Looking Back at Mohamed Al Fayed's Friendship with Princess Diana

mohamed al fayed
Who Is Mohamed Al Fayed?Mike Marsland - Getty Images

Mohamed Al Fayed was a prominent, and often controversial, figure in Britain. The former owner of the iconic Harrods department store in London, the billionaire has counted, among his many assets over the years, the Ritz Hotel in Paris, the Fulham football club, a Parisian villa that once belonged to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and a 65,000 acre estate in Scotland. However, to many, he may be best known as the father of Dodi Al Fayed, the boyfriend of Princess Diana who died alongside her in the tragic car crash that took her life in 1997.

In seasons five and six of The Crown, Fayed is portrayed by Palestinian actor Salim Daw. "He is like a myth in the Middle East: he is so rich, such a big businessman, so successful. So the challenge of playing him was enormous," Daw explained. Of the tragedy of Dodi and Diana, Daw said, "This man, he was so broken. To lose a son like that. No one had ever seen him like that. But he is also so strong. That's what is so special about this character: he wakes up and he continues his life. I love him with all my heart."

Here, a look inside the life of Mohamed Al Fayed:

Early life

Over the years, Fayed (the "al" was reportedly added to his name after he moved to England in the 1970s) has given various accounts of his childhood, including that he comes from a line of wealthy Egyptian cotton growers and was raised by an English nanny, however these claims, along with the claim that he was born in 1933, were found to have been false, per a report from the British Department of Trade and Industry. The report asserted that he was actually born in 1929. His father appears to have been either a school teacher or school inspector.

In 1954, he married Samira Khashoggi (sister of Saudi Arabian arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi) with whom he had one child, Emad El-Din Mohamed Abdel Mena’em Fayed—better known as Dodi. The couple soon divorced two years later.

For a time, he helmed a shipping business, before, in the 1960s, becoming an advisor to the Sultan of Brunei, who was then frequently listed as one of the wealthiest men in the world. In the '70s, Fayed moved to England, where he would spend much of the rest of his life.

mohamed and his wife heini wathen fayed at the ritz hotel in paris in 2016
Mohamed and his wife Heini Wathen-Fayed at the Ritz Hotel in Paris in 2016.Bertrand Rindoff Petroff - Getty Images

Fayed briefly worked for the mining conglomerate Lonrho, and, in 1979, acquired the famed Ritz Hotel in Paris.

He married Heini Wathen a Finnish model and actress, in 1985—the same year he would add the department store Harrods to his collection of assets. The couple have four children together.

In 1985 he purchased Harrods' parent company

In March of that year, Al Fayed Investment and Trust—a privately-owned company helmed by Fayed and his younger brothers, Ali and Salah—acquired controlling interest of the House of Fraser, the parent company of Harrods, as well as 100 other department stores, for approximately $842 million, according to reporting from the time.

The sale was a contentious one—Fayed beat out a bid from Lonrho, where he had previously worked, to gain control of Harrods. Lonrho, headed by Fayed's former confidant Roland "Tiny" Rowland, went on to contend that the Fayeds got the deal approved by lying about their means, including a claim that they transferred hundreds of millions of dollars to their own accounts from the Sultan of Brunei, using a power of attorney the sultan had granted the previous year. The sultan and the Fayeds roundly denied such claims.

princess diana
Princess Diana shakes the hand of Mohamed Al Fayed at Harrods. Mirrorpix - Getty Images

A series of lawsuits and investigations followed, including a report by the UK's Department of Trade and Industry which found that "the applicants had dishonestly misrepresented their origins, their wealth, their business interests and their resources to the Secretary of State, the Office of Fair Trading, the press, the HOF Board and HOF shareholders and their own advisers," in their bid to buy the House of Fraser.

Nonetheless, Fayed remained at the head of Harrods for 25 years, until he sold off the department store and retired in 2010.

Was Mohamed Al Fayed a British citizen?

Though Fayed applied to become a British citizen at least twice, his applications were consistently denied.

