Taste, Tact and Racism
- Assassination of a Princess by Ahmad Ata
Dar Al-Huda, 75 pp, £5.00, September 1997, ISBN 977 5340 23 3
- Diana: A Princess Killed by Love by Ilham Sharshar
Privately published, 125 pp, £10.00, September 1998, ISBN 977 5190 95 9
- Who Killed Diana? by Muhammad Ragab
Privately published, 127 pp, £5.00, September 1998, ISBN 977 08 0675 7
- Harrods: A Place in Knightsbridge by Tim Dale
Harrods, 224 pp, £35.00, November 1995, ISBN 1 900055 01 5
The Di Castro Travel Agency in mid-town Alexandria has an eerily compelling window display: a shrine to the memory of Dodi al-Fayed and Diana, Princess of Wales. The shrine has as its centrepiece the front cover of the magazine al-Musawwar depicting Di and Dodi on their wedding day that never was. The couple are shown hand in hand: she in a white bridal gown, clutching a bouquet; he in a dark morning-suit with a carnation in his buttonhole. They both seem very happy – or, shall we say, they don’t in the least seem to mind having their heads mounted on some other couple’s torsos. Di might not have been too thrilled with the mass-market-looking dress that she’s been made to wear, but Dodi looks straightforwardly elated. What neither of them knows is that, printed in bold red letters across the bottom left-hand corner of their wedding pic, a headline asks: ‘Who killed Diana?’
On either side of the centrepiece are cuttings from the condolence columns of Egypt’s leading daily, al-Ahram: messages of sympathy from Egyptian associates and friends of the al-Fayeds. And directly below the wedding photograph there is a copy of the Koran, open at a verse which reads:
Wealth and sons are the ornaments
Of the life of this world
But the things that endure,
Good Deeds, are best
In the sight of the Lord.
The montage is touching and grotesque: the simple pieties of the Koran in jarring contrast with the crude mock-up of the dead couple in their wedding finery. Who could have dreamed up such a folly? The Di Castro Travel Agency, according to an engraved announcement on the shop-front, is ‘A Fayed Brothers Company’ – owned, in other words, by Dodi’s father and his two uncles, Ali and Salah.
I visited Alexandria four weeks after the Paris car crash in which Di and Dodi were killed. After two weeks of British Dianamania, the Di Castro window could scarcely have failed to stop me in my tracks. For most Egyptians, though, the shrine, and what it seemed to say, were unremarkable. Far from being thought of as spooky or sensational, the Di Castro display merely summarised a general, and wholly settled, conviction in the Middle East: that accident was no accident.
Within days of the event, the columnist Anis Mansour was writing in al-Ahram: ‘British intelligence assassinated Diana to save the throne, just as Marilyn Monroe was assassinated by American intelligence. Never before, not even during the days of Crom-well, did any one person manage single-handedly to shake the foundations of the royal family.’ Once the Windsors were convinced that Diana ‘would marry a Muslim who would give her a son named Mohamed or a girl called Fatma, and the son becomes the brother of the King of England, Head of the Church, there had to be a solution,’ Mansour continued. ‘The solution was to dispose of the princess and her groom. In that way, the royal family’s nightmare would be at an end.’
It’s true there had been mentions of Arab conspiracy theories in the British press but here they were instantly dismissed as ‘lunatic’ or as Islamic propaganda, a line greatly assisted by Colonel Gaddafi’s intervention. Gaddafi told journalists in Sirte that Diana ‘was clearly hunted by the royal family, which wanted to get rid of her. It is very clear that they did not want the brother of a British prince to be an Arab Muslim.’ In an earlier statement, he accused Britain of ‘executing an Arab citizen and a British citizen simply because the Arab wished to marry a British princess. British and French intelligence planned this together. It is an act of racial and religious discrimination.’ Gaddafi, everyone knows, is barking mad: ditto, therefore, the theories he espouses. And in any case, people said, where did he get the idea that MI5 would have been clever enough to pull off such a chancy execution? The whole idea was nonsense.
The fact remained that in Egypt – and probably throughout the Arab world – few people were ready to accept that the lovers died by chance. On an Alexandrian newsstand I picked up three books on the subject: Assassination of a Princess by Ahmad Ata, Diana: A Princess Killed by Love by Ilham Sharshar and Who Killed Diana? by Muhammad Ragab. The last was subtitled: ‘By Order of the Palace – the Execution of Imad al-Fayed’. When I asked the newsvendor whether he believed all this, his answer was: ‘All of Egypt believes it.’ He seemed almost apologetic, as if he didn’t want to be the one who broke the news. I got a similar response from the head waiter in a Cairo restaurant: ‘The whole world knows it.’ He, too, seemed to feel sorry for me: a dim Briton gulled by his homicidal rulers.
During the four days I spent in Egypt, the assassination theory was on everybody’s lips – except that it was not a theory. There was confident talk of Diana being pregnant. She pointed at her stomach, did she not, when that French doctor came to her assistance in the tunnel – or was it another doctor, later on, after they had got her to the hospital? There was talk, too, of Diana having converted to Islam, in preparation for her Muslim wedding. I read stories of MI5 agents staying at the Paris Ritz on the night of the crash, of Dodi having received phone-calls over dinner, calls warning him that something was a foot. One call had made him ‘extremely tense’. Soon afterwards, he ‘decided to leave the hotel’. This story, reported in al-Ahram, seems to have originated in a French magazine called Nouveau Détective.
