Mohamed al-Fayed, the self-made Egyptian billionaire who bought Harrods department store and promoted the discredited conspiracy theory that the British royal family was behind the death of his son and Princess Diana, has died, his family said.
Born in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, Al-Fayed began his career selling carbonated drinks and then worked as a sewing machine salesman. He built his family’s fortune in real estate, shipping and construction, first in the Middle East and then in Europe.
Although al-Fayed possessed establishment symbols such as Harrods, Fulham and the Ritz Hotel in Paris, in Britain he was always an outsider, tolerated but not embraced.
He fell out with the British government over its refusal to grant him citizenship of the country that was his home for decades and often threatened to move to France, earning him the Legion of Honour, the highest civilian honour.
Al-Fayed – who could be charming, autocratic, vindictive and sometimes wildly outspoken – spent a decade trying to prove that Diana and his son Dodi were murdered when their car crashed into a road tunnel in Paris in 1997 while trying to evade the paparazzi . photographers on motorcycles.
Unsupported by any evidence, according to the inquiry into Diana’s death, he alleged that she gave birth to Dodi’s child and accused Prince Philip, the Queen’s husband, of ordering British security services to kill her to dissuade her from dating a Muslim to get married and have his baby.
Al-Fayed died on Wednesday, his family said, a day before the 26th anniversary of Dodi and Diana’s deaths.
“Ms Mohamed Al Fayed, her children and grandchildren wish to confirm that her beloved husband, their father and their grandfather, Mohamed, passed away peacefully at an advanced age,” the family statement said.
Although al-Fayed was known for his self-invention, exaggeration and boastfulness, he was also a central figure at key moments in Britain’s recent history.
His rancorous takeover of Harrods in 1985 sparked one of Britain’s most bitter business feuds, while in 1994 he sparked a scandal with the revelation that he had paid politicians to ask questions in Parliament on his behalf.
Like many billionaires, Al-Fayed rejected the convention. He once said he wanted to be mummified in a gold sarcophagus in a glass pyramid on the roof of Harrods.
In the store, where he set a dress code—even for customers—that he personally enforced, he placed a kitschy bronze memorial statue of Diana and Dodi dancing under the wing of an albatross.
As the owner of Fulham, he erected a larger-than-life sequined statue of Michael Jackson off the ground, even though the singer had only attended one game. When people complained, he said, “If some stupid fans don’t understand or appreciate such a gift, they can go to hell.”
Much of Al-Fayed’s past remained obscure, even his date of birth. He said he was born in 1933 in what was then British-ruled Egypt. However, a British government inquiry into the Harrods takeover revealed that it was 1929.
Al-Fayed became a resident of Great Britain in 1974 and added the al to his name. The satirical magazine Private Eye referred to this as self-aggrandizement, calling him the “Fake Pharaoh”.
In 1985, he and his brothers beat businessman Roland “Tiny” Rowland at Harrods, one of the most famous stores in the world.
Al-Fayed hoped buying the store would bring him acceptance into British society. Instead, it led to a series of bitter confrontations.
Rowland took al-Fayed and his brothers to a Department of Commerce investigation, claiming they had misrepresented their wealth.
The investigation cast doubt on their origins as part of a wealthy business family, past business connections and their independent financial means.
After a quarter-century of ownership, al-Fayed sold Harrods to Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund in 2010.
Al-Fayed’s application for British citizenship was rejected by the government in 1995. He said racism kept him on the brink of acceptability.
A year earlier, al-Fayed had embarrassed the government by revealing that he had made gifts and payments to politicians in return for asking him parliamentary questions. The so-called ‘money-for-ask’ scandal ended the careers of four politicians, including one minister.
The sleaze allegations undermined the Conservatives, who lost a landslide election to Labor leader Tony Blair in 1997.
DIANA AND DODI
That summer, al-Fayed’s son Dodi began a relationship with Princess Diana, who had divorced Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne. Dodi and Diana were pictured by British tabloids while vacationing on a yacht in the South of France.
After traveling to Paris, the couple were killed when their Mercedes, driven at high speed by a driver who had been drinking whiskey and was trying to avoid the paparazzi, crashed into a concrete pillar in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel.
Wracked with grief and an overwhelming sense of injustice, al-Fayed spent millions on legal battles to ensure that a judicial inquiry would take place.
When it started ten years after the London crash, Al-Fayed accused everyone from the royal family, Prime Minister Blair, Diana’s sister Sarah, the French embalmers of Diana’s body and the Paris ambulance drivers of being involved.
But the jury ruled that the couple died unlawfully by driving their driver. Al-Fayed said he accepted the verdict and gave up legal efforts to prove they were murdered.
“I leave the rest to God to take revenge,” he said.
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