Mr. Fayed, whose holdings included London landmarks such as Harrods department store, became best known to the world through the prism of collective sorrow following the 1997 death of Diana in a high-speed car crash in Paris. In his adopted homeland Britain, however, Mr. Fayed’s life and legacy was much more complex.
Admirers saw him as an inspirational empire-builder with achievements such as helping bankroll the 1981 Oscar-winning historical drama “Chariots of Fire” and relaunching the venerable humor magazine Punch in 1996 for a last-gasp, six-year run. Critics, meanwhile, pressed claims — never proved — that Mr. Fayed was something of a flimflam man in a bespoke suit and ascot, embellishing his fortune and background.
In his later years, Mr. Fayed became increasingly isolated over his self-fueled obsession that a vast conspiracy caused the car crash that killed Dodi, Diana and their driver shortly after they left the Fayed-owned Hotel Ritz in the Place Vendome.
The steady hum of scandals and quarrels was widely seen as undercutting Mr. Fayed’s quest to gain British citizenship. Yet Mr. Fayed also represented an inescapable fact of British life: the flood of Arab money into London since the 1960s, and how the deep-pocket newcomers influenced the capital’s life and economy.
Mr. Fayed, whose net worth in 2022 Forbes estimated at $2 billion, took special joy in tweaking haughty sensibilities.
After acquiring Harrods in the mid-1980s, Mr. Fayed quickly shook up an ossified retail culture. Mr. Fayed sought more edgy brands and opened an “Egyptian room” touting mini-pyramids and sphinxes. Some commentators decried the “bazaar” atmosphere invading the more than 150-year-old grand dame of London stores.
Mr. Fayed doubled down, saying (with wryness worthy of Punch’s best satire) that he wanted to be mummified and entombed inside Harrods like a pharaoh.
When Mr. Fayed owned London’s Fulham soccer club, he stunned the sports establishment in 2011 by erecting a 71/2-foot statue of his late friend Michael Jackson — depicted belting out a song — outside the stadium. Mr. Fayed claimed that the singer was a fan of the team, although he was only reported to have made a single appearance at a game as a guest of the owner. The statue was removed when Mr. Fayed sold the club in 2013.
He once quipped to a British tabloid that he planned to clone himself 2,000 times, later explaining with a grin: “I just wanted to upset the British establishment.”
The businessman’s circle of acquaintances and contacts was eclectic and expansive: glitterati of all stripes, pro-business politicos including then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, potentates such as the sultan of Brunei, and the arms merchant Adnan Khashoggi. Mr. Fayed’s two-year marriage with Khashoggi’s sister, Samira, produced a child, Emad, known to all as Dodi, in 1955.
“Britain is always said to be a nation of shopkeepers, and an Egyptian proved the king of shopkeepers. . . . He was a great showman,” said Robert Lacey, a prominent biographer of British royalty, told The Washington Post.
But Mr. Fayed also stewed over what he perceived as attempts by Britain’s powerful cliques to derail his ambitions.
Mr. Fayed “felt forever snubbed,” said Lacey.
He battled for years — and eventually prevailed — against claims by a rival for Harrods that Mr. Fayed wildly inflated his personal finances and fabricated stories about his ancestors as influential Egyptian cotton dealers and shipbuilders. An investigative panel in 1989 sided with the fabulist allegations — saying Mr. Fayed came from “respectable but humble origins” — but let stand the $1.05 billion sale. In 2010, Harrods was sold for about $2.25 billion to Qatar’s state-run investment arm after what Mr. Fayed described as annoyance at British bureaucracy and a desire to slow down his pace of work.
At Diana’s funeral, Mr. Fayed was inside Westminster Abbey, but rows away from the royal family. His son was buried earlier outside London.
His full break with the royals came soon after, as he publicly accused members such as Prince Philip, the queen’s husband, of being part of an anti-Diana cabal. Buckingham Palace described Mr. Fayed as unhinged — and turned from lovable rogue to a punch line in the eyes of many Britons.
