The Grand Delusion
Mohamed Al Fayed: portrait of a rank outsider
Paul Vallely is visiting professor in Public Ethics at the University of Chester and a senior research fellow at the Brooks World Poverty Institute at the University of Manchester. He writes on ethical, political and cultural issues. He has a fortnightly column in the Independent on Sunday and also writes for the New York Times and the Church Times. His latest book is Pope Francis – Untying the Knots. He was co-author of the report of the Commission for Africa and has chaired several development charities.
Friday 07 May 1999
For all his animated protests yesterday, there cannot be much doubt why the Home Office has decided to deny him British nationality yet again. To qualify for British citizenship, the applicant must be over 18 years old, have been resident in Britain for at least five years and be "of good character". And Mohamed Al Fayed has something of a problem with the final one of these three.
Since his last application, he has admitted to stuffing cash into brown envelopes to bribe Members of Parliament in a scandal that helped to bring down the last government. He has acknowledged his collusion in the sending of a misleading fax in order to ensnare the discredited former Tory minister Jonathan Aitken. He also made wild allegations that the last Home Secretary, Michael Howard, accepted a pounds 1m bribe - a claim dismissed as utterly baseless after an inquiry by Sir Gordon Downey, the Parliamentary Commissioner.
On top of that he has been shamed in the courts. He has been forced to pay some pounds 2m in settlement to the widow of his late business rival Tiny Rowland over the break-in of Rowland's Harrods safety deposit box. He has dropped a libel suit against the magazine Vanity Fair, which accused him of sexual harassment of his staff and racial discrimination. And, for a man who is notoriously litigious, he has conspicuously failed to sue the journalist Tom Bower, who published a biography which alleges that the Egyptian billionaire routinely bugs and films his staff and employs an armed group of bodyguards who regularly intimidate his enemies and encourage police officers to put unwarranted pressure on them.
Even that is not all. He has offended many ordinary members of the public with his lurid fantasies about Diana, Princess of Wales, who died with his son Dodi in a car crash in Paris in 1997. In the face of all the evidence to the contrary, he has alleged that the couple were the victims of a conspiracy by the British security services, and claimed to be in possession of the princess's last words.
The mystery, then, is not why he has been denied British nationality but why he persists so doggedly in his long struggle to be granted it. For the process of application succeeds only in constantly exposing the man, and his colourful past, to the kind of withering scrutiny that brings the exact opposite of what he seeks - scornful rejection where he craves acceptance.
Yet he keeps trying. How he has tried. Fayed first applied for a British passport in 1993, one year after his brother and business partner, Ali. Their applications were turned down, without any public explanation, two years later. The explanation, however, was unnecessary. During the Eighties, the pair had won a bitter battle to take over Harrods, but afterwards a 700-page Department of Trade report branded the brothers, in fairly devastating language, serial liars and dishonest businessmen. They had even lied to their own advisers about their origins, wealth and business interests. Even the aristocratic "Al" in his name was a lie. He was born plain Mohamed Fayed.
Anyone else might have sulked away quietly. Not Mohamed Al Fayed. He appealed and won first in the High Court and then the Appeal Court. The Home Office was forced to review his application. When the Government dragged its feet, he went to court again to demand a judicial review. Had it ended there, he might eventually have obtained British citizenship, as his brother Ali did in March.
But the courts were not the only avenue he explored. He had been building contacts with MPs, using cash and free gifts from his Harrods empire - which included swish hotels such as the Ritz in Paris. So sticky was the web of his influence, as he saw it, at any rate, that when Neil Hamilton was appointed Trade Minister in the last government, Fayed was able to write to him "reminding Mr Hamilton of his obligations towards him". In the run-up to the election, he tried to woo all three main political parties in his attempt to find new allies in his battle against what he saw as the faceless suits of the English Establishment. He attempted to secure meetings with all three leaders. Paddy Ashdown went along to Fayed's base at 60 Park Lane with the Liberal Democrat lawyer Alex Carlile and came away with the promise of a pounds 1m donation to the party - which its chairman, Lord Holme, subsequently prudently vetoed. ("He's a racist dick," said Fayed when he heard the news.)
He had no more success with New Labour. He approached the shadow Lord Chancellor, Derry Irvine, whom he had met through litigation in the Eighties. Fayed passed him a file on his payments to MPs and tried, unsuccessfully, to secure a meeting with Tony Blair. Anthony Lester QC, who was present, phoned later to report that Irvine thought Fayed a crook and a liar and wanted nothing to do with him. Through the film producer David Puttnam, who had worked with Dodi on Chariots of Fire, Fayed met Peter Mandelson, but New Labour's great fixer was too canny to fix anything for Fayed. ("Cock-sucking cheats," was his verdict when he realised Labour would not play ball.) All that was left was to attempt to blackmail the Prime Minister, John Major, threatening to reveal the damaging cash-for-questions information if his application for citizenship was not approved. Major refused and Fayed went to The Guardian.
Through all this there were those who regarded Fayed as merely a lovable rogue - an uneducated adventurer from a poor Egyptian family. True, he played by slightly different rules from those of the English Establishment whose good opinion he so desired, but his heart was basically in the right place. Perhaps he did habitually bring out a large inflatable penis in front of female staff, but he employed thousands of people. He paid millions to good causes and millions more to the Exchequer in tax. He was, to those he liked or sought to impress, very entertaining and "fantastically good company" on a lavish if vulgarian scale.
Perhaps, like Robert Maxwell or Tiny Rowland, he might have shrugged off the opprobrium, or simply sought to compensate for it with grand gestures - such as he attempted to make last month in giving Kevin Keegan permission to screw up his contract with Fulham to take on the job of England manager full time, declaring, as he did so: "Kevin is my gift to the nation."
What stops him is what one former employee described as his obsession with "protecting what he calls his good name; he will do absolutely anything to do that". In doing so he often acts against the counsel of his senior staff. "Michael Cole, then director of public affairs at Harrods, and its director of security, former Metropolitan Police Chief Superintendent John Macnamara, both told him not to go public on the cash-for-questions allegations," said the former insider. "But he wanted revenge on the politicians who had cheated him."
As with everything in his life, he acted on intuition. Fayed is a man with no grasp of detail - he never takes a note - but his instincts are usually right. It is when he is wrong that he starts to lie. But they are not the lies of a cunning strategist. Rather, they are statements of wish-fulfilment. "He swiftly convinces himself that the truth is what he wants it to be," said another insider. "It is self-delusion rather than wilful deception."
This is what explains his propensity to tell lies that can so easily be found out. That was what happened when he encouraged the idea, on the basis of no apparent evidence, that Diana and Dodi were engaged to be married. It is what happened when - despite the hospital authorities insisting that the princess was, in her last hours, incapable of speech - he claimed a French nurse told him that Diana's last words were: "If I die, I want to be buried next to Dodi." So anxious was he to claim Diana as a posthumous badge of vicarious approval that he went on publicly to insult her mother, Frances Shand Kydd, describing her as a snob and casting doubts on her grief for her daughter.
The most singular irony in the entire sad saga is the gap that is revealed between Fayed's behaviour and values and those that he purports to admire in the national character he is so anxious to adopt. He is a 69-year-old Egyptian tycoon, married to a Finn, and in the past he has bought, by assiduity of attention if not by direct favours, a Haitian diplomatic passport, awarded to him by the tyrant Papa Doc, and passports from the state of Dubai for himself, his brothers and his son. Yet the Britishness he so lusts after is the one thing that eludes him. It is part of his tragedy that he will never understand why.
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