Mohamed Al-Fayed's Legacy (Part 1)

The Controversial Narcissistic Billionaire

By Prof. Talaat I. Farag


Mohamed Al-Fayed

Adnan Kashoggi

Few figures have drawn as much media attention in the UK --both positive and negative--over the past quarter century than Egyptian business mogul Mohammed Al-Fayed. The controversial, egocentric and noisy billionaire was born in in 1929 in Alexandria, Egypt, as the eldest son of an Egyptian primary school teacher. In a span of 81 years, Al-Fayed has left an indelible mark on everything he has touched and carved a space for himself among the most iconic and eccentric figures of the last century. Today, his name alone elicits extreme reactions, between admiration and loathing. Regardless, one thing is certain--that his fame comes from a unique mix of fortune and insanity.

Mohammed Al-Fayed's first entrepreneurial venture began at school where he sold homemade lemonade. Despite his very humble beginnings, he climbed the wealth ladder rapidly and built the Al-Fayed empire, culminating with his ownership of Harrods, the world's most famous luxury department store (Knightsbridge, London) which employees 5,000 persons, The Ritz Hotel in Paris, and The English Premiership football club Fulham.

In May 8, 2010, Al-Fayed made headlines again when he declared he had sold Harrods Department Store to Qatari Holdings for a reported £1.5 billion ($2.1 billion). Soon afterwards, he also announced that he would be looking to sell The Ritz Hotel.

Building an Empire

Harrods owner Mohammed al-Fayed places a necklace on Australian singer Holly Valance during the opening of a Harrods Winter Sale in London (AP/PTI)

Mohammed Al-Fayed started his business career shortly after marrying Samira Kashoggi (1954-1956), which made him the brother-in-law of the Turkish-Saudi arms-dealer and billionaire Adnan Kashoggi, from whom he learnt the ABCs of "dirty" business. The two worked in tandem to identify conflict zones around the world where they would sell arms to opposing camps. During that time, Samira, gave birth to their son Dodi - who later became embroiled in one of the most public and controversial relationships among British royalty and died in a tragic Paris car crash in 1997 with his partner Princess Diana.

In the 1960s, Al-Fayed met the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid al Makhtoum who entrusted him with helping transform and build the gulf emirate of Dubai starting with the construction of the Dubai port--now a significant crossroad for trade and seafaring worldwide. Al-Fayed took advantage of his familiarity with the UK and introduced British companies to the Emirate to carry out the required construction work. By 1966, he had secured his position as a financial behemoth in the region and took over financial adviser post to the Sultan of Brunei Omar Ali Saifuddien III.

However, it wasn't until 1974 that Al-Fayed became a resident in the United Kingdom. Shortly afterwards he briefly joined the board of the mining conglomerate Lonrho in 1975 but left after a disagreement. In 1984, Al-Fayed and his brothers purchased a 30 percent stake in House of Fraser, a group that included Harrods, from Roland 'Tiny' Rowland, the head of Lonrho. In 1985, he and his brothers bought the remaining 70 percent for £615m, a move that angered Rowland who had been seeking to buy Harrods. Rowland took the Fayed brothers to a Department of Trade inquiry. The inquiry, involving one of the most bitter feuds in British business history, issued a 1990 report stating that the Fayed brothers had lied about their background and wealth. The bickering with Rowland continued when he accused them of stealing millions in jewels from his Harrods safe deposit box. The pair made peace in 1992. Rowland died in 1998, and, without accepting responsibility, Al-Fayed settled the dispute with a payment to his widow (Al-Fayed had been arrested during the dispute and sued the Metropolitan Police for false arrest in 2002, a case he later lost).

In 1985, he married Heini Wathén, his second wife who was a former Finnish model and Miss Viking pageant winner, and they have four children together: daughters Jasmine and Camilla, and sons Kareem and Omar.

