Al-Fayed could buy anything, but not what he craved most: the royal family’s love

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London: Mohamed al-Fayed loved Britain more than it loved him back. Whether it was buying famous businesses, accruing the Rolls-Royces and stately homes of the aristocracy, or buttering up the royal family, he did everything he could to make himself a member of the British upper classes.

It never quite worked. He was mocked by the press, denied a passport by the Home Office, cold-shouldered by the aristocratic company he craved. When his son Dodi died with Princess Diana in Paris, Fayed claimed they had been murdered in a conspiracy. It had the feeling of a long-pent-up frustration finally finding its expression. Critics portrayed a bitter and heartbroken man seeking revenge on a royal family that had spurned him.

Queen Elizabeth II accompanied by the then owner of Harrods, Mohamed Al Fayed, at the 1997 Royal Windsor Horse Show.Credit: AP

Not everyone sees things that way. “Losing Dodi was like a Greek tragedy,” says Lizzie Spender, the actress who got to know Fayed when her then-partner, the late Barry Humphries, was invited to open the Harrods sale in 1988. She says Fayed was generous to a fault, brilliant with children, and suffered terribly after Dodi’s death.

“[Imagine] you have everything for your son, and maybe feeling that he would get together with Diana. Then within 24 hours you’re burying him and it’s your fault. I don’t think anyone could recover from that.

“As Freddie Forsyth said, that night was like winning the lottery in reverse. A lot of bad things happened, and by chance some of them were Mohamed’s fault, like saying he wanted his driver to drive them. Haunted is hardly the word … I can’t imagine what it would be like to go through what he went through.”

When he finally abandoned his campaign in 2008, he said it was “for the sake of the two princes, whom I know love their mother … I am sure they are blessing in their deep heart what I am doing to discover the truth. But as I say, I have enough. I am leaving the rest for God to get my revenge”.

Mohamed al-Fayed (right) bought Harrods, along with other high-profile British brands.Credit: Reuters

Fayed’s life was shaped by Anglophilia. He was born into an Egypt that was independent in name only. Although Britain had recognised Egypt’s independence in 1922, when Fayed was born – in 1929 or 1933, depending on which of his accounts you believed – the country was still a colony in all but the small print.

Britain controlled the army, foreign affairs, communications and the Suez Canal. The upper classes spoke English and dressed in Savile Row tailoring. Academics went to British universities and children studied at British-style schools, or – for the very wealthy – to the British schools themselves. In Alexandria, where Fayed grew up – the “Al” came later – to be one of the elite was to be British, with the royal family at the apex.

As Fayed was successful in business, he gravitated towards the UK. But with every step he made towards the establishment, the establishment hit back. It didn’t matter that he bought Turnbull & Asser or Harrods or Fulham FC. He was everything the British upper classes are taught to mistrust: an arriviste foreigner with a fortune made in murky circumstances, a wheeler-deeler with an accent. They never let him forget it.

“He seemed very superficial,” says Angela Levin, a royal biographer who met Fayed when she was working on a book about Max Clifford. “He obviously wasn’t, because he made millions. But he wasn’t someone you’d have a good conversation with because he would be doing all the talking and know what he wanted, and wasn’t interested in your view.”

“He was obsessed with being accepted by the establishment.”

He moved to the UK permanently in 1974, when he added the “al” to his surname to imply aristocratic origins, a decision met with mockery by Private Eye. They called him the “Phoney Pharaoh”, ratcheting up an exchange of words and writs that would continue for the rest of his life, and even cause him to relaunch Punch magazine to fight back. Five years later, he bought the Ritz in Paris with his brother, Ali. Six years after that, in 1985, he pipped Tiny Rowland’s Lonhro group to buy House of Fraser, the retail chain which included Harrods. For a street trader from Alexandria, nothing could be more prestigious.

When the Department of Trade and Industry reported on the ensuing row with Rowland, they found that Fayed had lied about his wealth. He never escaped rumours of crookedness. But with Harrods, he acquired the most prestigious shop in the world, somewhere the royals were known to frequent. The late Queen had shopped there. Diana had gone when pregnant with Prince William. Owning it was an opportunity to ply favoured customers – like Diana and her family – with gifts.

“He was really trying to get close to Diana and thought that would be a kind way to do that,” Levin says. “He went after her because she was so beautiful and loved by so many people around the world. I expect he thought he could get a bit of that magic.”

Sally Bedell Smith, a biographer of Diana, agrees. “He was obsessed with being accepted by the establishment,” she says, “and the monarchy was the top of the establishment. He came from nowhere, he invented things about his background, he added an aristocratic ‘Al’ to his name. He was obviously a shrewd businessman, in ways that may have been murky, but I think, while he attained certain status as the owner of the Ritz and Fulham and Harrods, he wanted to be accepted.

“But he was very rough around the edges. He was profane. I don’t think racism came into it. He just had a bad reputation for his business dealings.”

Harrods wasn’t his only move towards the royals. He sponsored the Royal Windsor Horse Show, which meant opportunities to be photographed alongside Elizabeth II. The episode was fictionalised in an episode of The Crown that focused entirely on his life. “He went for the really big things, which weren’t so much about money, but about being part of the circle,” says Levin. “He did everything he possibly could, but he didn’t appeal to them.”

She says his actions after Diana and Dodi died reflected the bitterness of a man who had been spurned. “He wanted to be part of the royal family, and when he wasn’t he tried to get revenge. He decided that Prince Philip ordered for [Dodi and Diana] to be killed, because he felt that he didn’t want Diana to marry his son. He went on about this for years, which I thought was too terrible for words. There was enough agony about his son and Diana, but to pretend a great man like Prince Philip would stoop to that level was disgusting.

“I think he jumped to conclusions that the relationship Diana had with his son was more important than it actually was,” adds Levin. “She was a lost soul at the time.”

Fayed never escaped the reputation of financial impropriety, nor the rumours of sexual harassment – never proved – which gathered around him in his later years. The cash-for-questions scandal in the mid-1990s, when it emerged Fayed had paid Tory MPs to ask questions in Parliament, seemed to confirm the worst view of him. When he was repeatedly denied a passport on the grounds of not being a fit and proper person, few disagreed.

For Spender, the passport situation was another occasion when Al Fayed was treated unfairly. “He was very generous and passionate about everything to do with children,” she says. “Look at the charitable work he did, and the children’s hospitals. He wasn’t asking that much. Lots of other people get British citizenship. He was being ignored.”

The closer Mohamed Fayed got to the highest echelons of British society, the more they eluded him. His money bought him a level of access, but true membership of the circles in which he mixed was not for sale, or at least not to him. It must have stung.

For all Fayed’s cash and connections and obsequious manner, he was met by the establishment not with anger but something much colder: indifference.

The Telegraph, London

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