The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
What a £300m London Mansion Tells Us about the Middle East’s Feudal Politics

A mansion belonging to the late Rafiq Hariri, formerly the prime minister of Lebanon until his assassination in 2005, is on sale to a select group of “wealthy international buyers” for the cool price of £300 million. That more than doubles England’s previous house-price record. CNBC (via the FT) has the details:

The 45-bedroom, seven-storey building runs from 2-8A Rutland Gate and covers an area of 60,000 sq ft — slightly smaller than the playing surface of a Premier League football pitch.

This is being played as a real estate story, but is really an important window into Middle East politics and social realities.

The prime minister of Lebanon lived in a house that Mitt Romney and John Kerry combined would have a hard time buying. That tells us something significant about how politics and money work together in Lebanon and indeed elsewhere in the Middle East.

After Hariri’s assassination the house was very thoughtfully “made over” (whatever that means) to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. A gift for the man who has everything: a London mansion on a plot the size of a football field. Think of what a tremendous scandal it would be if an American politician died and left something like this to another national leader—or if a foreign leader died and left a gift like this to an American politician.

We are talking about deeply pre-modern, feudal politics. This is favor-swapping on a scale that eclipses anything we think of as corruption.

What we have here isn’t a story about buying and selling mansions, an upscale version of House Hunters International. It’s a story about the buying and selling of countries. Read it carefully, and you’ll see how it helps explain both the popular anger driving revolutions in the Middle East and the difficulties of turning that popular anger into an effective force for real democracy and development.

Published on September 13, 2012 12:08 pm