On one of the two evenings I spent in Cairo, I went to a dinner at which several Egyptian journalists and editors were present, including Anis Mansour, the columnist who had first floated the assassination theory. By the time I met him he had, he said, published a further seven columns on the subject. I half-expected Mansour to be viewed with condescension by his colleagues. A couple of days earlier, I had read in an English-language weekly that he was ‘well-known for his fondness for discovering design where others only see accident’. In fact he was the evening’s star turn. Most of the other guests seemed to approach him with great reverence, hanging on his words, nervously glancing at him when they spoke. And when the Di/Dodi liaison came up for discussion, nobody made any serious attempt to quarrel with the Mansour line. I asked the journalists about Mohamed al-Fayed, but they said little that I had not heard before: he had come from Alexandria, from nowhere, and had been out of Egypt for some thirty years.
His son Emad – ‘Dodi’ was a nickname – proved to be a subject of much keener interest. For them, he had clearly been a figure of high glamour – his Ferraris, yachts and jets, his Hollywood starlets, his successful courtship of Diana. I asked about Dodi’s relationship with his father but was soon made to feel that this was not a question that should properly be asked, not now, not during this period of mourning. I formed the impression while I was in Egypt that Dodi may have been a little backward – ‘simple’ was a word I heard quite often used – and that he conformed to some familiar image of the feckless first-born son of a rich father. Mohamed would always have bankrolled him, people said, if only in order to safeguard his own status as a loving parent.
The journalists were more forthcoming about Dodi’s mother, Samira Khashoggi. After the break-up of her marriage to Mohamed in 1957 (the divorce came through in 1958), she had founded a magazine called al-Sharqiyya. She had written romantic novels, married again (twice), and in 1986 she had committed suicide – though it was more often said that she died of cancer, or a heart attack. During the early days of her separation from Mohamed, when Dodi (b.1955) was two or three years old, there had been an unpleasant custody dispute. Mohamed kept little Dodi ‘under guard’ in Alexandria because, he said, Adnan Khashoggi, Samira’s brother, planned to kidnap the child. Eventually there was a court order forbidding Khashoggi to make any approaches to his nephew.
Journalists are, of course, terrific gossips, and this was an informal evening. On the following day, I interviewed an Egyptian diplomat who had spent several years in London and had close dealings with the al-Fayeds. Did he buy the assassination theory? Did al-Fayed himself buy it? Mohamed, said the diplomat, would accept the French judicial findings; he believes in French justice, and of course he hopes that the car crash will turn out to have been an accident. But what about the Di Castro window display: did this not indicate that the al-Fayeds inclined somewhat towards the idea of a conspiracy? ‘This was possibly the work of an over-zealous manager,’ he said. He had not himself seen the faked wedding picture, but he did not seem particularly shocked when I described it to him.
The ‘Who Killed Diana?’ issue of al-Musawwar is dated 5 September, six days after the crash. On the same day the Queen, somewhat reluctantly addressing her subjects, paid tribute to her former daughter-in-law as an ‘exceptional and gifted human being’, but made no mention of the princess’s final lover and co-victim.
Before he died, most of what was written about Dodi had been prurient and disapproving. Some regarded it as racist. Edward Said, for instance, spoke of ‘an orgy of racist fantasy and sexual peeping tom-ism’. ‘It was as if every threadbare Orientalist cliché about “fabled” Oriental wealth and sexual prowess was marshalled to conquer (read “violate”) the blonde English snow fairy,’ he wrote in al-Ahram Weekly. And in impressive support of his opinion, he cited the 10 August issue of the Sunday Times:
Does he [al-Fayed senior] hope that William’s coronation, in however many decades’ time, will have an Alexandrian air due to the dark-eyed presence of the new king’s half-siblings Cleo and Mo, the dashing children of Dodi and Di? And will old Grandpa Mohamed, the matchmaker, be there himself, rubbing his hands in victory?
After the Paris deaths, hostility to Dodi became quite explicit, and it was presumably in order to combat such disparagement that Dodi’s bereaved father decided to put his own spin on the tragedy – and, indeed, on the romance. Within days of the car crash, Michael Cole – al-Fayed’s ultra-Brit PR man – was feeding the newspapers sugary tidbits from the couple’s final hours. Diana, he said, had given Dodi a pair of cufflinks that had once belonged to her father. Dodi had responded with a ‘Tell me yes’ ring. There was also a silver plaque on which Dodi had inscribed ‘a poem’, seemingly authored by himself.
Cole also refuted press suggestions that Dodi was a fast-car freak. ‘In point of fact,’ he said, ‘Dodi did not like speed.’ He also dismissed speculation that Mohamed had dreamed of becoming step-grandfather to the future King of England. ‘All the Fayed family loved the Princess,’ he said, ‘and wanted nothing from her. Their only wish was that she should find personal happiness and contentment after her years of difficulty.’ And on 17 September, on the Geraldo Rivera TV show, Cole mused on the several ways in which the two lovers had been suited to each other:
When they were together they were quite similar ... they had such a lot in common. They both liked the films, I mean Dodi was besotted with the film business. And Diana was a film fan. Somebody was saying to them, you know, they should go and see a stage play in the West End which was just wonderful, and both of them agreed simultaneously that they’d rather see even a second-rate film than go to the theatre.