For years, Al-Fayed unsuccessfully sought British citizenship. Both Labour and Conservative Home Secretaries rejected his applications. It has been suggested that the feud with Rowland contributed to Al-Fayed's being refused British citizenship the first time.

When political operative and Egyptian socialite Dr. Ashraf Marwan, son-in-law of the former Egyptian President Nasser (husband of Mona Abdel Nasser) settled in London, he joined Al-Fayed's empire. Over time, Marwan created his own weapons-dealing business and over the years became a staunch competitor of Al-Fayed's. Interestingly, Dr. Marwan suffered a tragic death in June 2007, for which British investigators have not yet been able to determine whether the cause was accidental, suicide or homicide!!


The Noisy Billionaire

After the tragic 1997 death of Princess Diana and Al-Fayed's son Dodi in Paris, the billionaire became an ardent critic of the investigation and spoke explicitly about an international conspiracy to kill the Princess of Wales with his son. He repeated this view on February 18, 2008 in Room 73 of the High Court in London when he mentioned that, shortly after Tony Blair, and former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook had been added to the list of conspirators, lawyer Richard Horwell, a note of incredulity rising in his voice said, "So that is MI5, MI6, CIA, DGSE (the French Intelligence Service), Judge Herve Stephen...the French ambulance service, Lord Paul Condon, Lord John Stevens, Michael Burgess, the Surrey coroner, and Lady Sarah McCorquodale?" He added several more: two bodyguards; the French pathologists, Henry Paul (chauffeur), a reception clerk at the Ritz Hotel, Sir Michael Jay (British Ambassador in Paris at the time); Sir Robert Fellowes (Queen's private secretary and Diana's brother-in-law); Victor Mishcon (Diana's lawyer), a photographer named James Andanson (allegedly driving the white Fiat Uno that brushed the Mercedes shortly before it crashed in a tunnel August 31, 1997); and of course Prince Philip and Prince Charles. Day 71 of the Diana Inquest, and after more than 170 experts and other witnesses were interviewed, it was finally proved that Mr. Al-Fayed's conspiracy allegations were wrong due to lack of evidence. Mr. Al-Fayed believed that Prince Philip was masterminding the murder of Princess Diana from Balmoral: "It is well known that Prince Philip is Nazi, a racist...It's time to send him back to Germany from where he comes. You want to know his original name? It ends in Frankenstein." (Prince Philip is descended from the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburg, which was his father's surname). Al-Fayed also claimed, "Prince Charles participated in it (death of Diana and Dodi) definitely. And I am sure he knows what is going to happen, because he would like to get on and marry his Camilla. And this is what happened. They cleared the decks. They finished her. They murdered her and now he is happy." Regarding Lord Condon and Lord Stevens, two former Metropolitan Police commissioners, were also implicated by Al-Fayed, for concealing the note they were given by Lord Mishcon three weeks after the crash in which Diana had disclosed two years earlier fearing she was going to be killed." The service of the French Ambassador in the UK was implicated too, for driving Diana to hospital so slowly, in order to make sure she died. And also French intelligence service and French magistrate investigating the crash who determined it was an accident.  According to Al-Fayed, the motives for her killing was that the British establishment did not want Diana to marry a Muslim, in addition to discovering that she was pregnant. Furthermore, when asked by coroner, "Do you think in any possibility, however remote, that your beliefs about conspiracies may be wrong, and the deaths were in truth no more than a tragic accident?" Al-Fayed bluntly said, "No way. I am 100% certain."

It is outrageous statements like these that have earned Al-Fayed his reputation as a firebrand and turned him into a darling of the British tabloids where he is a mainstay among London chatter circles.


The Controversial Billionaire and "Phoney Pharaoh"

Mohamed Al-Fayed was involved in the cash-for-questions affair, having offered money for questions in the commons to the Conservative MPs Neil Hamilton and Tim Smith. Both left the government in disgrace. Al-Fayed also revealed that the cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken had stayed for free at the Ritz Hotel in Paris at the same time as a group of Saudi arms dealers leading to Aitken's subsequent unsuccessful libel case and imprisonment for perjury. During this period Al-Fayed was represented publicly by public relations expert and former BBC journalist Michael Cole.

