Mohamed Al Fayed: A crook or a gentleman?

He was a business tycoon, the father of Princess Diana’s last boyfriend, owner of Harrods and desperate to be pals with Britain’s aristocracy. But who was the mysterious Mohamed Al Fayed?

Over many years, millions of dollars, mountains of headlines and much personal heartache, Mohamed Al Fayed tried to persuade the world that it had him all wrong.

“They call me a crook,” he complained. “They say I’m not a gentleman. They don’t want to give me a chance.”

When he died in August 2023, aged 94, some of the warmer tributes might have surprised Mohamed, although, significantly, none of them came from Buckingham Palace.

The most famous of his many feuds arose after the deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the Egyptian born tycoon’s playboy son Dodi in a Paris car crash in 1997.

Mohamed became convinced that the pair had been murdered by Britain’s intelligence services on the orders of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh.

Rejecting the official inquiry findings that blamed a drunken chauffeur driving at high speed, Mohamed spent huge sums trying to prove that Dodi and Diana had been assassinated to spare the royal family and British society the embarrassment of them marrying.

Mohamed, a figure of mysterious provenance, arrived in Britain in the 1970s laden with money. He used this fortune to buy an array of big-ticket trophy assets including Harrods, the landmark London department store.

The tragedy of Dodi and Diana came to symbolise every hurt he felt at his perceived exclusion from high society.

For all the expensive Savile Row suits he liked to wear, his grand homes in Mayfair, Surrey and Scotland, his sponsorship of horse racing and polo tournaments, he complained bitterly of being treated as an outsider.

“I have given everything to this country,” he once told me, sitting in Harrods’ ornate boardroom, in the grim aftermath of the Paris tragedy. “I have British kids, I provide employment for thousands of people, my businesses pay millions and millions in taxes, and I’ve given millions more to charity. Anyone else would be thanked. Me? I am brushed off as some upstart wog.”

When Diana, 36, began a romance with sometime film producer Dodi, 42, a year after her divorce from Charles, it was – in Mohamed’s view – more than the ‘establishment’ could bear.

Mohamed Al Fayed and Princess Diana

“What happened was a state execution,” claimed Mohamed, drumming his fleshy fingers on a green leather topped table. “Diana told me in the last week of her life that she was being threatened. ‘Mohamed,’ she said. ‘If anything happens to me, I want you to know who has done it.’ And I do know. It was him, of course. That bastard. The man from nowhere.”

Prince Philip, not being the type to duck a fight, hit back by stripping Harrods of its prestigious royal warrants. Equally affronted, the Queen switched her annual order of 1000 Harrods Christmas puddings to the supermarket chain Tesco.

Such contact as there was between Mohamed and the royal family – mostly at horse-related events – ended abruptly.

The “man from nowhere” swipe at Philip could perhaps be better applied to Mohamed himself, who invented several versions of his early life, including that he was born into a wealthy Egyptian shipping family with aristocratic connections.

His real beginnings were in El-Gomrok, a run-down suburb of Alexandria, where his father was a clerk in the schools department.

Mohamed’s first job was selling Coca-Cola from a barrow, but he was smart and resourceful with a talent for salesmanship, and it led him into the company of Adnan Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian student at an elite Alexandria college, who would go on to become a multi-billionaire arms dealer.

Mohamed joined the Khashoggi family firm as a trader, and in 1954 married Adnan’s 18-year-old sister, Samira. Their son, Dodi, was born the following year.

In the Netflix TV series The Crown, Mohamed is seen promising his infant son that he will be “the best of all fathers”, but in reality he was busy hustling his way around the Middle East, and little Dodi was largely brought up by his uncle, Salah.

The marriage to Samira collapsed after two years, and finding himself now in bad odour with the Khashoggis, Mohamed had to strike out on his own.

The years that followed are the murkiest and most disputed of Mohamed’s life. Various accounts have him turning up in Haiti – one of the poorest countries in the world – posing as a Kuwaiti sheikh to clinch a deal to build a new oil refinery.

When it turned out that there was no oil and no money to build a refinery anyway, Mohamed reportedly disappeared with a large chunk of the island’s development budget.

Mohamed Al Fayed

Vowing vengeance, Haiti’s sinister dictator François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier sent his secret police, the Tonton Macoute, in pursuit. Yet by this time Mohamed was safely in Dubai, now claiming to be a member of the deposed Egyptian royal family, and landing several lucrative deals to build the desert kingdom’s infrastructure.

These exploits, and the money that came with them, made him a figure of intrigue in Middle Eastern business circles, and in the 1970s he joined the inner circle of the Sultan of Brunei, then the world’s richest man.

The Sultan was anxious to invest some of his vast oil wealth abroad, and Mohamed was dispatched to London to acquire suitable assets.

“No one had ever heard of him then,” says former gossip columnist Adam Helliker. “And all of a sudden there was this guy throwing big parties, mixing it up with models and celebrities, and going to all the best restaurants. The next thing we knew he’d bought Harrods.”

Not everything happened in the public eye. After his brief marriage to Samira and an even briefer engagement to one of Papa Doc’s daughters, Mohamed had met beauty queen Heini Wathén, a former Miss Finland finalist turned movie starlet.

They married in 1985 and had four children, but were rarely seen together in public.

A book by a Finnish journalist later portrayed Heini as a “prisoner in golden chains”, but the marriage endured nearly 40 years, and after Mohamed’s death, she paid tribute to him as her “beloved husband”.

The 1985 purchase of the venerable Knightsbridge department store – long the favourite of Britain’s ‘posh people’ – caused uproar, and turned Mohamed into a popular pantomime villain.