‘The mouth-piece doth protest too much, methinks,’ wrote one reader to the Sunday Telegraph. Al-Fayed, though, was not to be restrained. When the Sun (which, pre-Paris, had run the headline ‘Dodi is a Dud in Bed’) reproduced a letter which al-Fayed had despatched to the ‘hundreds of ordinary folk’ who had sent him their condolences, there were suggestions that the letter had been leaked. ‘I take some comfort,’ the letter, signed by al-Fayed, read, ‘from my absolute belief that God has taken their souls to live together in Paradise ... If the planet lasts for another thousand years, people will still be talking about the terrible event we are living through. But what they will remember most is the love that existed between two wonderful people.’
Two weeks earlier, Michael Cole, accompanied by al-Fayed, had addressed a 9000-strong crowd at Fulham Football Club: ‘If this planet lasts another thousand years, people will still be talking about the terrible events we are living through together. But what they will remember most is the affection that existed between two wonderful people.’ On the appearance of these same words, more or less, in the Sun, A.N. Wilson, writing in the Evening Standard, warned that ‘Mr al-Fayed should be wary of losing our sympathy’:
Mr al-Fayed is yet again giving a very unfortunate impression to that public he wishes so desperately to please. The impression received is that he is exploiting the situation for all it is worth, and almost claiming that, in Paradise if not on Earth, he has at last secured marital kinship with the greatest in the land.
The general view of Mohamed al-Fayed is riddled with ‘unfortunate impressions’. Time and again, he has made errors of timing, taste and tact from which competent advisers should have been able to protect him. His English is not all that it might be – and is regularly cluttered with expletives. But better a few expletives than the mailshot-prose that gets foisted on him by his PR men.
I talked recently with a friend who once sat next to al-Fayed at an embassy lunch. For most of the lunch, he said nothing: he had to make sure that his food was not poisoned. (A germ-phobic, al-Fayed, when eating out, always calls for a cut lime, which he then rubs around the edges of his cutlery, glass, plate etc.) He stirred himself only twice: the first time to ask the woman on his right to let him look at a fancy silver notebook-holder which, for some reason, she had with her. ‘We could make that. The Harrods logo would fit there,’ he said, then gave it back; the second time was when my friend asked him about Harrods. He at once gestured towards a distinguished-looking Brit sitting opposite. ‘Fucking racist,’ he said. ‘I’ve got Harrods now. My face in Egyptian Hall. Never take it away from me. There for the next thousand years. Fucking racists.’ He is a big man and he was not whispering but nobody reacted. His Finnish wife – ‘very pretty, very blonde’, according to my friend – was also sitting opposite. She smiled at him. ‘Maybe he smiled back but maybe not.’
Before the Harrods – or, to be precise, House of Fraser – takeover in 1985 Mohamed Fayed (the ‘al’ was added later) had been seen in business circles as a wealthy middleman, a fixer who had useful contacts in the Middle East and in Brunei. He was not considered a big player. Sure enough, in 1979, he had bought the Ritz Hotel in Paris. But the Ritz was a bauble, an unprofitable self-indulgence. Certainly al-Fayed was reckoned to be small-time by global tycoons like Tiny Rowland, who, when he met al-Fayed, had been refused permission to acquire Harrods by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. Hoping to have this decision rescinded at some future date, he had the bright idea of parking some of his own House of Fraser shares with al-Fayed. In due course, he would buy them back.
As it turned out, al-Fayed used the former Rowland shares as a platform for his own takeover bid. Rowland was astounded and enraged – and all the more so when the bid was nodded through at high speed by the authorities. Why, he asked, didn’t the Government treat al-Fayed as suspiciously as they had treated him? Was it because al-Fayed, a year earlier, had persuaded the Sultan of Brunei to keep his billions in sterling and thus ‘save the pound’? Al-Fayed, Rowland claimed, could not possibly be as wealthy as he said he was. The House of Fraser cost about £600 million. Al-Fayed was rich, but was not in the nine-figure league; Rowland believed that he was fronting for another buyer – perhaps the limitlessly loaded Sultan of Brunei.
Al-Fayed (and the Sultan) denied any collaboration. Mohamed’s millions were all his, and his alone. And he was supported in this claim by Kleinwort Benson, who testified in November 1984 that the Fayeds were ‘members of an old established Egyptian family who for more than a hundred years were shipowners, landowners and industrialists in Egypt’. Al-Fayed, Kleinworts’ representative told Channel 4, had left Egypt after his businesses were nationalised by Nasser in the early Sixties, but had already salted away some £20 million, offshore. This £20 million was the basis of his future megafortune. The ‘real build-up of the family wealth came from the period in Dubai when they became involved in large construction contracts and the oil service supply’.
So far, so plausible. The trouble started for al-Fayed when he began talking to journalists who urged him to add a few autobiographical details. He was, it seems, all too happy to oblige. He told reporters that his grandfather, Ali al-Fayed, had founded a cotton-shipping business in 1876 and had used his own ships to supply the Lancashire mills, that he had then invested in property in Paris and Switzerland and in time had built up a ‘major fleet of ships’. The riches thus amassed eventually passed to Mohamed’s father, a keen Anglophile, who had seen to it that his sons were ‘educated at British schools and had British nannies’.
In November 1984 the Daily Mail described the al-Fayeds as follows:
Mohamed and his brothers Ali and Salah have climbed a commercial and social Everest since their grandfather Ali al-Fayed founded the family fortunes a century ago by growing cotton on the banks of the Nile and exporting it in his own ships to the mills of Lancashire ... One half of the explanation for his ‘Englishness’ can be attributed to his English nanny and to his education in one of the pre-Nasser English-style public schools, Victoria in Alexandria, where he was caned and stuffed full of crumpets by Oxbridge-educated masters.