In 2003, Al-Fayed moved from Surrey, UK to Switzerland, alleging a breach in an agreement with Inland Revenue. In 2005, he moved back to Britain, saying that he "regards Britain as home". However, he spend a considerable amount of time in the year in Monaco and has done for over forty years. He moors a yacht there called the Sokar.

In the summer of 1997, Al-Fayed bought Second Division (equivalent to modern Football League One) Fulham F.C. from chairman Jimmy Hill. His initial, ambitious long-term aim was that Fulham would become a FA Premier League side within five years. Al-Fayed achieved his objective of Fulham being a Premiership club a year ahead of his schedule in 2001.

Al-Fayed is not only known for being controversial, but also for being foul-mouthed in presenting his views. One of many examples of this occurred when he was interviewed by the London Evening Standard in May 2010 following his sale of Harrods after 26-years of ownership. He soon began a diatribe about the UK government, saying "You think we have government? You think those politicians have any intelligence, ruling the country? They go like donkeys, you elect them, put them in power. It’s really a shame. Can you tell me what life experience they have — to put them prime minister? From one dickhead to another. Major ... Margaret Thatcher. Tony Blair ... I would not use him as a doormat downstairs. Prescott. All these characters. Do those people have any intelligence to rule such a great country, such great people? You have so many intelligent, so many gifted people ... but you only go and elect dickheads to rule you.”

His consistently rowdy and confrontational style has raised both eyebrows and his profile publicly.

Since his rise to prominence, Al-Fayed has been known for his self-absorbed narcissism. As one who embellishes his past and exaggerates his life story, he meets all the criteria of an egocentric megalomaniac. Upon his arrival in the United Kingdom, he became a resident in 1974. To ensure that his lineage appears to be prestigious and majestic, he added the prefix "Al- " to his name earning the nickname "the Phoney Pharaoh."

Al-Fayed has repeatedly stated that he dreams of being mummified in a room in the attic of his Harrods store when he dies. In fact, upon the sale of the store to Qatari Holdings group, he mandated in the contract that his wax statue remain in the first floor of the store. He specifically outlined a penalty of three billion dollars on the buyers if they remove his wax statue!


Mohamed Al-Fayed's Legacy

The billionaire, who started his career selling lemonade in Bakoos, a urban working class district in Alexandria, Egypt, later joined his brother-in-law, the Saudi arms dealer, Adnan Kashoggi in London. Al-Fayed has been interviewed by many journalists about his journey, which often serve to beautify his image. Nevertheless, this all became very obvious and public following a recent interview with the Egyptian demagogic anchor Amr Adeeb on his Orbit show Cairo Today soon after the sale of Harrods which we will feature in the next part of this article. The journey of the man who climbed the ladder of wealth from a humble upbringing to a multi-billionaire lifestyle, raises thousands of questions that must be answered. Among these are the following:

  • How could he have acquired all his current wealth, even if he is a super intelligent businessman?

  • While the British government allowed Al-Fayed to live an aristocrat lifestyle, why is he always hostile towards it?

  • What are the actual reasons why the UK insists on refusing to grant him citizenship?

  • Does Mohamed Al-Fayed have any ancestral connections in Libya as mentioned by leader Muammar Gaddafi?

  • As an Egyptian citizen, why has he not invested money in Egypt?!

  • At the age of 81, what does Al-Fayed plan to do with his billions?

When the clock stops in the life of this intelligent businessman, what will be written about him in the history books?

Will he have a legacy and what will it be?


Readers are invited to send their views to be included in Part II of this article in the coming issue....


Prof. Talaat I. Farag, MD, FRCP, FACP, FACMG is a former adjunct professor at Dalhousie University in Canada. He is the founder of The Ambassadors Research Foundation in 1998. Email: tfarag@dal.ca