New buyer for Hariri’s own TV channel, mired in scandal?

Lebanon’s PM has his own Midas Touch when it comes to media. Or, in fact, some might argue even politics. Hariri needs to bite the bullet as he now has no Future. But who is the mystery businessman stiring rumours?

It’s easy to be sympathetic to Saad Hariri who closed down his own tv station ‘Future TV’ this week, amidst a scandal over unpaid workers’ complaints and strikes. This sort of thing has become normal in Lebanon since the start of the war in Syria in 2011 which dragged Hezbollah (and therefore Lebanon) into it – which then became a suicide pill for its own tiny economy.

But there are other factors at play, not least what is happening in the region as the West tries to squeeze Iran, but ends up with a viper’s bite in return and Lebanon’s economy continues to impale itself on delusional ideas about its own ranking and status – avoiding the realities of reform at all cost. Against a backdrop of a panicking US president and a shake down on Hezbollah there, the business elite, which Hariri belongs to, is still hoping for the day when an 11bn dollar “aid” package will arrive in Beirut. 

Hariri, it is rumoured, had his funding pulled by the Saudis, just before he was detained in Riyadh in December 2017 and so refuses to put any of his own money into his failed network, which was never considered a serious media outlet compared to MTV and LBC in Lebanon anyway. But then his feral ventures in media were never successful and the pusillanimity of this latest move shocks no one in Beirut. For the last three years at least we have been hearing rumours that Hariri doesn’t even pay his staff in his Paris penthouse so it is of little surprise that loyal colleagues in Beirut who have families to feed should be spared the indignity of debt – which has its own ghastly stigma in Lebanon. 

Furthermore, any media venture that Hariri is associated with tends to turn to dust the moment it is revealed he is part of it. In Beirut it is wrongly assumed that he owns the Daily Star newspaper, whereas in reality it is his Saudi friends who bought it out, but which keep the myth alive about him being the proprietor. Once considered quite influential before 2006, this broadsheet which regularly has himself featured on the cover, is so poor though that even an article penned on the 18th December explaining his latest business failure is unclear whether he is going to re-launch Future TV or not.

Similarly, it is also rumoured that he has a considerable large stake in Annahar newspaper and is the sole reason why shareholders didn’t evict Nayla Tueni as its clueless Editor in Chief, as she soldiers ahead with her one woman campaign to make it the most unread newspaper in the entire world.
Hariri has a soft spot for Mrs Tueni as they have both lost charismatic fathers in tragic circumstances – towering figures who cast a long, deep shadow over them and their opaque abilities to run anything.

But they also share other qualities. 

Whatever Hariri touches in media dies sooner or later and Annahar is going the same way. And so we shouldn’t be surprised about the death of Future TV which was, after all, run by a station chief who never actually had any experience in TV news. The blind leading the blind. The basic business model of all media in Lebanon.

Where did it all go wrong or what was the tipping point, some might ask.

Hariri himself went belly up in Saudi Arabia when the economy there took a dive and the House of Saud ended up owing him a cool 9bn dollars. He came to Lebanon to pursue a career as PM to breathe new life into his own failed businesses, it is said by many Lebanese, after the Saudis found they couldn’t trust him even as a messenger for them – a softly spoken herald to deliver coded words to Hezbollah.

But even he couldn’t do that effectively which led to his unsavoury ‘kidnapping’ and ultimately what insiders tell me was the final straw in backing his media outlets.

Since arriving in Beirut in December 2016 to become Prime Minister it was hoped that he would at least find some cash from Riyadh to save his floundering TV network from the abyss. But his own vote of no confidence from the Saudis has been matched by an equally stoic refusal to use his own personal funds to bail out his workers who stood by him.

But help might be on the way.

It is rumoured that Egypt-based Jordanian businessman Alaa al Khawaja might rescue Hariri once again. Previously, in 2018, he acquired a 42 percent stake in Hariri’s GroupMed for over 500m dollars. Khawaja, who likes to invest in Egyptian films, is said to be ready to buy Future from Hariri for an undisclosed sum.

Yet it’s unclear whether the deal will resolve the issue of backpay for staff. And the move to dump Future will still have political implications in a country where media and politics are merged into one. It will not be received well by international donors and governments who are concerned by how delicately Lebanon is balancing with its own internal debt problems, a spiraling economy and a group of corrupt leaders who have practically invested in Lebanon’s failure – as all have their wealth outside of the country and are only focused on embezzling international aid money.
The obsession with the Cedar aid money, which has already been allocated to various ‘black hole’ accounts in ministries (in particular the environment one) is already spent by the political elite and is only eclipsed by the monstrous greed of those same despots who drool over the possibility of fooling western donors to cough up over a billion dollars on garbage incinerators which can only accelerate Lebanon’s cancer rates, recently spiked by EU waste management schemes which it is believed poison the country’s water table.

Lebanon is a mess. And Hariri represents the pinnacle of the country’s problems, epitomized by monumental graft, titanic apathy and a culture of epic buck-passing, a national sport which he takes the gold medal each time. Recently, the normally-media shy Hariri agreed to do a TV interview with a CNBC reporter from Abu Dhabi who no doubt agreed to share her questions with him beforehand (who could after all forget the hilarious ‘card man’ holding up the white boards with the answers during the Paula Yacoubian ‘interview’ during his ‘overstay’ in Riyadh)? 

‘Hezbollah is not the problem of the government, but of the region’ was his paraphrased message. A breath taking admission to his own impotence with regards to taming the Iranian-backed proxy.
Remarkably, we are expected to believe that a new Future TV will emerge from its ashes. But the lessons of this week, not just for those who are drowning in debt and who once believed in Hariri’s integrity but also for all Lebanese, is that local media only ever worked well when it was heavily funded by politicians’ blood money in a pre-internet age. Those days are long past us. As indeed are those of Lebanese media bosses with no experience being given the top job due to kinship or graft. Future TV had no future. And neither does Lebanon with Mr Hariri as Prime Minister as Lebanon’s only hope now is to turn its back on the confessional system and opt for a meritocratic anti-corruption one, which ushers in an entirely new generation of politicians, which produces MPs like Paula Yacoubian who actually owe something back to the electorate. By contrast, Hariri and his generation of leaders believe that they are owed a living. He himself represents the old corrupt guard who don’t even believe in their own business model, so how can most Lebanese believe in him as part of the solution with Hezbollah, when in fact he is root of the problem?

Martin Jay is an Associate Editor of Al Arab Publishing and has previously worked as a foreign correspondent in Beirut, Brussels and Nairobi in a career spanning over 30 years working for CNN, Euronews, CNBC, The Sunday Times, DW, BBC and Reuters. In 2016 he won the UN's highest press award for foreign reporting for his work on Syrian refugees in Lebanon, where he was the founding editor of Annahar English and regularly appeared on TV networks commenting on the events of the region. He is currently based in Morocco, where he is the correspondent for the Daily Mail.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.