Billionaire who bought Harrods and fell out with royals after son’s death

Mohamed Al Fayed, who has died at the age of 94, was a colourful, controversial and often abrasive businessman who never shied away from a fight – even taking on the royal family.

His first battle was to create a billion-pound business empire in his adopted UK, including upmarket department store Harrods, which led to the pint-sized Egyptian being dubbed the “Phoney Pharaoh”.

But the tycoon’s most public attack was on the House of Windsor and the Establishment over the death of his son and heir Dodi – alongside Diana, Princess of Wales, in the world’s most famous car crash.

Singer Katherine Jenkins and Mohamed Al Fayed
Singer Katherine Jenkins and Mohamed Al Fayed (Zak Hussein/PA)

Alexandria-born Mr Al Fayed spent a decade after the lovers’ 1997 deaths in Paris’s Alma tunnel repeatedly claiming that they were murdered in a plot by the security services and the Duke of Edinburgh.

But he was forced to reluctantly concede defeat after a high-profile six-month inquest in 2007 and 2008.

The jury returned unlawful killing verdicts on both Diana and Dodi, but pinned the blame on the drink-driving of their chauffeur Henri Paul, who also died in the crash.

Paul was employed by the Paris Ritz, from where their journey had started on August 31, a hotel owned by Mr Al Fayed.

At the end of the inquest, coroner Lord Justice Scott Baker openly voiced suggestions of “closing ranks” at the hotel over the question of whether they knew Paul was drinking on the night of the smash.

The jury had heard allegations, strenuously denied, that key witnesses were pressurised to back Mr Al Fayed’s theories and that there was a “conspiracy to pervert the truth” within the Fayed organisation.

Harrods Chairman Mohamed Al Fayed with pop band Liberty X and singer Enrique Iglesias in Knightsbridge.
Harrods chairman Mohamed Al Fayed with pop band Liberty X and singer Enrique Iglesias in Knightsbridge (Yui Mok/PA)

Mr Al Fayed later announced he would accept the verdict of the inquest jury, albeit “with reservations”.

Mohamed Al Fayed was born in the Egyptian city on the Mediterranean, the son of a school inspector.

He came to London in the 1960s and set about building a business empire.

Once there, the flamboyant and extrovert character was rarely out of the newspapers.

In the 1980s, he hit the headlines as he battled for control of the House of Fraser group, including its flagship store Harrods, with rival tycoon “Tiny” Rowland.

Mr Al Fayed and his brother bought a 30% stake in House Of Fraser from Mr Rowland in 1984, and took control of Harrods for £615 million the following year.

Mohamed Al-Fayed and family attending a film premiere of Spectre
Mohamed Al-Fayed and family attending a film premiere of Spectre (Anthony Devlin/PA)

Mr Rowland’s London and Rhodesian Mining Company (Lonrho) had attempted to buy Harrods but was beaten to it by the Egyptian family.

Mr Rowland later accused Mr Al Fayed of breaking into his safety deposit box at the department store.

The Egyptian was arrested in March 1998 along with Harrods security director John Macnamara and four other store staff, but was never charged.

Mr Al Fayed later expanded his business interests to include the Paris Ritz and Fulham Football Club.

As well as the worlds of business and royalty, he became embroiled in politics in 1994 when he was at the centre of the “cash-for-questions” scandal that rocked Westminster.

Mr Al Fayed claimed via the Guardian he had paid then Tory MPs Neil Hamilton and Tim Smith thousands of pounds to illegally table questions in the Commons on his behalf.

Mr Smith apologised and stepped down at the 1997 election but Mr Hamilton sued Mr Al Fayed for libel, landing himself a seven-figure legal bill and eventual bankruptcy after losing to the businessman.

Mr Hamilton, who was later heavily criticised in a Commons report into the affair, was voted out at the 1997 election and is now the leader of Ukip.

Mr Al Fayed applied to have a British passport in 1993 but it was rejected by former Conservative Home Office minister Charles Wardle.

Later on, former Labour home secretary Jack Straw decided Mr Al Fayed had a “general defect in his character” and refused him citizenship.

Mr Straw said he was not satisfied that Mr Al Fayed was of good character because he had admitted to being present when his business rival Mr Rowland’s safe deposit box was opened and because of his payment to MPs.

The business man also lost a High Court Battle against John Prescott allowing him to be able to land his helicopter on the roof of Harrods.

Mr Al Fayed’s time as the Cottagers’ chairman was suitably tumultuous.

Fulham were languishing in Division Two when he took over in 1997 but spending on players and high-profile managers including Kevin Keegan and Roy Hodgson saw them rise to the top-half of the Premier League in the early Noughties, peaking in qualification for the Europa League.

Tiny Rowland shakes hands with Mohamed Al Fayed in Harrods after they ended their conflict over the ownership of the famous London store (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Tiny Rowland shakes hands with Mohamed Al Fayed in Harrods after they ended their conflict over the ownership of the famous London store (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Off the pitch, fans were treated to some bizarre spectacles, including a 1999 visit from Mr Al Fayed’s friend Michael Jackson.

The Harrods boss and the club faced some ridicule when, in 2011, two years after Jackson’s death, a statue of the King Of Pop was erected at its Craven Cottage ground.

When Mr Al Fayed sold the club in 2013 it was taken down, Fulham were later relegated.

After 26 years in charge, in 2010, Mr Al Fayed sold Harrods to the Qatari royal family for a reported £1.5 billion.

At the time, Mr Al Fayed said problems with pension fund trustees were behind his decision to sell the world-famous department store.

He said in an interview that he grew frustrated with the trustees blocking his efforts to extract a dividend from the business.

In 2018, Channel 4 News ran a documentary accusing Mr Al Fayed of grooming and sexually harassing ex-Harrods employees.

The billionaire’s relationship with the royal family was recently depicted in season five of The Crown, where Mr Al Fayed, played by Salim Daw, was seen getting to know Diana.

Mr Daw was nominated for supporting actor at the Baftas for his portrayal of Mr Al Fayed.

Mr Al-Fayed was named as the fourth richest person in Scotland on the Sunday Times Rich List 2023 with a fortune of £1.69 billion.

Mr Al Fayed was married twice and had five children.