Less than six months later, on the eve of al-Fayed’s Harrods takeover, the same story – give or take a crumpet – was still solidly intact. Ivan Fallon in the Sunday Times wrote of the al-Fayeds’ ‘disdain for the nouveaux-riches of the Arab world’. The al-Fayeds had ‘delicately pointed out that their family lived in some luxury when even the Saudi royal family lived in tents in the desert’:
The family does not see itself in the Arab tradition at all but as part of something much older. Egypt, Mohamed pointed out, was the cradle of civilisation. He and his family, he implied, are inheritors of the tradition of the Pharaohs, not that of the desert.
This boast of a pharaonic lineage is, apparently, not uncommon with socially aspirant Egyptians. Egypt may not be oil-rich, but the country is rich in history, and from this point of view, the oil barons of Saudi and the Gulf can be seen as little more than jumped-up tribesmen. Wishing to signal an innate superiority – Egyptian over Arab – the al-Fayeds permitted a fable to develop. After all, with Harrods almost in their grasp, they needed to project their superiority in terms which would be comprehensible to British readers. To the British, ‘superiority’ meant old money, crumpets, nannies, public schools – and pharaohs too, if you insist.
In Alexandria in the Thirties, when Mohamed al-Fayed was growing up, ‘superiority’ meant being on good terms with the British. The British were the occupying force and they were in charge of all the places at which smart-set Alexandrians might wish to be seen: the Sporting Club, the Yacht Club, the Officers’ Club and so on. There is a story, probably apocryphal, that little Mohamed used to go down to the docks in Alexandria and watch the British ships at berth there. He was impressed, so it’s said, by the spectacle of British sailors lined up on the decks, in their crisp white uniforms, saluting the Union Jack, and apparently experienced some kind of Anglophile epiphany, from which he has not yet recovered.
This story has often been related in the press here, but when I repeated it in Egypt people laughed. Mohamed, they said, may well have visited the docks and seen the well-dressed sailors, but the feelings he had were unlikely to have been straightforwardly admiring. Those Egyptians who cared about who ruled them and who were not actually profiting from the occupation, tended to despise their British masters. These colonial governors, they’d say, were not really in Egypt in order to get the country on its feet. They were there to safeguard the Suez Canal – the route to India. Far from nurturing or even encouraging native self-government, the British held it back. Whenever possible, they would stir up trouble between Muslims, Copts and Jews and then say: ‘Look, how can we leave these people to themselves?’
There was resentment, then, aplenty – the understandable resentment of the colonised, the condescended to. But there was also, in some quarters, a kind of envying attraction. The British got things done. The British gentleman was looked up to, I was told by one Anglicised Egyptian, for his ‘probity, his administrative skills and his well-ordered mind’. The British, she said, lack candour but possess ‘a sense of fairness which can be appealed to’. Is this how al-Fayed saw the British? If so, he may by now have changed his mind. One way or another, the British were a powerful presence in his early life in Alexandria. He may not have wanted to be British but he may well have wanted to belong to that Alexandrian élite who were accepted by the British and who led a semi-British way of life: nannies, public schools, accounts at Harrods and the like. He may also have wanted revenge.
Once the fable of al-Fayed’s Alexandrian background had been publicised – and added to by ‘journalistic hallucination’, as he himself would later call it – he was not going to go out of his way to contradict it. And this proved to be an error, an error that haunts him to this day. Tiny Rowland knew the al-Fayeds’ autobiography was a fake, and launched into what would turn out to be an eight-year-long vendetta, or campaign of exposure. ‘I have been accused of being a bad loser,’ Rowland later told Forbes magazine, ‘but I refuse to lose to a cheat.’ In 1987, two years into his House of Fraser reign, al-Fayed found himself, thanks to Rowland’s tireless proddings, the target of a full-scale investigation by the Department of Trade and Industry. Called to testify on their personal and business background, the al-Fayeds stuck to the fable – old family, cotton, ships, the English nanny – and even added a few new details. The DTI’s verdict was unequivocally negative. It found that ‘the Fayeds dishonestly misrepresented their origins, their wealth, their business interests and their resources to the Secretary of State, the OFT, the press, the HoF Board and HoF shareholders, and their own advisers.’ The money to buy House of Fraser had, the DTI suspected, been raised by the al-Fayeds making use of ‘their association with the Sultan of Brunei and the opportunities afforded to them by the possession of wide powers of attorney from the Sultan of Brunei’.
Several new ‘early background’ details had been added to the al-Fayed fable. These included ‘20 companies, spread between Port Said, Suez, Ismailia and Alexandria’, a family yacht named Dodi, and – in the late Fifties – the shipping of ‘both cargo and pilgrims round the Gulf’. All the al-Fayed assets – apart from the £20 million which had already been spirited away – were seized by the Nasser Government in 1961. It was at this point, the inspectors were informed, that the al-Fayeds decided ‘there was no hope for them in Egypt’ and had set off, first for Europe and then to the Gulf. Mohamed, they said, had predicted the Gulf’s oil boom and had got in on the act very early. Hence the swiftly acquired extra millions which had made it possible to bid for House of Fraser.
The DTI inspectors, in their 800-page report, describe all this with deadpan relish and then, item by item, ‘set out what we are satisfied is the story of their origins and background’ – the true story, that’s to say. Ali Fayed, al-Fayed’s father, we learn, was not a shipping magnate but a schoolmaster. He came from Al-Rahmania, described by the DTI as ‘a small village ... very close to one of the tributaries in the Nile Delta’. (According to an 1897 Cook’s guide, Al-Rahmania was once ‘the capital of Egypt ... a city whose splendid temples and obelisks are commemorated by Herodotus’. Hence, perhaps, Mohamed’s pharaonic daydreams.) Ali Fayed got enough qualifications for a teaching post; moved to Alexandria in the Twenties; and taught there for the rest of his working life, eventually becoming an inspector of schools.
