But whatever the truth of Diana's death, the story of how Mohamed
Al Fayed rose from the lowliest of roots in Egypt to own the world's most prestigious department store - Harrods of Knightsbridge, London - is arguably no less incredible.
Born the son of a schoolteacher, Mohamed Fayed's career began selling Coca-Cola in his home town of Alexandria. His first big break came when he married the sister of the
up-and-coming international trader and arms dealer, Adnan Khashoggi. From there Fayed wormed his way into circles of influence in the Middle East, Haiti, and London, until he eventually became a financial adviser to the then world's richest man: the Sultan of Brunei. Once installed, Fayed filched the best part of $1 billion from the Sultan's bank accounts and used it to buy House of Fraser, parent of Harrods department store. Fayed's acquisition even had the full blessing of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Government and the majority of the British press.
The story is even more fantastic than these stark facts reveal. Before he could even mount his bid for Harrods, Fayed first had to dupe Tiny Rowland of Lonrho plc into selling him Lonrho's 29.9 per cent stake in House of Fraser. That Fayed succeeded in persuading Rowland to sell his shares despite Rowland's own burning desire to acquire Harrods is yet another amazing tale.
During the 1970s Tiny Rowland and Lonrho had acquired a tarnished reputation from (hotly-denied) allegations in the British press that the company was involved in sanctions-busting with apartheid Rhodesia, plus other alleged unscrupulous activities. The brouhaha caused Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath considerable embarrassment. As a consequence the Thatcher government of the 1980s was keen to avoid the kind of controversy that they feared could ensue should Lonrho's plans to acquire House of Fraser be allowed to succeed.
To thwart Lonrho, the Conservative Government referred its bid to the Monopolies Commission and forced Tiny Rowland to give undertakings that Lonrho would not acquire more than 30 per cent of House of Fraser until the Commission had cleared it to do so. In the meantime Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her Secretary of State for Trade & Industry, Norman Tebbit, hoped that someone else would come along and buy Harrods while Lonrho remained shackled by its undertakings. Enter Mohamed Fayed.
By mid-1984 the Conservatives knew Fayed only as an Anglophile who had used his closeness with the Sultan of Brunei to persuade the Sultan to keep his fortune invested in Britain during a time of great financial instability. Tiny Rowland knew Fayed from a share deal he had brokered in 1975 whilst working as as a fixer for the United Arab Emirates' ambassador to London, the billionaire Mohammed Mahdi Al-Tajir, which led to Fayed being appointed to the Lornho board for a short period.
Aware of Rowland's growing impatience, on 28 June 1984 Fayed approached him with a cunning scheme (which was actually far more cunning than it appeared). Fayed suggested to Rowland that he should sell him Lonrho's 29.9% stake in House of Fraser. This, he argued, would dupe the government into believing that Lonrho had abandoned its plans to buy the company. So the idea went, with the embargo on Lonrho now seemingly having no purpose, the government would remove it. And, once the block had been lifted, Fayed would then sell Rowland his shares back, thus allowing Lonrho to mount a full bid House of Fraser. Rowland took note.
Four months later on 30 October 1984, Trade Minister Norman Tebbit extended by a further 90 days the Monopolies Commission's investigation into Lonrho's bid. An outraged Tiny Rowland mulled over Fayed's proposal, completely ignorant of the fact that the Egyptian had by now acquired access to the Sultan of Brunei's funds. As far as Rowland was concerned, Fayed might well have scraped together enough cash to buy Lonrho's near 30% shareholding, but no way did he have the means to mount a full bid of his own. Rowland calculated that it was a chance worth taking. Accordingly he contacted Fayed and told him that he would take up his proposal.
And so, on 2 November 1984 Tiny Rowland sold Fayed Lonrho's 29.9% House of Fraser shareholding for £138 million. Just nine hours later Rowland learned that Fayed had tricked him, and that Fayed's audacious acquisition of the Sultan's funds meant that he had not 'parked' his shares with Fayed for a limited period, but had instead been conned into relinquishing for good his only prospect of acquiring Harrods.
Another four months later on 11 March 1985, after persuading the British Press, the Government, and the City of London, that his wealth had derived from a family shipping and cotton empire founded on the banks of the River Nile, Fayed succeeded in acquiring 51.03% of House of Fraser using money that wasn't even his.
The world's most prestigious department store had just passed into the clutches of a wily, lying, thief.