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Harrods tycoon Mohamed al Fayed hangs up his gloves

For a man from a very modest background in Egypt, Mohamed al Fayed has left an enormous impression on British business, political and social life.

Even by the standards of his own action-packed and controversy-riddled life, last week was a special one for Mohamed al Fayed.

On Saturday Mr al Fayed was at the Qatari embassy in London, signing a deal that brought him 1.5 billion (Dh8.18bn) in return for the title deeds to Harrods, the famous store in the West End of London he had owned for 25 years. On Wednesday, he watched his football club Fulham play Atletico Madrid in a European final in Hamburg. They lost, leaving the cup Fulham so desperately craves as elusive as Mr al Fayed's British passport.

In between, he might have taken in some of the press coverage of the Harrods deal and read the analyses of his business career, from which he has now formally retired. Surely, nobody could have foretold such a life for an Egyptian boy, the son of a schoolteacher, born in Alexandria as the Great Depression was about to wash over the world. Mr al Fayed rose to mix with the wealthy and powerful, did business deals with some of the most ruthless entrepreneurs in the world and rubbed shoulders with royalty.

He also confounded his enemies, dashed the careers of senior politicians and took on the British establishment in a campaign to air his version of the truth about the death of his eldest son, Dodi. Loved or hated, Mr al Fayed was never ignored and you crossed him at your peril. A list of his enemies is impressive: the ruthless tycoon Roland "Tiny" Rowland, from whom he snatched Harrods in an audacious takeover; the former British MPs Neil Hamilton and Tim Smith, who had taken cash from him to ask "official" questions in parliament; the former cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken, who lied about a stay at the Paris Ritz paid for by Mr al Fayed; and Prince Philip and the head of the UK's intelligence service MI6, both of whom he accused of conspiracy in his son's death.

A public relations executive who worked for him in the 1990s says: "I think he did a great service to British public life. He exposed the liars ? in government, even if it was for his own ends, and he certainly kept the newspapers busy. You don't come across many like Mohamed al Fayed in a lifetime." And, of course, he ran Harrods as a successful business for 25 years. The acquisition of Harrods in 1985 was a defining moment in his career. He bought it partly because he thought it was a valuable business and potential global brand that had not been properly exploited; and partly to win the approval of the British establishment, who shopped at the "top people's store" in London's swanky Knightsbridge.

In fact, his ownership of Harrods turned into a series of bitter confrontations with that same establishment, lasting years and never truly forgotten. The fact that an Arab of modest origins could own "their" shop irked many in the upper echelons of British society, especially Mr Rowland, who thought he had bought Harrods in a deal on which Mr al Fayed later reneged, he alleged. The al Fayed versus Rowland clash in the 1980s and 1990s was titanic, involving acres of newsprint on allegations and counter-allegations, which culminated in the appointment of official inspectors by the British department of trade and industry to sort out the mess.

When the inspectors delivered their report in 1990, it was not the vindication Mr al Fayed and his brother Ali (who was a partner on the Harrods deal) had expected. The department cast doubt on virtually everything they had been told by the al Fayed family - their origins as part of a wealthy business family, past business connections with some of the richest men in the world, their independent financial resources, even their dates of birth.

The inspectors called Mohamed and Ali al Fayed "witnesses on whose word it would be unsafe to rely on any issue of any importance". But they could not by then strip them of ownership of Harrods. "It was not a good time for Mohamed," the PR friend from those days says. "The pity was that he felt he had to exaggerate his origins, which by any standard were relatively modest. "To have come from that background, built a shipping business in Egypt and Italy, and amassed enough wealth to buy Harrods was a great achievement. In itself."

The stinging criticisms of the department inspectors, and Mr al Fayed's failure despite several attempts to acquire British citizenship, led to a knee-jerk reaction against the establishment. His revenge was terrible to behold. The MPs Hamilton and Smith were exposed as corrupt when Mr al Fayed revealed he had given them money to pose questions about his grievances in the House of Commons, and were forced to resign.

In 1995, he claimed his biggest scalp, with the resignation, disgrace and imprisonment for perjury of Aitken, the British minister for defence procurement, who lied about his stay at Mr al Fayed's expense in the Paris Ritz at the same time as a group of Middle East arms traders. Hotel records were made available to newspapers to show the minister lied about settling his own bill. The political scandals of the 1990s revealed a curious alliance between Mr al Fayed and the liberal British press, especially The Guardian, which benefited from his access to embarrassing information about senior conservative figures.

But his most violent confrontation with the powers that be in Britain came after his son Dodi had died in the car crash that also killed Diana, Princess of Wales, in Paris in 1997. The couple had been in a relationship for several months, which, according to Mr al Fayed, was about to lead to an engagement. At the inquest into the deaths in 2007, he sketched out to an incredulous jury a conspiracy involving the British royal family, the former prime minister Tony Blair, the French security services - even doctors and nurses in the Paris hospital where the bodies were taken.

All of this was rejected by the court as lacking any supporting evidence. The court found instead that Diana and Dodi had died as a result of the negligence of Mr al Fayed's own employee, the driver. So he went back to managing Harrods. By most accounts, his 25 years as its owner have been judged a success. He turned the rather dowdy store it had become into a glittering emporium and watering hole for the rich, even if his oriental flavour was not always to the liking of Knightsbridge traditionalists.

The building now is something of a shrine to Dodi and Diana, and Mr al Fayed once said he would like his mortal remains to be kept there. Lazards, the investment bank, was hired about the middle of last year to find a buyer for Harrods, and finally clinched a deal with Qatar Holdings last weekend. An earlier deal was apparently scotched a month ago when Mr al Fayed had last-minute reservations about selling, and pulled out of the deal.

But a final sale price of 1.5bn represents a decent profit from the 620 million he paid in 1985, although he is known to have spent many millions of pounds on renovations and refurbishment. Even Harrods has to face up to the harsh reality of post-crisis retailing, although its customers are probably less recession-prone than most. The Qatari owners apparently want to expand Harrod's international brand, with a branch suggested for Shanghai in China. Another in Doha could be expected to follow.

As for Mr al Fayed, he has moved into "semi-retirement", to spend more time with his family and grandchildren. He still has an executive aviation business, a financial operation and a football club to run, but you can expect him to spend more time in his Surrey home, his Scottish castle Balnagowan, and his yacht on the Cote d'Azur. If he finds time to pen his memoirs, it will no doubt strike renewed terror for some in the British establishment, and prompt a warm glow in the hearts of libel lawyers throughout the world.

fkane@thenational.ae

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