His three sons were born in 1929 (Mohamed), 1931 (Salah) and 1933 (Ali). The al-Fayeds had submitted different birthdates: 1933, 1939 and 1943, respectively. They attended local schools – not British schools – and they lived in ‘a poor quarter of Alexandria called the Gomrok’. Their mother died sometime in the mid-Thirties, their father married again and the family moved house – this time to a six-room apartment for which schoolmaster Fayed paid what would then have been a handsome rent. In other words, the family was not exactly poor. But nor were they exactly rich.
All three boys seem to have left school early. In the early Fifties we find Mohamed working as a salesman for Singer Sewing Machines in Alexandria, for which he was paid ‘less than £E10 per month’. (An Egyptian university lecturer would have been paid £E12 per month.) It was around this time that Mohamed met Adnan Khashoggi, a young Turk whose father was working as a doctor in Saudi Arabia. Khashoggi, it seems, had some of the advantages which Mohamed would later on be claiming for himself: he really did attend Alexandria’s Victoria College and really was a rising businessman, having hit on the idea of selling and transporting Egyptian-made furniture to Egyptian doctors who had taken work in Saudi Arabia. When al-Fayed met him, Khashoggi needed a man in Riyadh. He offered the job to al-Fayed, at a salary ten times larger than the one he had been getting. This, it could be said, was the real-life Mohamed’s first big break.
Certainly it edged him closer to the big money for which he no doubt already had a taste. His ‘ties with the Khashoggi family were strengthened’, says the DTI report, ‘when he married Adnan’s sister, Samira’ in 1954. This marriage, of which Dodi was the single offspring, did not last. Nor did Mohamed’s friendship with Khashoggi. The 1958 divorce settlement required Adnan to ‘waive a claim’ against al-Fayed worth £100,000. The details of this claim are unknown, even to the DTI inspectors, but the indications are that Mohamed was beginning to strike out on his own.
Mohamed’s second big break had come in 1956, with the Israeli invasion of Egypt and the Anglo-French occupation of parts of the Suez Canal area. Several expatriates were expelled from Egypt, and had to abandon their properties and businesses. These soon became available at knock-down prices – and Mohamed was on hand to take advantage. In 1957, he acquired a small but once thriving shipping agency, ‘at a low price’, says the DTI. The business had been owned by ‘a wealthy Alexandrian Jew, Mr Leon Carasso, whose business had been destroyed by the events of late 1956’. This agency, the Middle East Navigation Company, was the first al-Fayed company, the first of many.
During the late Fifties and early Sixties, the al-Fayeds expanded their activities in Egypt, buying into hotels, property and shipping. By the time of Nasser’s 1961 nationalisation programme, they seem to have been doing very nicely, even though – as the DTI Report labours to make clear – ‘the sums involved ... were still small in comparison to the size of the inherited wealth the al-Fayeds later claimed that they enjoyed in these years.’ This is the familiar DTI refrain: yes, the young al-Fayeds were successful, but not on the scale that they pretended, not on the scale that would have enabled them to buy the House of Fraser. Millions, yes, but hundreds of millions, no.
After a few dozen pages of the DTI Report, an unbiased reader might be inclined to feel sorry for the al-Fayeds. After all, what have they done? They have been guilty of ‘big talk’, but isn’t this normal practice in big business? And al-Fayed gives the impression that he believes in his own legend:
Hum, on my children’s life, it’s mine. All mine. Me and two brothers ... nobody. And the British Government, they don’t give permission ... they give me permission in ten days because they know who is Mohamed Fayed for 25 years. I give this country business, over six billion sterling worth of business, in the last ten years. They know who is Mohamed Fayed. This is why they give me permission and before they give that, they have to know that this is my money ... right? ... Not anybody money, because the man who has, who owns this Lonrho, Tiny Rowland who’s always writing ... bad man.
This snatch of authentic-sounding speech appears in the transcript of a tape-recorded conversation that took place between al-Fayed and two representatives of the Sultan of Brunei in 1985. Tiny Rowland acquired the tape-recording (it’s said to have cost him a million dollars) and later had the transcript printed in a booklet called The Sultan and I. Much of the dialogue on the tape is gibberish (al-Fayed’s interlocutors were a couple of Indian ‘holy men’ who had the Sultan’s ear) but every so often Mohamed comes out with an affecting line, or paragraph:
For me, I need nobody, only my God, you know, what I have between me and him [the Sultan], just spiritual things.
I have a message in my bottle, that wealth you know I have, half of it will go to God.
Whatever we do there is nothing can keep us safe except the goodness we make, for others and for ourselves and not only for ourselves only, but for others and this is a big thing. I mean 50,000 people I look after okay? Their homes, look after them and this is a pleasure you know and as much as I can make I’m always here ... I like to take from people can afford to give. I like to do things for India like Mother Teresa, like you know, which very important I like you to see where we can do to also offer to do things for people, which is very important.
