A political storm caused by sharp criticism of the Lebanese economic policies by Saudi billionaire, Prince Al Waleed bin Talal, on Tuesday was quickly contained when Prime Minister Rafik Al Hariri refrained from making any counter-criticism or comment.

"Al Hariri is careful not to plunge into a confrontation with Prince Al Waleed, so not to harm the prime minister's close relationship with the Saudis, to whom Al Hariri is very grateful since he has accumulated his fortune of some $4 billion in Saudi Arabia," a Lebanese politician told Gulf News here yesterday.

When contacted by Gulf News to comment on Prince Al Waleed's remarks, Parliament members Bassem Yamout, Adnan Arakji and Beshara Merhej, who are part of Al Hariri's parliamentary bloc, refused to comment.

For his part, Al Hariri reacted to the Saudi prince's attack by assuring Arab bankers and financiers on Wednesday that privatisation, reducing public spending and the Paris II Donor Conference would proceed according to plan.

"We are confident that the Paris II Conference will be held before the end of this year and that donor states will give Lebanon soft loans with long maturity," Al Hariri said during a conference for Arab bankers.

During the inauguration of his $140 million Movenpick hotel resort in Beirut on Tuesday night, Prince Al Waleed, who is the nephew of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia and a grandson of the late Lebanese Prime Minister, Riad Al Solh, called on the Lebanese government to come up with a sound plan "that makes clear to all Lebanese and all investors the broad outlines of the economic situation".

"Can any one of you, brothers and sisters, present in this gathering, tell me what the expected Lebanese debt figure will be in the next four or five years? Will it grow to be 170 per cent of the GDP at the end of that period? Will it be $40 billion, or will it drop to $20 billion," the Saudi prince asked the audience.

The inauguration was attended by President Emile Lahhoud, Parliament Speaker Nabih Barri, Deputy Prime Minister Issam Faris, ministers and other senior officials and dignitaries. It was broadcast live by Future TV, in which Al Hariri is the main shareholder.

Despite Al Hariri's apparently calm reaction to Prince Al Waleed's criticism, local media have highlighted the prince's remarks for the past two days.

Al Diyar newspaper suggested that in his forthcoming trip to Saudi Arabia, Al Hariri would raise the issue of the kingdom's policy in Lebanon. "Al Hariri will ask Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah whether there is any change in the Saudi's support to him and whether Saudi Arabia approved of Prince Al Waleed's criticism of his government," the paper stated in its front page, without naming its source of information.

The Lebanese media raised speculation earlier in the year that Prince Al Waleed has political ambitions in Lebanon. Such speculation grew dramatically after the prince's speech.

People on the street now talk about the prince's attempts to compete with Al Hariri over assuming premiership in Beirut.

"With an ever-crumbling economic situation, people will support anyone who is ready to get them out of their financial problems," Mohammed Khodor, a Lebanese national who owns a grocery store in Beirut, told Gulf News yesterday.

But a woman, who refused to give her name, ruled out the possibility that Prince Al Waleed could compete with Al Hariri. "Were it not for Al Hariri, my children couldn't have completed their education," she said, referring to Al Hariri's programme which provides financial assistance to university students. "He has been working for the country for years. Is it possible for someone who came just yesterday to take his place? I don't think so."