Mr. Fayed asserted the car wreck in Paris stemmed from a far-reaching plot, going as high as British intelligence and Buckingham Palace. An inquest in 2008 concluded that reckless driving by chauffeur Henri Paul and the pursuit of paparazzi combined to cause the crash.
Mr. Fayed did not waver. He sunk $4 million into a 2011 documentary, “Unlawful Killing,” built around the Diana-was-murdered allegations. The film was kept from widespread release after its producers were unable to obtain insurance against possible libel charges.
Through it all, Mr. Fayed made repeated applications for British citizenship, which were denied. The specific reasons were never made public, but commentators say they probably included his public feuds and finger pointing.
Mohamed Abdel Moneim al-Fayed was born in Alexandria, Egypt, on Jan. 27, 1929, according to British trade records. But other sources, including “Who’s Who,” reported that the year was 1933. He never publicly clarified the date.
A similar murkiness shrouded his early life. Despite his claims of hailing from powerful merchant stock, the more prosaic — but more accepted — version was that he grew up living within the means of his father’s teacher salary. By his early 20s, Mr. Fayed was striking out on his own, reportedly peddling Singer sewing machines and Coca-Cola.
Around that time, he met the Saudi-born Adnan Khashoggi. Mr. Fayed struck up a romance with Khashoggi’s sister, leading to marriage in 1954. It didn’t last, but Mr. Fayed was now blood-linked to the Khashoggi clan by their son Dodi. It was a key calling card into the business world beyond Egypt.
Mr. Fayed used Khashoggi-arranged introductions for lucrative investments in the United Arab Emirates in the early 1960s, and to secure construction contracts in Haiti under the dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier.
By the mid-1960s, Mr. Fayed and his two younger brothers had relocated to England to oversee their growing conglomerate of oil, construction and shipping. Mr. Fayed was particularly desperate for acceptance in his new European life.
In 1979, Mr. Fayed brought a fading Parisian gem, the Ritz, and led a major renovation. Not long after, he kicked in $3 million for “Chariots of Fire” (Dodi was listed as executive producer), the true story of a group of British runners preparing for the 1924 Olympics. One of the main characters, sprinter Harold Abrahams — a Jewish student at Cambridge — mirrored some of Mr. Fayed’s own feelings of alienation and prejudice in Britain.
Mr. Fayed’s reputation reached the sultan of Brunei — among the world’s richest men — who admired how Mr. Fayed straddled Western and Muslim worlds. In an act of huge faith, the sultan in 1984 gave Mr. Fayed power of attorney for a wide range of affairs. The next year, Mr. Fayed used London property bought for the sultan as leverage to acquire the retail chain House of Fraser, the group holding Harrods, according to British media reports.
This layered financial deal spurred a vitriolic challenge from the notoriously contentious British businessman Roland “Tiny” Rowland, who claimed that Mr. Fayed was merely riding on the sultan’s money and had bamboozled trade overseers. Investigators in 1988 found no grounds to repeal the Harrods sale — even as its revenue climbed and Mr. Fayed burnished his nickname, “Chairman Mo.”
Mr. Fayed chalked up the fight to anti-foreigner phobias.
“It’s the colonial, imperial fantasy,” he told the New York Times in 1995. “Anyone who comes from a colony . . . they think he’s nothing. So you prove they are better than they are. You do things that are the talk of the town. And they think, ‘How can he? He’s only an Egyptian.’ ”
He would not abandon Britain, though. He kept afloat the money-losing Punch magazine until 2002, and enjoyed cheers from Fulham fans when the team clawed back into England’s Premier League. The sale of Harrods, however, seemed to mark a turning point.
He mostly shifted his life to Geneva with his family. Survivors include his second wife, former Finnish model Heini Wathén, and their four children: Camilla, Jasmine, Omar and Karim.
Yet even as his place in British life faded, he never let go of his resentment over being snubbed as a countryman.
“I have two Filipino nannies who have British passport and not me,” he told the London Guardian in 2006. “I don’t need [a] British passport. When you were running around in an animal skin, my ancestors were building the pyramids.”
Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.