Tiny Rowland, in an appendix to the booklet, lists all these snippets as ‘examples of a claimed idealism which is a part of Mohamed Fayed’s technique as a confidence trickster’. But I am not so sure. Admittedly, he is talking to a pair of Indian holy men, and this might well account for the wish to ‘do things for India like Mother Teresa’. At the same time, not even Tiny Rowland can question al-Fayed’s generosity. In Egypt, I heard many tributes to his charitable deeds and his record in Britain can scarcely be dismissed (though it often has been) as an effort to buy good publicity. At Great Ormond Street, al-Fayed is a hero. His baby son (he has three children by his present wife) was once treated there for meningitis and at a gesture of gratitude al-Fayed bought the hospital a magnetic resonance scanner that is said to have cost around £6 million. He has also paid for a Selection scanner at the Royal Marsden and gives £50,000 a year to meningitis research at Queen Charlotte’s and £100,000 annually to Childline. The list goes on. In Egypt, al-Fayed’s acts of charity have been on a smaller scale – and there are Egyptians who believe he could have done better. The charitable deeds I heard of there involved consignments of wheelchairs or sticks for the blind, although it was rumoured that he had built a hospital in Upper Egypt. None of this was of much interest to the DTI inspectors, whose tone is steadily judicial, bordering now and then on the contemptuous. Rarely is al-Fayed granted even an approving nod, a crumb of praise for his, well, energy and acumen. In terms of ‘trade and industry’, al-Fayed – as he often boasts – has brought millions to British industry, especsially during his sojourn in Dubai in the early Seventies, when he arranged for major construction contracts to go to British firms. According to the DTI, these contracts would anyway have gone to Britain, since the Ruler of Dubai was solidly pro-British. The British contractors, on the other hand, were full of gratitude for al-Fayed’s mediating skills.
It was skills of this sort, without question, that pitched the al-Fayeds into the big money. In the early Sixties, they were well-off Egyptian expatriates, capitalists-in-exile, on the look-out for whatever deals might come their way. By the mid-Eighties (pace Tiny Rowland and the DTI) they had become seriously rich. ‘It is easy to make money,’ al-Fayed has said, and he certainly made it look easy. His commercial history during the middle years of his career revolves around a series of highly successful acts of infiltration. He got himself into Dubai by offering to assist with the construction of a dock. Dubai, at the time of his approach, had not yet become oil-rich; indeed, the country was quite poor. Did al-Fayed know what was coming? Presumably he did. In any event, by the time the oil-cash started to pour in. He was already installed as one of the Ruler’s trusted friends.
He scored a similar success with the Sultan of Brunei. Within weeks of their first informal meeting, he was wielding the Sultan’s power of attorney throughout Europe: a power which Tiny Rowland and the DTI believe he exploited for his own, Harrods-buying ends.
Al-Fayed’s brief foray into Haiti in 1964 is closely and scathingly examined in the DTI report. But the episode is surely more comical than criminal. Al-Fayed showed up in Port-au-Prince claiming to bean oil-rich Kuwaiti sheikh at a time when Haiti, labouring under the effects of a US economic boycott, was almost on its knees. Sheikh al-Fayed found himself given a free hand, and access to the harbour’s funds. He installed lights on the pier and set out one or two buoy markers, but full-scale renovation never quite got going. Al-Fayed’s real interest in Haiti, it would seem, was to check out stories he had heard that the country might be rich in oil. When he discovered that the stories were unfounded, he hastily decamped – bearing with him, said Duvalier, the port authority’s remaining funds: around $150,000, it was claimed. Al-Fayed, on the other hand, complained that Duvalier owed him a pile of cash.
Comical or not, the episode does argue for a certain flair, a certain courage, on the part of al-Fayed. The DTI inspectors, though, were unimpressed. What mattered to them was that yet again the defendant had been guilty of self-misrepresentation. Or, at the very least, had allowed a myth to burgeon and made no effort to deflate it. (The Haiti newspapers called al-Fayed a sheikh and he chose not to set them straight: to Haitians, he said, all Arabs are called ‘Sheikh’.) In Cairo, a friend of al-Fayed’s chuckled when I asked him: ‘Why does the man tell so many lies?’ ‘Lies’ in his view was too strong a word. Why not call them ‘fantasies’? ‘But why are the fantasies always to do with rank?’ ‘Ah, well ...’; and then the spreading of the hands, as if to say: ‘Your guess may even be as good as mine.’
In this country it would appear to be al-Fayed’s persistent uppishness that gets on people’s nerves. His agenda, as the press perceives it, is quite plain. He wants to buy what cannot, in the end, be bought – authentic class. To watch him trying to pull it off is risible: the chairmanship of posher-than-posh Harrods, the castle in Scotland, the sponsoring of royal horse shows, the tarting-up of the old Windsor house in Paris – it is all so laughably transparent. And look what happens when acceptance is refused, when the DTI exposes him as a misrepresenter, and when – on this basis – he is twice denied a British passport. The vulgarian turns vulgar. ‘This guy has been shitted upon,’ he tells the world, and then proceeds to seek revenge. He bribes MPs to speak up for him in Parliament and when this manoeuvre brings in no returns, he shops the MPs to the papers and brings down a Tory Government to which, over the years, he had donated massive sums, and brings it down so heavily that he will almost certainly not live to see another one. And then – the crowning payback, so to speak – he arranges for his wastrel son to marry into the royal family.
For some, the awfulness of al-Fayed lies first of all in what he has revealed about Britain. Even he was shocked by the eagerness with which Members of Parliament fell victim to his not-all-that-enormous bribes. ‘Compared with ministers, MPs and other Tory fixers I have had the misfortune to encounter,’ he – or was it Michael Cole? – has said, ‘the average carpet-dealer in the Cairo bazaar is a man of great probity and honour.’ The refusing of al-Fayed’s passport can now be read as a petulant, last-ditch attempt to show that although individual Britons can quite easily be bought, true Britishness somehow cannot. No wonder this pro-British foreigner is angry. No wonder that, in certain moods, he has wished to tear the whole thing down.
