x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

A discreet Model of a modern man

'I am worth the values of my ideas and my intentions,' says Fahd Hariri, who is also worth an estimated $1.1 billion.

I catch up with Fahd Hariri, the youngest son of the assassinated former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri, sitting at the cafe on the mezzanine of the Grosvenor House hotel in the Dubai Marina. Impeccably presented in a dark suit and tie, the 28-year-old billionaire shows none of the haste one often encounters among rich, successful businessmen. The only other engagement he has today is to catch a plane to Cannes, he says, where his film producer wife is showing a movie at the festival.

This comes as something of a revelation because, according to his entry on the Forbes list of billionaires, where he ranks 647th, the son of Lebanon's richest family was still meant to be single. "I am married," he explains. "I was married just over a year after my father passed away and no one was really in the mood to talk about that. So I did it in a very discreet way, just close friends and family."

Discretion is a recurrent theme in the two hours we spend sitting in the cafe, drinking jasmine tea. Mr Hariri has rented an apartment at the Grosvenor House for the past four years. Asked how much it costs, he says he cannot remember the figure, but that it compares favourably with the price of renting an apartment in the Saint Germain district of Paris, on the trendy left bank of the Seine. Forbes ranks his fortune at US$1.1 billion (Dh4.04bn) this year, down from an estimated $2.7bn in 2006.

Mr Hariri says he reads a weekly update on the family's financial position but prefers not to go into details. "Sorry about me not talking about money. It is the French taboo of never speaking of money." He says the financial crisis has changed the way people view the importance of money and that money should serve a higher goal than money itself. "I am worth the value of my ideas and my intentions," Mr Hariri declares.

He has an abundance of these, too. Mr Hariri was born and lived his early years in Riyadh, where his father made his fortune as building contractor to King Fahd. At the age of nine he moved to Paris to continue his education, completing an architecture degree at the Ecole Speciale d'Architecture in 2004, a year before his father's death in a Beirut car bombing. The father, who served two terms as prime minister, still has an enormous influence on the whole family. His second-oldest son, Saad, has assumed his political mantle, while Fahd has inherited something of his passion for the construction industry.

While still a student, he opened an interior design shop on the outskirts of Paris that sells furnishings to Saudi Arabia. After the elder Mr Hariri was killed, the children decided to keep intact his financial empire, with investments in construction, property, banking, media and telecoms. The crown jewel of the empire is Saudi Oger, the construction giant, and its related companies including Oger Dubai of which Fahd Hariri became chairman on his father's death. He was also nominated head of Saudi Oger's property portfolio, which is worth more than $1bn.

Soon he will be moving from his apartment at the Grosvenor House to a new flat in a nearby skyscraper, the Emirates Crown, which is still being "fixed up". "I chose Dubai and the UAE in general because it was really booming and it was really a place for me to be able to express myself," he says. So I ask if he is bowled over by the world's tallest tower. "The higher tower, the better? That is an idea that is not mine," he says.

Then discretion kicks in. "I do admire buildings like Burj Dubai. I can't criticise it. I am not here to judge but it's not my thing. My thing is to create emotions from architecture and not only sensations." Rather than design buildings himself, Mr Hariri says he wants to be what he calls an "aware developer". This, he says, will allow him to work with a large number of architects while he concentrates his thoughts on creating an urban fabric and public spaces.

"You can work with a lot of different architects and intervene in the relationship people have with the city," he says. He is working with his favourite architect, Rem Koolhaas, on an "urban concept" in Dubai. "It would be a big deal if it went through but I can't talk about it yet," Mr Hariri says. Mr Koolhaas already has a few projects in Dubai. He has drawn up plans for a waterfront city including a 44-storey spherical glass building with a hole running through the middle and an 82-storey spiral tower.

The Dutch architect's latest project is the recently opened CCTV building in China, a brightly lit set of angular horizontal and vertical blocks that resembles part of a distorted cube. In his architecture studies, Mr Hariri concentrated on combining artistic elements into commercial designs. "I have always found there is a big separation between the artistic side of architecture and the way developers market property," he says.

"Either you are commercial or artistic, which I think is a shame because you are creating spaces for people and those people have dreams and aspirations." Mr Hariri sees in the Emirates an opportunity to create a new Arab identity. "The UAE is a laboratory for the creation of a contemporary Arab identity," he says. "I would love to be part of that laboratory. "There is a UAE mentality and culture that is being created. The openness, the social mix, the cultures coming in and working in the same place. It is something that you find rarely in the Arab world."

He dreams of urban developments with public spaces that inspire people to "perform". "In the Arab world, social life is really about public performance. The way you are, the way you dress, the way you walk into a room. There has to be a theatrical dimension to the public spaces you create in the Arab world. "Architecture and urban design should enhance the people and that is how you should commercialise space. Not in the creation of shapes or icons but space to enhance people."

While Dubai has become his base, Mr Hariri has also launched a venture in the capital: a new hotel management brand called Al Hana, which will open a five-star hotel in 2011 near the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre. Alhana will have more than 200 rooms and be decorated in what he calls "contemporary Arabic" style. He demurs from offering details since he is still awaiting a deal with a co-investor.

What does he like best about Abu Dhabi? "The social life there is actually quite interesting, because you can know everyone in about a month," he says with a nervous laugh. "You end up knowing everyone, so when you walk into a restaurant it's 'Hi!' 'Hi!' 'Hi!'. You have a Beirut-style lifestyle, for me, in a Gulf environment." Mr Hariri also finds the urban density created in the area around Hamdan Street "extremely interesting".

"You have a building with people of high income and, right next to it, people with low incomes. And in a strange way those people do interact and I find that very beautiful and very local. You wouldn't find that in contemporary urban developments elsewhere." He believes that public spaces created around and behind buildings, where people meet and talk, are as important as the buildings themselves, and must be a central element of urban design.

"Moments in architectural space and urban living are as important as the absolute notion of shape," he says. Mr Hariri has not visited Beirut since his father's death. He says he prefers not to because he can no longer move around the Lebanese capital without tight security. But this has not stopped him from buying a small plot in the up-and-coming Mar Mikhael district to put some of his urban design ideas to the test. The plot features a disused cinema which he plans to rework into a public performance space with residential units around it. He has also put a lot of energy into designing his father's tomb, a collaboration with his former architecture professor.

With such a large personal fortune, why does he bother to work at all? "At the end of the day you ask yourself, 'Why have I been put in this position by destiny?'," he replies. "Part of it I think is to be able to leave a mark and participate in the definition of modernity." tashby@thenational.ae