The satirical magazine Private Eye dubbed him the ‘Phoney Pharaoh’, claiming that he had added the ‘Al’ part of his name to give the impression of a distinguished pedigree, while tycoon Roland ‘Tiny’ Rowland – the rival bidder for Harrods – used his prestigious London newspaper, The Observer, to portray Mohamed as a fraud and charlatan.

“Al Fayed likes to think he’s larger than life,” fumed Tiny. “In fact, he’s lower than life.”

As journalists and financiers began to dig into the flashy interloper’s background, two big questions emerged: Who was the real Al Fayed, and where had he got the £630 million to buy Harrods?

Mohamed and the Queen.

An official inquiry into the takeover concluded that Mohamed almost certainly used someone else’s money, most likely the Sultan’s, but since nothing could be proved the deal was allowed to go ahead.

Now sitting atop one of the grandest buildings in London, Mohamed set about his long and ultimately futile quest to become an English gentleman. He made prodigious efforts to ingratiate himself with the royal family, sponsoring the annual Royal Windsor Horse Show – the Queen’s favourite event – to the tune of £1 million a year, and arranging to have himself photographed beaming at the monarch’s side.

He wooed Diana’s family, the Spencers, paying particular attention to her father, Earl ‘Johnny’ Spencer, and stepmother, Raine, who he put on the board of Harrods.

Obliging royal staff were rewarded with gold-embossed Harrods discount cards, and when Charles, Diana and their children were living at Kensington Palace, a horse-drawn Harrods coach would regularly arrive with gifts for the whole family.

Claiming to have a lifelong fascination with the story of Edward VIII’s abdication to marry American divorcée Wallis Simpson, Mohamed took over custody of the exiled couple’s former home in Paris, spending millions on its restoration, and persuading Prince Charles to inspect the finished project.

He even rehired the Duke and Duchess’s old butler, Sydney Johnson, to ensure that all their possessions were in the right places.

Widening his charm offensive beyond the upper classes, Mohamed bought Fulham FC, a struggling west London football club, into which he pumped another fortune – part of it on a bizarre 2.5-metre high statue of pop star Michael Jackson, which was erected at the ground’s main gates.

The fans were baffled and a critic from The Art Newspaper called it: “A spectacularly bad piece of kitsch that doesn’t even look like Michael Jackson.” Still, the club eventually crawled back to the top level, and the supporters chanted Mohamed’s name. But the echoes didn’t reach the redoubts of power.

His burning ambition was to become a British citizen.

“No, way,” said the government, whose lawyers had scrutinised the more damaging passages of the Harrods inquiry. One of which read: “Mohamed Al Fayed’s business success has created a new fact: That lies were the truth and the truth was lies.”

Mohamed’s increasingly desperate attempts to win citizenship, and thus respectability, were heightened by his dismay that his new ‘friends’ in the royal family wouldn’t stand up and vouch for him. Instead, he suspected, they laughed at him behind his back.

Mohamed Al Fayed

So were laid the seeds for the epic fallout after the deaths of Dodi and Diana. Whatever else people thought of Mohamed, there is no doubt that the loss of his son profoundly affected him, stripping him of the ebullience with which he had faced down his many critics, and plunging him into a vortex of grief.

Writer and socialite Petronella Wyatt remembers visiting the tycoon’s vast apartment in Park Lane 10 years after the Paris tragedy. She was barely through the door when Mohamed, wearing a dressing gown and “smelling of expensive unguents” said: “Why don’t we have a romantic dinner tonight?”

After being told that it was out of the question, Mohamed said: “No? Then I will show you something. Something few people have seen.”

He led her across the hallway to the neighbouring flat where Dodi had lived. Inside was a macabre tableau of the dead playboy’s life. A maid was plumping up pillows on the bed, a half-smoked cigar lay in an ashtray, there was a box of Charbonnel et Walker chocolates still with tooth marks in them. The walls were hung with huge paintings showing Dodi and Diana together in loving poses.

“There was a sweet, sickly smell to the place,” recalled Petronella. “It reminded me of a film set that had been long abandoned by the crew.”

Here, Mohamed kept alive the fantasy that his son and the Princess would have married and finally cemented his place at the heart of an establishment he both hated and longed to be part of.

Mohamed sold Harrods in 2010, insisting that the new owners respected his plan to have a giant pyramid-shaped mausoleum built on the roof to house his embalmed body. He retired to his 18th-century castle at Balnagown in the Scottish Highlands where, freed from the stresses of all the feuds and vendettas he conducted, he seemed to have found a kind of peace.

Chester Stern, a friend and former employee of the tycoon says: “I think he mellowed as he grew older, and moved away from his view that Philip and the royals had been directly involved in the crash. He might not have accepted it was an accident in public, but maybe he did in private.”

Another friend and former Harrods board member, Michael Cole, says: “He was an extraordinary, larger than life figure, but nothing like his public image. Personally, he was immensely generous, giving money even to people he didn’t know, especially where children needed help.

“We would have a terrible row, perhaps twice a year, and he would settle it by sending me a glass of Ritz champagne and telling my secretary to say: ‘Calm down, Michael, smile.’ He was never the same after Dodi died, but he kept a brave face and didn’t wallow in self-pity.”

Mohamed never achieved his dream of being accepted by polite society, never came close to proving that the Paris crash was anything other than a tragic accident, and never got to build his pyramid in the sky. Yet for a poor boy from the backstreets of Alexandria, he travelled far, rose high, entertained as many people as he outraged, and stuck to his oft-stated belief that “God will give me my revenge.”

Related stories