Monday, August 1, 2011

Al Fayed: a unique story of rags to riches

Harrods brought Al Fayed class and heaps of trouble

Controversy has surrounded Mohamed Al Fayed from the start. The Department of Trade inquiry following the House of Fraser takeover gives his date of birth as January 27, 1929. The logbook of the rich and famous, Who's Who, lists him as a full four years younger.

Whatever his true age, Mr Al Fayed had little to celebrate on his recent birthday. The deaths of his son, Dodi, and Diana, Princess of Wales, continues to overshadow his life.

Only six months earlier, it had been different. The collapse of Neil Hamilton's libel trial vindicated his claims that politicians took bribes to ask questions. The damning DTI report into him was fading in memories. Under a new government, it seemed possible he might yet get the British passport that had for so long eluded him.

Simple beginnings

Born in Alexandria, Egypt, the young Mohamed was the eldest of three sons of a primary school teacher. Unlike his own children, Mr Al Fayed was not from a wealthy family. Indeed, his arch-enemy, Roland "Tiny" Rowland, once dubbed him "the hero from zero".

[ image: Dodi was Al Fayed's only son to his first wife]
Dodi was Al Fayed's only son to his first wife
Through his first job as a sewing machine salesman, where he earned 10 Egyptian pounds a month, Mr Al Fayed met Adnan Khashoggi. This proved important to him because he went on to work for Mr Khashoggi, who ran an import business in Saudi Arabia, and to marry his sister, Samira. Although neither relationship lasted, Mr Al Fayed's first marriage brought him his first son, Dodi.

Around this point, Mr Al Fayed added the prefix "Al" to his surname. He also started his own shipping business and became an adviser to the Sultan of Brunei, one of the world's richest men.

Going French

His first major European purchase was the Paris Ritz, which he bought in 1979. From here, Mr Al Fayed continually had his eye on Harrods and the House of Fraser chain.

His chance came in 1985, when he succeeded in clinching a £615m takeover bid. But in some ways, this was the start of his problems as the refusal of Tiny Rowland to accept the new owners led directly to the DTI inquiry, which is most often held against Mr Al Fayed.

The report did not remove Harrods' ownership from Mr Al Fayed but it cast serious aspersions on his personal integrity by describing him as "unreliable, untrue and bogus".

In addition, it raised suspicions about how Mr Al Fayed, and his younger brother Ali, had managed to raise funds for such a large bid and concluded: "We are satisfied that the image they created between November 1984 and March 1985 of their wealthy Egyptian ancestors was completely bogus."

Gifts to charities

By this time, Mr Al Fayed had four British children by his second wife and was paying millions of pounds in tax to the UK Government. He gave millions more to charities, such as the Great Ormond Street Hospital, and financed films, including Chariots of Fire, which Dodi Al Fayed co-produced.

[ image: Fulham FC: Al Fayed's latest acquisition]
Fulham FC: Al Fayed's latest acquisition
But the 1990 DTI report appeared to be the deciding factor when Mr Al Fayed decided to apply for British citizenship. The British Nationality Act stipulates all successful applicants need to be of good character.

Whether or not this led directly to Mr Al Fayed's allegations of bribe-taking among politicians is mainly speculation, but it certainly increased his contempt for the British "Establishment" at the same time as he refused to let it diminish his love for the country.

In 1996, the Court of Appeal ruled the former Home Secretary, Michael Howard, had acted illegally in denying Mr Al Fayed's application. Mr Howard's successor, Jack Straw, has since accepted the court's view and said the case would be reviewed "on its merits".

Most recently, Mr Al Fayed bought the Fulham Football Club for £30m and installed Kevin Keegan in charge with a thick chequebook to restore the side's fortunes.


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