In 1994, Fayed spoke out to name prominent British politicians who he said had taken money or benefited from free stays at his Ritz Hotel, evidently as retribution for the failure of his citizenship application. "I did it to take my revenge, to show people who really runs this country, what quality they are," he told Vanity Fair the following year. "These days it's only the trash people."

diana at polo
Mohamed Al Fayed attended and sponsored many royal-related events, like the Harrods Polo Cup in 1987. Prince Charles competed in the event, and Diana presented prizes alongside Fayed. Princess Diana Archive - Getty Images

Dodi and Diana

While it's not entirely clear when and where Fayed first met Princess Diana, his sponsorship of a number of charities and events attended by the royals over the years certainly put the two in one another's orbits. "Diana is so easygoing with Mohamed... Mohamed is not one of those who's overwhelmed by her. They spark off each other very well," Michael Cole, then director of public affairs at Harrods told Vanity Fair in 1995.

In the summer of 1997, Fayed invited the princess to join him, along with Prince William and Prince Harry, on his yacht, the Jonikal, in the south of France. During that trip, Diana grew closer with his oldest son, Dodi, a film producer for the family's company, which produced, among other films, the 1981 Best Picture Oscar winner Chariots of Fire. The two began dating, but the romance was infamously brief. On August 31, 1997, Diana and Dodi were both killed, along with the driver of their car, Henri Paul, in a crash in Paris after leaving the Ritz Hotel.

For years following their deaths, Fayed kept up a campaign insisting that the crash was not an accident. He hired his own investigators to look into the incident, and appealed the findings of the official French investigation into the matter—which determined that the crash was an accident—on multiple occasions.

dodi al fayed and diana memorial unveiled at harrods
In 2005, Mohamed unveiled a bronze statue of Dodi and Diana dancing at Harrods. David Lodge - Getty Images

Fayed became a vocal proponent of a theory that the British royal family was somehow involved in the deaths of Diana and Dodi, stating that they were motivated by the desire to cover up that Diana was pregnant with Dodi's child at the time of her death, and that the two had intended to announce their plans to marry the day after the crash. Those close to Diana have consistently asserted that claims of Diana's pregnancy and plans to marry Dodi are false.

In November 2008, Fayed read a written statement before the Royal Courts of Justice, testifying, "She told me that she knew Prince Philip and Prince Charles were trying to get rid of her." Per the New York Times, he added, "They cleared the decks. They murdered her." (Again, the crash was determined to be an accident by both British and French police investigations.)

Fayed also reportedly funded a film titled Unlawful Killing, which was screened during the 2011 Cannes Film Festival (though it was not an official selection for the festival.) Purporting to tell the true story of a coverup surrounding Diana's death, the film was shelved the following year after failing to secure insurance for a US distribution due to concerns over potential lawsuits.

inquest into diana and dodi death to be heard by a jury
Mohamed leaves the Royal Courts of Justice in 2007 during an inquest into the death of Princess Diana and his son, Dodi Al Fayed. Bruno Vincent - Getty Images

What did Mohamed do at the end of his life?

In 2010, it was announced that Fayed had sold Harrods to Qatar Holdings for £1.5 billion. The move came as a surprise to many—Mohamed was famously attached to the department store, and had even spoken of wanting to be entombed on the roof of the building after his death. Harrods was also home to a display in honor of Dodi and Diana, including a bronze statue of the couple dancing. (The statue was reportedly returned to Fayed in 2018.)

When the news of the sale was initially revealed, a spokesperson said, "After 25 years as chairman of Harrods, Fayed has decided to retire and to spend more time with his children and grandchildren." However, in a later interview, Fayed himself stated that his decision came in the wake of a struggle to get a dividend approved by the government-assigned trustee of the brand's pension fund.

"It came to a moment where I felt completely disillusioned," he told the Evening Standard. "Of course it makes me sad... But first of all I can't take this. I am 77 years old, right. I have children, I have grandchildren, you know... I have done it. And time for me now to rest. And enjoy."

In 2013, he also sold the ownership of Fulham Football Club, which he had first acquired in 1997, to U.S. auto parts billionaire Shahid Khan for a reported $300 million.

As of November 2022, Forbes estimated his net worth at approximately $1.9 billion.

Mohamed Al Fayed died on August 30, 2023 at the age of 94. Per a statement from his family, the businessman "passed away peacefully of old age." They added, "He enjoyed a long and fulfilled retirement surrounded by his loved ones."

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