Mohammed Al Fayed, Controversial Former Owner of Harrods and the Ritz Paris, Dies at 94

LONDON Mohamed Al Fayed, the former owner of Harrods, the Ritz in Paris and Fulham Football Club, died Friday at 94 years old.

“Everyone at Fulham was incredibly saddened to learn of the death of our former Owner and Chairman, Mohamed Al Fayed. We owe Mohamed a debt of gratitude for what he did for our Club, and our thoughts now are with his family and friends at this sombre time,” said Fulham FC in a statement on social media.

The Egyptian tycoon sold the football club in 2013, shortly after parting with Harrods in 2010, ending his 25-year reign at the luxury department store by selling the landmark British retailer to Qatar Holding, an investment company linked to the royal family of the Gulf state, for 1.5 billion pounds, or $2.27 billion at current exchange, including about 600 million pounds, or $906 million, in property-backed debt.

He sold Fulham FC to the U.S. automotive billionaire Shahid Khan, owner of the National Football League’s Jacksonville Jaguars. Al-Fayed had owned Fulham for 16 years.

WINDSOR, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 17:  Queen Elizabeth II At The Windsor Horse Show With One Of The Show's Sponsors Mohammed Al-fayed Of The Harrods Shop. Mr Al-fayed Is The Father Of  Dodi Al-fayed. The Queen Is Wearing A Pale Grey Suit By Fashion Designer John Anderson.  (Photo by Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images)

Queen Elizabeth II with Mohamed Al Fayed.

Tim Graham Photo Library via Get

None of Al Fayed’s four living children — his son Dodi died in the 1997 car crash that killed Princess Diana — were involved in the day-to-day operations of the family businesses. Ironically, Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed also died on what is Labor Day Weekend in the U.S.

When Al Fayed bought Harrods in 1985, the Egyptian retailer had spent an estimated 400 million pounds, or $592 million, to transform what was a staid, tired store into an unapologetically opulent retail experience — but not without controversy and missteps.

Al Fayed’s management style could at best be described as mercurial, and he went through a string of managers who lasted about as long as his whims. He would walk the store regularly and ask for things to be changed, only to then later ask why something was done. He brought a showman’s hand touch to Harrods — much to the shock of its more staid clientele — and the store seemed to prosper. 

It certainly has under its current owners. 

Harrods financial results for the 52-week period ending January 2023 showed the department store recording a 131.3 million pound increase in pretax profit, according to records from Companies House.

The company also had a 52 percent increase in turnover to 994.1 million pounds, a 339.9 million pound boost from the previous year.

Al Fayed was born in 1929 in Roshdy, a neighborhood in Alexandria in the Kingdom of Egypt as it was called before the Egyptian Revolution of 1952. His father was an Egyptian primary school teacher.

The Egyptian-born retail tycoon was often economical with the truth, his website used to claim he was born in 1933, but the Department of Trade had found it to be 1922. 

He added the fancy prefix “Al” to his surname in the Seventies, and fudged details about the source of his family’s wealth before he bought Harrods and its then-parent House of Fraser. A government report into the deal fell just short of calling Al Fayed and his brothers liars about the size of their fortune, although the government took no legal action and could never find out where exactly the Al Fayeds got the funds to buy the store — rumors ranged from the Sultan of Brunei to far-from-savory characters.

Private Eye, the satirical British news magazine nicknamed him the “Phoney Pharaoh.”

Before venturing into the world of retail, he had a shipping company with his brothers that was based in Egypt before moving it to Genoa, Italy with offices in London.

In the mid-Sixties, he cosied up to Haitian leader François Duvalier, otherwise known as Papa Doc, to form an oil refinery called Fayed-Duvalier. Al Fayed left Haiti after six months for London when he was presented with oil that was disguised as molasses.

In London, he started a relationship with Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, an Emirati royal and a founder of the United Arab Emirates helping him to transform Dubai by introducing him to construction companies such as Bernard Sunley & Sons, Taylor Woodrow and the Costain Group, where he became a director and 30 percent shareholder.

Al Fayed’s big step came into luxury in 1979, when he bought the near bankrupt The Ritz hotel in Paris for $30 million.

He spent approximately $250 million on a ten-year renovation without ever closing the hotel’s doors. He enlisted the help of a French architect from 1980 to 1987 to spruce up the establishment, from top to bottom, including the famous Ritz Bar, where Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald famously drank in the Twenties. The bar was added in the Cambon wing, across the street from Chanel.

