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Tuesday, 21 December, 1999, 14:46 GMT
Profile: Mohamed al-Fayed

Mohamed al-Fayed, right, with business rival Tiny Rowland

He would be a gold medal winner at lying and is a classic Jekyll and Hyde figure, "a man with a jovial side, a man with a thoroughly evil side".

Or he is the father who lost his son in tragic and very public circumstances, who has been denied British citizenship despite employing thousands of people in the UK.

Libel Trial
The jury at the High Court heard about different sides of Mohamed al-Fayed's character and had to decide which was the more believable.

At the beginning of the case, the jury members were warned that they would probably be familiar with Mr al-Fayed.

Not only is Mr al-Fayed one of the highest profile shop owners in the UK, but the death of his son alongside Diana, Princess of Wales, thrust him further into the public spotlight which he has been dancing in and out of for years.

The tragic circumstances of losing a son has led to Mr al-Fayed feeling a deep sense of injustice, and he has pointed the finger several times at people he believes were responsible for the accident.

Mr al-Fayed believes the Paris car crash was the result of a conspiracy, another example of the barriers he is constantly battling against to gain acceptance into British society.

Why won't they give me a passport? I own Harrods and employ thousands of people in this country.
Mohamed al-Fayed
Ever since he arrived in the UK in the early 1970s, Mr al-Fayed has barely concealed his desire to be accepted into the establishment of his adopted country.

It is an ambition that has seen him donate millions of pounds to British charities and assume control of Harrods, the London department store which was once a by-word for Britishness itself.

He has resurrected the satirical magazine Punch and also moved into the mainstream British pursuit of football, buying Fulham FC, and earlier this year offered up the club's manager Kevin Keegan when the English national team was managerless.

Celebrating his purchase of Fulham FC
Yet, like an over-zealous schoolboy desperate to muscle into a select gang, it seems the harder Mr al-Fayed has tried for acceptance, the more he is brushed off.

Mr al-Fayed was born in Alexandria, Egypt, the son of a poor school teacher. Fittingly, for a man who is synonymous with controversy, even the date of his birth is a disputed issue.

A Department of Trade inquiry into his takeover of the House of Fraser group gives his date of birth as 27 January 1929. Yet, the logbook of the rich and famous, Who's Who, lists him as a full four years younger.

The eldest son of a primary school teacher, he took up a number of menial jobs, from selling Coca-Cola on the streets of his home city to working as a sewing machine salesman.

Fiercely ambitious

The young Mr Fayed - the "al" was added in the 1970s - oozed ambition and his lucky break came when he met the businessman Adnan Khashoggi, who employed him in his import business in Saudi Arabia.

Back in Egypt, he went on to launch his own shipping business, before becoming an advisor to one of the world's richest men, the Sultan of Brunei, in 1966.

>Already a wealthy and successful man, Mr al-Fayed moved to the UK in the 1970s, joining the board of the mining conglomerate Lonrho in 1975, although he left nine months later after a disagreement.

In retrospect, it was the seed of a long-running feud between Mr al-Fayed and the head of Lonrho, the late Tiny Rowland.

In 1979, with his brother Ali, Mr al-Fayed bought the Ritz Hotel in Paris.

The al-Fayeds' next target became Harrods, which at that time was subject to a takeover campaign by Lonrho. In 1985, they succeeded in clinching a 615m takeover bid of the Knightsbridge store.

Report uncovers lies

But Mr Rowland refused to accept the new owners, and mounted a bitter campaign against them, which resulted in the decision to hold a Department of Trade inquiry.

The subsequent report, issued in 1990, concluded that the al-Fayeds had lied about their background and their wealth.

Mr al-Fayed's tribute to Dodi and Diana, in the window of Harrods
"We are satisfied that the image they created between November 1984 and March 1985 of their wealthy Egyptian ancestors was completely bogus."

The public feud with Mr Rowland appeared to reach reconciliation in 1993, when the pair came together for the cameras in Harrods food hall.

But Mr Rowland later accused his business rival of breaking into a safety deposit box held at the store. Without admitting responsibility, Mr al-Fayed settled the dispute with Mr Rowland's wife after his death.

It has been suggested that Mr al-Fayed's feud contributed to his being refused British citizenship the first time.

He viewed that refusal as an affront to his dignity, saying at the time: "Why won't they give me a passport? I own Harrods and employ thousands of people in this country."

Further attempts to gain British citizenship have also been turned down.

Earlier this year, Mr al-Fayed had an application for a UK passport turned down by the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, and his appeal also failed to overturn the decision.

Wealthy benefactor

This is despite Mr al-Fayed having four British children by his second wife and paying millions of pounds in tax to the UK government. He has also given millions more to charities, such as the Great Ormond Street Hospital, and financed films, including Chariots of Fire, which Dodi co-produced.

After being refused a passport for the first time, Mr al-Fayed told the press he had paid two Conservative ministers, Neil Hamilton and Tim Smith, cash to ask questions related to his interests, in the House of Commons. Both left the government in disgrace.

British citizenship continues to elude him
He claimed another political scalp in Jonathan Aitken, the cabinet minister who resigned after the Harrods boss revealed he had been staying for free at the Ritz in Paris at the same time as a group of Saudi arms dealers.

When, in 1997, it emerged that Dodi had become a close friend of Diana, a new avenue appeared to be opening to Mr al-Fayed's acceptance by the British establishment.

But everything changed in 1997 when Dodi and the princess were killed while being driven and guarded by Mr al-Fayed's employees. The high alcohol level in driver Henri Paul's blood must have embarrassed Mr al-Fayed, but he felt the blame lay elsewhere.

The High Court libel trial has heard as much, with the Harrods owner accusing the Duke of Edinburgh of masterminding a conspiracy to kill the Princess of Wales and his son.

The case against Mr al-Fayed was brought by Mr Hamilton following comments the Harrods boss made on a Channel 4 programme in 1997.

The court case has seen highly personal accusations flying in both directions as both men's reputations were put on the line.

Mr al-Fayed has been accused of bullying his staff, lying and being "deeply dishonest and with an evil habit of vindictively pursuing those who he regarded as his antagonists."

He has "tried to play his evidence for laughs" and outside court "he even offered to dance for the photographers", Mr Hamilton's QC Desmond Browne said.

In his defence, Mr al-Fayed's QC has accused Mr Hamilton's counsel of raising the tragic circumstances of the Paris car crash and of there being a racist element in the cross-examination.

The court case has been described as one of the most colourful in recent memory, an epithet in keeping with Mr al-Fayed's public profile.

But whether it has made the millionaire more acceptable to the British society is another matter.

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See also:
06 May 99 |  UK Politics
Al-Fayed fights citizenship snub

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