably close to conflict and scandal in the region as two prominent Georgetown donors and alumni make global headlines.
Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service campus in Doha, Qatar — a country with its own hectic role in regional conflict — ties the university closer to the complex events and relationships in the Middle East.
Middle Eastern Power Politics
With an estimated net worth of $1.4 billion according to Forbes, Saad Hariri made international headlines after suddenly resigning from his position Nov. 3 while on a surprise trip to Saudi Arabia, and then resuming his post just as bewilderingly Dec. 5 after returning to Lebanon.
Saad Hariri officially rescinded his resignation Dec. 5 after a month-long political saga that threatened to destabilize Lebanon. He had allegedly been coerced by Saudi Arabian political figures to resign after being kept under house arrest in Riyadh, according to The New York Times.
Saad Hariri blamed increasing aggression from Iran and Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shiite Islamist political party and militant group, as his motivation to leave office in his resignation speech. The resignation announcement sent shock waves across the region as the Lebanese prime minister revived sectarian tensions between the Sunni majority of Saudi Arabia and Shiite majority of Iran over Middle Eastern domination. Hariri had spent three weeks on the move after fleeing Lebanon, stopping in Egypt, Paris and Cyprus.
Michael Hudson, a retired Georgetown Arab studies and international relations professor, said Saad Hariri placed Lebanon in a compromising position.
“Lebanon is always kind of walking on a tightrope, and in the current situation where there is so much polarization throughout the region, between the Sunnis and the Shi’a, what they’ve tried to do is to thread the needle. They have to be in reasonably good terms with neighboring Syria,” Hudson said in an interview with The Hoya.
During his role as prime minister, Saad Hariri handled increasing regional tensions. With Hezbollah rapidly gaining public support and expanding its presence, Saudi Arabia quickly grew impatient.
“The intent, I think, of the Saudis, was to break up the Lebanese government, in which Hezbollah, in their view, has too much influence,” Hudson said.
Hariri’s Georgetown Legacy
The Hariri family has left an immeasurable legacy at Georgetown. Saad Hariri’s donation was the largest individual gift to support the construction of the building according to Bart Moore, vice president for Advancement at Georgetown.
The $22 million gift, along with gifts from hundreds of other donors totaling more than $80 million, enabled the Hariri Building to become the first building at Georgetown funded entirely by philanthropy.
In addition to the Hariri building gift, Saad Hariri endowed two new scholarship funds at the McDonough School of Business: the Hariri Family Graduate Scholarship and the Saad R. Hariri Undergraduate Scholarship. As a Georgetown parent, Rafik Hariri was also a generous supporter of the university and served on the MSB Parents’ Council, an advisory committee of the parents of MSB students. Georgetown awarded him an honorary degree in 1996 in celebration of his work to advance education and opportunities for the underprivileged.
Former MSB Dean George Daly, who served in the role from 2005 to 2011, said Georgetown had approached the Hariri Foundation, the charitable foundation of the Rafik Hariri family founded in 1979, to offer financial support for the construction of the building.
Saad Hariri has engaged with the school on multiple occasions, including a May 2010 speech at the university during his first state visit to Washington, D.C.
His delivery of the inaugural Rafik B. Hariri Lecture focused on the resilience of the Lebanese people in the face of a challenging geopolitical climate.
Flexing Saudi Muscles
Saudi Arabia’s recent aggressive moves against its neighbors have also engulfed two other connections: prominent benefactor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and SFS-Q.
Rooted in Sunni-Shiite sectarian strife, the tensions reflect Saudi Arabia’s fears of a loss of leverage over surrounding Shiite countries, according to Hudson. The Sunni Kingdom hopes to assert control not only over Lebanon, but also Iran, Yemen, Bahrain and Qatar, while its crown prince seeks to consolidate power.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s second most powerful leader, is at the center of increased Saudi-led domination. Saudi Arabia’s 32-year-old crown prince secured his ascension to the throne early last month through an alleged anti-corruption crackdown imprisoning potential opponents.
Among the dozens of influential businessmen, politicians and royals arrested was prominent Georgetown benefactor and Saudi billionaire investor Prince Alwaleed. He donated $20 million in 2005 to endow the Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, a center dedicated to fostering interreligious dialogue established in 1993.
Crown Prince Mohammad’s efforts to consolidate power allude to his foreign policy aims for the future of his kingdom. A series of orchestrated moves and initiatives, such as alleged attempts to force Saad Hariri’s resignation and banning dialogue with Iran, forms part of his offensive foreign policy strategy.
“If you look at the initiatives that he’s [Crown Prince Mohammad] taken with foreign policy, you can see that he is moving Saudi Arabia from its very traditional role as quiet and passive to a much more aggressive stance,” Hudson said.
Qatari Collateral Damage
While Saudi Arabia’s new royal authority favors aggressive foreign policy strategies, Qatar’s position in the region remains unclear after the annual Gulf Cooperation Council Summit concluded a day early on Dec. 6 according to Al Jazeera. The future of the GCC, a regional intergovernmental political and economic union with six gulf country member states, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, is under threat after a blockade against Qatar enraged tensions between Qatar and its Arab neighbors. Saudi Arabia along with five other Arab countries cut economic ties with Qatar in June 2017, imposing an air, sea and land blockade.
Despite both Qatar and Saudi Arabia being on opposite sides of the negotiating table in the GCC, Georgetown continues to maintain deep-rooted connections with both countries. Serving as an extension of the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown’s Qatar campus has not been affected by regional strife, according to current SFS-Q Dean Ahmad Dallal.
“So far, the day to day operations of the Qatar campus have not been affected by the political developments in the region,” Dallal wrote in an email to The Hoya. “The campus maintains a regular class schedule and there have been no interruptions to scholarship or research activities by members of our community.”
Robert Gallucci, the SFS dean at the time of SFS-Q’s opening in 2005, said Georgetown should continue to maintain a Doha campus because the region suits the university’s aim of promoting educational Jesuit values in the context of a rapidly developing Middle East.
“It is an important, vital region, where there has been chronic conflict and difficulty, and the idea that we, at Georgetown, could bring a first-class education in international affairs, that we could bring a liberal arts education, and indeed bring our Catholic, Jesuit values to an Islamic culture, made it an all the more tempting challenge,” Gallucci said in an interview with The Hoya.
Saad Hariri has resumed his position in a politically shaken Lebanon, having formally rescinded his surprise resignation. Prince Alwaleed’s status is unclear, but a Forbes report suggests he has rejected a plea agreement that would allow him to go free.
Despite its connections to ongoing Middle East strife, the university has not disclosed a public response to Saad Hariri’s spectacle and Prince Alwaleed’s arrest. A university spokesperson declined multiple requests for comment on Georgetown’s connections to the conflict.