Heini Al-Fayed, Mohamed Al-Fayed, Bernadette Chirac and Karl Lagerfeld.

Heini Al-Fayed, Mohamed Al-Fayed, Bernadette Chirac and Karl Lagerfeld.

Dominique Maître

Following The Ritz, in 1984, Al Fayed along with his brothers, purchased a 30 percent stake in the House of Fraser group, which included Harrods, from British businessman, Roland Walter “Tiny” Rowland. The following year, they bought the remaining 70 percent.

Al Fayed and Rowland had a tumultuous relationship, throwing daggers at each other in the press at any time possible.

In the Eighties, Al Fayed accused Rowland of campaigning against him in the Observer newspaper, which Rowland then owned, and Rowland had the British government’s Department of Trade and Industry launch an investigation into Al Fayed and his activities. 

No action was taken as part of the investigation — though it did find Al Fayed and his brother Ali misrepresented the extent of their wealth when they bid for House of Fraser. It was never determined where the Al Fayeds actually got the funds to buy the company. 

There was a long history of such scandals: In 1994, Al Fayed was involved in what came to be known as the cash-for-questions scandal, which ultimately resulted in the resignation of two British MPs. 

In the late Eighties, Al Fayed believed his business rival, Rowland, had paid British MPs to call his business practices into question. 

So Al Fayed then paid MPs to question Rowland’s activities in parliament. After being refused a British passport, Al Fayed then went to London’s Guardian newspaper with the news that he paid the MPs to ask the questions for him in parliament.

Rowland and Al Fayed eventually reconciled before this had come to light in 1993

Other controversies weren’t as weighty. In the mid-Nineties, Harrods began charging people 1 pound (about $1.50) to use the bathrooms in a bid to deter nonshoppers from availing themselves of the facilities. Today, customers no longer have to pay. Then there was the uproar that accompanied his decision to ban backpacks and large handbags from the store, resulting in many tourists being turned away by security — although this practice was more understandable in the Nineties given Harrods was a regular target of bombs by the Irish Republican Army.

Harrods was his most prized possession, often comparing it to pyramids in Egypt.

In 2010, Fayed told The Sunday Times of London that he planned to own the business for the rest of his life, and when he died he hoped to be entombed in a mausoleum on the roof of the store — a wish he’s expressed repeatedly. 

“It’s a pyramid for me, a monument,” he told the British paper. “It is the best department store in the world.”

It’s no secret that Harrods has had a strong tradition of revolving door management due to Al Fayed’s autocratic style.

A Harrod's security guard keeps a vigil on floral tributes at Harrod's store in Knightsbrige, London 31 August as a mark of respect after the son of Harrod's owner Muhamed Al-Fayed, Dodi Al-Fayed, died with Diana the Princess of Wales in a Paris traffic accident earlier today. (Photo by PAUL VICENTE / AFP)        (Photo credit should read PAUL VICENTE/AFP via Getty Images)

Floral tributes at Harrods as a mark of respect after Dodi Al Fayed died with Diana, Princess of Wales in a Paris traffic accident.

AFP via Getty Images

Former Gucci Group executive James McArthur left his post as chief executive officer of Harrods less than a year after starting his role. Martha Wikstrom was also managing director of the store for a period, staying there for less than two years. 

When Al Fayed let the top brass shine, it paid off. Marigay McKee, the store’s fashion and beauty director, transformed both of those divisions.

“Fayed realized how much value she’s adding to the store, so she’s allowed to have a profile,” a former employee told WWD at the time. “And the sadness in the past was that a lot of good people went for the wrong reasons.”

In fashion, McKee had spearheaded a string of initiatives including the creation of the International Designer Room on the store’s first floor, which launched in September 2009, showcasing 40 labels including RM by Roland Mouret, Prada, Balmain, Lanvin, Balenciaga and Chloé.

Although Al Fayed may have a unique management style, there is no doubt he made Harrods a better store during his tenure. 

On his regular tours of the store, employees would literally run for cover when they saw him coming for fear he’d notice them and fire them on the spot for some imagined infraction or berate them at the top of his voice for something he didn’t like — and then a few weeks later, after they’d changed it, ask them to change it back again.

He was known to call with a whim at all hours of the day or night. In return, he could be extraordinarily generous, showering executives with cars, apartments on Park Lane and all-expenses-paid trips. But as quickly as they won his favor, they just as rapidly — and inexplicably — lost it; one senior executive was once dismissed because of the brand of suits he bought.