Al-Fayed has been mocked most relentlessly on account of his supposed obsession with the royals. It is easy enough, though, when one takes a look at Harrods, to understand how the owner of all this – six floors, 35 acres, four thousand-plus employees and ubique, wherever the eye falls, luxurious profusion – might be subject to monarchical delusions: might feel himself to be a king. The store’s motto is ‘Omnia omnibus ubique’ but that is not quite how it feels. Harrods is, self-consciously, the Citadel of Privilege, the Palace of Big Bucks, the Shop of Shoppes. The store, sure enough, can get everything from anywhere but only somebodies can easily afford to place an order. To have become boss of this cornucopian palazzo was surely worth a dozen DTI reports, a score of Tiny Rowlands.
Al-Fayed’s business career has repeatedly brought him into contact with absolute rulers, kings, dictators of small countries: the Emir of Kuwait, the Ruler of Dubai, the Sultan of Brunei, rich men whose whim is law. At Harrods, once his helicopter has landed on the roof, Mohamed becomes just like them. On the sixth floor, he is welcomed by his palace guards, his grand viziers, his PR men. And down below, his proles begin to quake, five floors of them, from Ladies’ Underwear to Leather Goods. I have talked lately to some former Harrods employees and each of them spoke of al-Fayed in quasiregal terms. They told of his peremptory sackings, his impulsive edicts, his ferocious eye for detail, his vindictiveness. None of them was willing to be named, but each was ready to load me with anti-al-Fayed gossip. My impression was that they were still afraid of him and always would be. The shop was ‘like a police state’, one ex-employee told me.
Even al-Fayed’s customers are made to feel that, when visiting the principality of Harrods, they must defer to Harrods’ laws – in particular, its immigration laws. Customers can be expelled if they happen to be wearing the wrong clothes: jeans, vests, slacks. A few years ago, there were headlines about an American customer being told to leave the store because she was wearing an unsightly pair of leggings – Chanel leggings, it so happens, and purchased from Harrods on some earlier occasion. Nonetheless, she had to go, by order of the Chairman. Al-Fayed, an ex-employee told me, hates it when customers dawdle in the gangways. Sometimes they are ordered to keep moving. He likes his customers to be ‘actively shopping’. He also dislikes it when customers are carrying too many bags, even bags full of Harrods merchandise. The passageways must not be clogged. After all, he himself might at any moment decide to go on one of his daily patrols at high speed, flanked by bodyguards, but missing nothing. ‘He adores it,’ I was told. ‘He loves to parade around. He hates to see any boxes on the shop floor. He wants it to seem as if it has all happened by magic.’
In Harrods the other day, clad in a suit and tie, I bought a sumptuously produced and disastrously expensive book called Harrods: A Palace in Knightsbridge, ‘published’, said the title-page, ‘by Mohamed al-Fayed’. One of the main objectives of the book is to establish the idea of a Harrods lineage, a dynasty running from the shop’s founders (in 1849), through some of its subsequent owners – in particular the Burbridge family who owned Harrods for some sixty years and made it most of what it is today – all the way down, or up, to the store’s present owner, the ‘merchandise magician’, Mohamed al-Fayed:
‘Fantasy’ it a word frequently on the lips of Mohamed al-Fayed, the Chairman and owner of Harrods. Fantasy, glamour, the romance of retailing – more than ever before, these are the hallmarks of Harrods today ... Like his Edwardian predecessor, Mr al-Fayed has vision, and the determination to realise his vision. Moreover, his love of history has meant that now more than ever Harrods is aware of its fascinating past.
‘Harrods,’ al-Fayed goes on to testify, ‘is not just a money-making venture for me; it is part of Britain’s heritage. It is a place which I love.’ And, in spite of ex-employee talk about ‘police state’ atmosphere, the place – when you walk around in it – gives off a deeply pampered air. Al-Fayed, since his purchase, has poured millions into renovation and refurbishment As the book says, ‘boardings and fittings erected over the past half-century were torn down to reveal original features. Back into public view came those splendours of the past: Edwardian Rococo ceilings and capitals. Art Nouveau mouldings and ceramic tiles, Art Deco marble pillars, bronze grilles and wrought-iron banisters.’ All this is most imposing to behold and al-Fayed should be applauded for having made it happen. Once again, however, we run up against the familiar al-Fayed gaffe, the extravagance-too-far, the foot-in-it: the store’s brand-new Egyptian Hall and the Egyptian Escalator are the nadir of self-glorifying kitsch.
In the Egyptian Hall, the face of Chairman al-Fayed has been set into each of the 12 sphinxes that peer down from the borders of the ceiling. Each sphinx bears on its chest the name ‘al-Fayed’, spelled out in hieroglyphs. In one corner of the Hall there is a motorised waxwork of Queen Nefertiti, strumming on a harp, and mounted on what seems to be a giant lotus plant. Everywhere you look, there are pharaonic apparitions: a vision of Egypt as promoted by the gift shop in a Cairo Hilton, but on a hugely granderscale. And the Egyptian Hall is mild stuff compared to the Egyptian Escalator. This stupendous construction soars from the basement all the way up to the domed ceiling, now tricked out with zodiacal symbols. The whole thing is supported by vast pillars decorated with hieroglyphics (some of which spell ‘Harrods’) and all the rest of it Halfway up the escalator, facing you as you arrive at the second floor and chiselled on the wall in giant letters, are the familiar lines from ‘Ozymandias’: ‘Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ I wonder whether anyone told al-Fayed how the poem continues.
