Mohamed al Fayed has long insisted he would resist any attempts to dislodge him from Harrods during his lifetime and even beyond it. When I interviewed the Egyptian tycoon in 1998, a year after the death in a Paris car crash of his eldest son Dodi and Dodi's inamorata Diana, Princess of Wales, al Fayed told me he planned to build a glass pyramid on the roof of the iconic London department store he bought in 1985 for 617 million pounds (about a billion dollars at that time). "Here in the stairwell I've had my face carved 12 times in place onto the body of pharaoh Ramses. It's now a memorial," he said. "When I die, I'll have myself mummified and placed in a glass pyramid on the roof so that people can come and visit me."
If he still hopes for a final resting place atop Harrods, he perhaps included such a stipulation in his secret negotiations with Qatar Holding, an arm of the Qatari state investment authority, which on May 8 emerged as the new owner of the store. The deal, reportedly for 1.5 billion pounds ($2.2 billion), was confirmed by Ken Costa of the investment bank Lazard International, an advisor to the sale. Costa's statement to the British broadcaster Sky News explained that al Fayed "has decided to retire and to spend more time with his children and his grandchildren."
Time may have mellowed al Fayed, but it's tough to imagine the pugnacious businessman relaxing into a quiet and feud-free retirement. When rumors of a takeover circulated earlier this year, al Fayed rejected them with the robust invective that is his hallmark. "People approach us from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar," he told Britain's Sunday Times. "Fair enough, but I put two fingers up to them all. It is not for sale. This is not Marks & Spencer or Sainsbury. It is a special place that gives people pleasure. There is only one Mecca."
There is indisputably only one al Fayed too, though he once told a British tabloid he was having himself cloned 2,000 times. When I asked why he'd sown the cloning rumor, his explanation was crisp: "I just wanted to upset the British establishment." Al Fayed has a rare talent for upsetting the British establishment, and ownership of the British establishment's favorite department store gave him unparalleled opportunities for doing just that.
His purchase of Harrods 25 years ago was itself controversial. A British government inquiry raised questions about the deal and likely influenced the authorities' decision to reject al Fayed's applications for U.K. citizenship. He eventually abandoned his pursuit of naturalization and exacted revenge on the Conservative party which first turned him down by revealing he had paid two of its MPs to ask questions on his behalf in the House of Commons. He also helped to expose the perjury of a former defense minister, Jonathan Aitken. But al Fayed continued his quest for social acceptance by the British upper crust, and when he befriended the recently divorced Diana and watched her flirtation with his son develop, he seemed close to realizing that goal.
The fatal car crash on Aug 31 1997 metastasized al Fayed's years of resentment into a grief-fueled conviction that the establishment had murdered Dodi and Diana rather than allow the relationship to continue. He campaigned for the inquest that in 2008 concluded that the reckless driving of their chauffeur Henri Paul and the pursuit of the paparazzi caused the crash. Al Fayed's more exotic theory that Diana's former father-in-law Prince Philip masterminded the deliberate killing of the pair failed to sway the jury.
If the sale of Harrods betokens al Fayed's retreat from public life, that may come as something of a relief to Britain's royal family, which generally finds controversies enough on its plate. (Indeed, the Queen is currently in the odd constitutional position of potentially "deciding" who should govern Britain after the May 6 elections produced a hung parliament. She will act on the advice of politicians and Whitehall officials.)
But it seems unlikely that al Fayed will really disappear from view. He still owns Fulham, a football team in England's Premier League, along with other businesses. And he retains the title "honorary chairman" at Harrods, though Lazard's Costa says al Fayed won't be involved in the day-to-day running of the store.
Moreover, although al Fayed never was fully accepted into the brittle society of the British elite, he achieved what for most outsiders remains a distant dream: to put an indelible imprint on a British institution. Two shrines he erected to Diana and Dodi inside Harrods have become must-sees for many London tourists and a focus for the passionate emotions that the dead princess still arouses. The first installation showcases an unwashed wine glass from their last evening together, along with a piece of jewelry al Fayed describes as an engagement ring given by Dodi to Diana. A second memorial is depicted on al Fayed's website in the following terms: "The bronze statue of the couple dancing is entitled Innocent Victims and is located at Door Three. It is a life-sized sculpture of Diana and Dodi gazing lovingly into each other's eyes as they release an albatross into the sky." As the ancient mariner discovered before them, the new owners would be wise not to touch that albatross.