“When I first joined Harrods, they were still selling Tampax, toilet paper and notions. It had this kind of faded elegance. But Mohamed did an amazing job really adding some luster to what was kind of a tired old department store,” Terron Schaefer, Saks Fifth Avenue’s group senior vice president of creative marketing and marketing director of Harrods from 1986 to 1990, said at the time.

“Their motto was ‘everything for everybody, everywhere,’” Schaefer added.

“When I was in the store last February thinking about skiing, I was just overwhelmed by the selection of sporting goods — skis, skiwear, boots, hiking, camping, whatever sport you were remotely interested in. It’s an enormous selection at a wide variety of price points. I was always overwhelmed by the selection of cheeses, meats, vegetables and fruit, and everyday they would change the fish display. But the thing I most loved about working there were the windows. There are 72 windows around the perimeter of the store and you can get the handle on anything going on inside.”

Mohamed Al Fayed Unveils A Statue Of Diana, Princess Of Wales & Dodi Al Fayed At The Harrods Store In London. The 10Ft Bronze Memorial Is Entitled Innocent Victims. . (Photo by Mark Cuthbert/UK Press via Getty Images)

Mohamed Al Fayed unveils a statue of Diana, Princess of Wales and Dodi Al Fayed at the Harrods store in London. The bronze memorial is entitled Innocent Victims.

UK Press via Getty Images

One of Al Fayed’s many innovations was to install the glittering, cartoonish Egyptian hall and escalator at a cost of 20 million pounds, or $29.6 million, which is decorated with busts of Tutankhamun-like figures at each floor. Al Fayed opened the hall by donning an Egyptian headdress and robes.

Famously, the store had also acted as a shrine to Al Fayed’s late son Dodi and Princess Diana. Two memorials to the late couple are on show in the store — a bronze statue of them dancing, which stands near to one of the store’s entrances, and a shrine on the lower ground floor made up of photos of the couple and some of their possessions surrounded by candles.

The statue was returned to Al Fayed in 2018.

“We are very proud to have played our role in celebrating the lives of Diana, Princess of Wales and Dodi Al Fayed at Harrods and to have welcomed people from around the world to visit the memorial for the past 20 years,” said Michael Ward, Harrods managing director.

“With the announcement of the new official memorial statue to Diana, Princess of Wales at Kensington Palace, we feel that the time is right to return this memorial to Mr. Al Fayed and for the public to be invited to pay their respects at the palace,” he added.

Yet despite constant speculation he would open more flagships — in everywhere from Dubai to Chicago — Al Fayed never made the move of exporting the Harrods concept abroad. 

His tenure as owner of Harrods had also not been without controversy. 

Many upper-crust Brits refused to enter its doors after Al Fayed bought the store, and the negative feelings toward him only grew with his outspoken campaign to prove the deaths of his son Dodi and Princess Diana were murder ordered, he claimed, by the British royal family because the couple was about to be married. Numerous investigations into their deaths have never uncovered any evidence of that, and found they died in a tragic high-speed car accident.

Princess Diana with Mohammed Al Fayed attending a charity dinner for the Harefield Heart Unit held at Harrods, London, February 1996. Diana wears a pale blue Catherine Walker dress. (Photo by Jayne Fincher/Getty Images)

Princess Diana with Mohammed Al Fayed attending a charity dinner for the Harefield Heart Unit held at Harrods in 1996.

Getty Images

Al Fayed forged a close relationship with the late Princess of Wales as they were involved with the same charities and attended similar events.

Harrods also lost its long-held royal warrants that had been displayed on the store’s facade. When Al Fayed had to remove them, he replaced them with the Arab crest.

He was known as generous with big donations, via the family’s charitable foundation, going to Great Ormond Street and Royal Marsden hospitals, and quiet payments for private medical care for certain employees who were ill.

For King Charles III’s coronation last year, Harrods laid low, given its history with the current monarch with no major celebratory events planned. It had, however, issued a coronation blend of English breakfast tea, and Scottish shortbread fingers, both in decorative tins.

In the latest season of Netflix’s royal drama “The Crown,” Al Fayed and his son Dodi’s relationship was documented, from mingling with royals and Hollywood’s inner circles.

In 1979, Al Fayed set up film production company Allied Stars Ltd, appointing his son as the chief executive.

The company backed the film “Chariots of Fire,” earning them four Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Costume Design and Best Original Score.

Al Fayed funded Keith Allen’s 2011 documentary “Unlawful Killing,” based on the death of Princess Diana, which Allied Stars produced.

The production company is now defunct.

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