My first thought on encountering this soaring edifice was that destroying it would cost a fortune. But al-Fayed has already said that Harrods will stay in his family ‘for a thousand years’ and that he himself intends to be buried on its roof. My second thought was that this whole Egyptian folly was a joke: a whimsical, if grandiose riposte to a country which had stripped al-Fayed of his youthful assets and forced him into exile. In Cairo, a friend of his had advised me not to underestimate Mohamed’s continuing bitterness on this score. My joke theory, though, did not last more than a few seconds. Even as I pondered it, I found myself forced to step aside in order to make way for three full-dress, full-blast Highland pipers who had begun marching through the store. Later in my Harrods book I read that ‘the Chairman’s love of Scotland has also left its mark on the store. To the surprise and delight of customers, kilted pipers are often to be found parading through the various departments.’ Nefertiti’s harp, sphinx Fayed, Ozymandias, and now ‘Scotland the Brave’ ... Once again, I was forced back to the conclusion that what this man al-Fayed really needs is some advice.
But kings don’t like, or take, advice. If it is true that al-Fayed sees himself as king of a small country, or as baron of a realm-within-a-realm, his courting of the royals at once seems wholly plausible – inevitable, even. Even the most junior of visiting foreign monarchs can expect the red-carpet treatment when supping with the Queen. On this reading, one can see how al-Fayed may have come to regard Dodi as his royal heir, the future king of Harrods, and thus perhaps something of a catch for Princess Di, whose shopping skills were world-renowned. Diana, after all, was no longer an authentic royal. Nor was the Duke of Windsor. Nor is Mohamed al-Fayed. After the humiliating DTI Report, and the refusal of his applications for citizenship, al-Fayed apparently shifted the focus of his regal aspirations. Spumed by the real-life British royals, he turned to an alternative, ex-royal line: the exiled Windsors (whose relationship he described, pre-Di and Dodi, as ‘the greatest love story of the century’), the cold-shouldered Princess Di. They too, he believed, had been ‘shitted upon’ by the British establishment.
What next? Much presumably depends on the attitude al-Fayed takes to the outcome of the French investigations into the Paris car crash. If, as seems possible, he shows signs of inclining towards the Middle East’s assassination theories, he may find himself totally ostracised here. After what he has been through, he may well decide: what’s new? – and make a break. Should he return to Egypt – his family still keeps a house in Alexandria – many would greet him as a hero: a hero victimised by Western racists. In Egypt at the moment, attitudes to al-Fayed are necessarily coloured by the tragedy of Dodi’s death. Mohamed is a grieving father and should not be talked about in other than respectful terms. Before the Paris crash, feelings about him seem to have been mixed. The upper classes saw him as baladi (‘a vulgarian’). In the good old days (i.e. pre-World War Two) ‘people like that would not have got through the gates of the Gezira Club, not for any amount of money.’ Intellectuals faintly despised him because of his kow-towing to the British, his bad taste, his absurd pretentiousness. The man in the street had never heard of him.
Now, Mohamed al-Fayed is probably the world’s best-known Egyptian. Egyptians back home would like to be proud of him because of his symbolic usefulness (East v. West) but for the moment they can’t quite make up their minds. ‘On the one hand,’ an Egyptian writer told me,
in a line-up of possible Egyptians to represent Egypt to the world he might not be my own personal first choice. On the other hand, he is representative of a certain Egyptian-ness. He’s like the hero of an Egyptian folk tale – not a heroic epic but a folk tale. He’s from the people, he’s got larger-than-life dreams; he sets off into the world and he’s wily and resourceful and lucky enough to find the treasure and secure it, to make his dreams come true. And that was all very well until the end of August when, with his son set to marry the Princess, the story suddenly vaults over into tragedy. And this is when you have the dislocation, the change of genre. Now if Dodi and Di were to be found living happily in an enchanted castle in the Waq el-Waq mountains guarded by an MI5 genie, that would be more fitting. I wish they would. But the feeling I mostly have about Mohamed al-Fayed is that he has been badly advised. If I were his friend, if I could advise him now, I’d tell him to come home. I’d say stop letting your British agent give odd-sounding statements to the British press, stop pouring your money into there. Just come home for a while, and grieve. It doesn’t have to be for ever.
It’s a nice thought, but I doubt that al-Fayed considers Egypt sufficiently stable and therefore safe for big business. In December, Jack Straw announced that he is reconsidering al-Fayed’s application for British citizenship. And in any case Britain – passport or no passport – happens to be where he lives. It is his home; or, rather, it is where most of his homes are now located: the mansion in Surrey, the castle in Scotland, Craven Cottage, the apartments on Park Lane. And when he crosses the Channel he has the Ritz as well as the Duke of Windsor’s old house, which he still owns and which may have been meant for Di and Dodi, had they married. Before the Paris deaths, al-Fayed was set to auction the contents of the Windsors’ house, which included some tasty items of royal memorabilia, exported into exile by the Duke after his abdication. Al-Fayed’s hugely expensive renovation elicited ‘not a word of thanks’ from British officialdom, he has complained. (Thanks for what?) And when he offered to return some of the Windsors’ more ‘historic’ possessions to the British Crown, the offer was ignored. The sale (at Sotheby’s, New York) is scheduled for next month.