How do you even start to sum up a controversial billionaire like Mohamed Al-Fayed, the former owner of iconic London department store Harrods?
The Egyptian businessman passed away aged 94 years old last week and in the retail world will be best remembered for his tenure as Harrods supremo after a bitter ownership battle with infamous British tycoon, Roland ‘Tiny’ Rowland.
Al-Fayed presided over Harrods for a quarter century before eventually selling to the Qatari Sovereign Wealth fund.
Then again, among Fulham Football Club fans he will be lauded as the person who rescued their soccer club from the doldrums (and for erecting a statue of his friend Michael Jackson, who once visited for a match, outside the stadium).
In British political circles he will be recalled for bringing down two Conservative politicians – Ministers Tim Smith and Neil Hamilton – in a “cash for questions” scandal after he paid them to challenge his lack of British citizenship in Parliament.
But Al-Fayed will perhaps be best remembered as heartbroken father to Dodi, whose ill-fated relationship with Princess Diana ended in tragedy in a Parisian tunnel on August 31 1997 and which Al-Fayed argued to his dying days was part of a conspiracy.
Al-Fayed And The Harrods Coup
An arch anti-establishment figure, it is perhaps ironic that Al-Fayed ended up owning that totem of British retail, the world famous Harrods department store in Knightsbridge.
The then little-known Egyptian spent $720 million in 1985 to acquire its parent company, department store group House of Fraser, from under the nose of Rowland’s Lonrho, which had been trying to buy Harrods since 1977.
Blocked by a distinctly odd government ruling that concluded that a takeover was not in the public interest as Lonrho also owned Brentford Nylons, Rowland was left not only furious but also boxed in as he had to agree to not buy any more shares in the retail group.
Rowland knew Al-Fayed from the latter’s brief tenure as a Lonrho director and he divested some of his holdings to him while he wrangled with the U.K. government, still confident he would be the eventual buyer.
However, Al-Fayed outmanoeuvred Rowland and took control amid controversy over how he raised the finances – so much so that Rowland spent between 1985 and 1987 going to extraordinary lengths in an unsuccessful attempt to prove that it had been acquired fraudulently.
In 1990, the government published its investigation into the bid, which concluded that Al-Fayed and his brother had not been honest about their wealth or origins.
A Complicated Harrods Legacy
Like everything connected with Al-Fayed, his legacy as the owner of Harrods can be looked at in many different ways.
He undoubtedly modernized the landmark yet fading retail jewel, insisting that it should be a luxury emporium open to all and not just for the faded aristocracy who were its decreasingly profitable clientele.
Memorable upgrades included the Egyptian room, the $94 million escalators, and his own wax effigy in menswear. Yet he also presided over an era when arch rival Selfridges reinvented itself as a hip, modern luxury department store and Harrods – for all his investment – struggled to rise above what often appeared uncoordinated improvements and gauche design decisions.
Although Al-Fayed had never wanted to sell Harrods, in 2010 he shook hands with the investment arm of Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund for a reported $1.9 billion, citing his advancing years and corporate pension regulations for his decision.
Since then the store has been upgraded across multiple departments to become far more than a tourist landmark, blending heritage and contemporary luxury.
Despite the disposal of Harrods, Al-Fayed never sold the Ritz Paris from which eldest son Dodi and Princess Diana set off pursued by paparazzi on that fateful night in 1997.
Michael Cole, who had worked as director of public affairs for Harrods, told Times Radio on Saturday: “I think some people could never forgive an Egyptian for having bought their favorite store in Brompton Road, Harrods.”