The owner of Harrods was on the verge of achieving the recognition he had always craved. Then fate intervened. Henry Porter reports
To lose his son, Dodi, at the moment the nation lost Diana, Princess of Wales, was a cruelty almost beyond bearing for Mohamed Al Fayed. There's little doubt that the Egyptian tycoon suffered the death of his own son as acutely as the princess's family felt the extinction of Diana. But in the world's grieving there was a harsh inequality, and Mr Fayed must have taken that very much to heart. Dodi was not loved by millions. He was an also-ran in the coverage, a Johnnie-come-lately in the Princess's remarkable life.

This prompts sympathy for Mr Fayed, but now that the funeral has passed and Diana's death is beginning to be absorbed, it is right to consider the responsibility that Mr Fayed and his employees may bear in this tragic matter. For, there has been another extraordinary inequality this week. While the Royal Family has been degraded and abused for its failure to make a sufficiently public display of grief, Mr Fayed has escaped critical examination almost entirely. Yet, without his compulsive social ambitions and the recklessness of his staff, the deaths in the Paris underpass may have been avoided.

This escape was due in large part to the conjuring of Mr Fayed's spokesman, Michael Cole, one of the more deft spin-doctors at work in Britain today. But history will come to see Mr Fayed as a much more compelling individual than ever Mr Cole has described. Without doubt he has established himself as one of the most baffling luminaries of the late Elizabethan age; a man whose motives are often as perplexing as his language but whose drive has consistently been one of the desperate outsider.

This is what propelled him to buy Harrods and the Ritz in Paris; to purchase an estate in Scotland, the Duke of Windsor's home in Paris, and to sponsor the Windsor Horse Show. It was all a stupendous operation to upgrade Mohamed and to give him the appearance of high birth and refinement.

As so often happens in relations between foreigners trying to make it in Britain and the British establishment - whatever that is today - a misunderstanding arose. Mr Fayed never quite achieved the metamorphosis he desired, and he felt humiliated. There was an impenetrable inner sanctum from which he somehow knew he was being excluded. Still he pushed at the door, giving more money to charity and furiously reaching out to associate himself with familiar British institutions like Punch magazine and Fulham Football Club. And yet he still felt snubbed.

This was partly his own quaint perception, but another factor was that the reality of Mr Fayed's personality did not match the grandeur and plain old Britishness of the things that he sought to control through his wealth. He frequently missed the mark and spoilt the act by a manner which was, by turns, loud and profane, and a temperament that can turn very nasty indeed.

For evidence of his vengefulness, look no further than his exposure of Neil Hamilton and the other MPs embroiled in the cash-for-questions scandal, and his subsequent pursuit of Jonathan Aitken. This was not a principled stand against corruption, for he was the self-confessed corrupter. It was, rather, an act of straightforward revenge, during which it became plain that he had kept all the necessary documentation to prove his allegations.

Misunderstandings existed on both sides. For our part, we ignored the Arab protocol of exchange. Just because Mr Fayed had been so generous to charity, we did not see why we should give him what he wanted. There was also a sense that he was trying too hard - always a crime for a rich foreigner attempting to blend into this society.

At the heart of his sense of rejection was the failure to win British citizenship, still the subject of an appeal that comes up next month. The refusal ate at his soul so that he came to see the press, Parliament, the judicial system, and regulatory bodies as players in a conspiracy designed to victimise him as the eternal alien. He no longer wanted merely to make it in Britain, he wanted to conquer and kick ass. He became even more determined to win the passport that would allow him to go through the right immigration channel with his wife and second family.

The passport obsesses his organisation, and it was significant that within hours of the fatal accident last Sunday, Mr Cole managed to shift the burden of the conversation in the BBC's live coverage from condemnation of the behaviour of the paparazzi to the subject of Al Fayed's citizenship. His remarks were not questioned at the time but, given the circumstances, they came across as shameless opportunism.

The most important factor about Mohamed Al Fayed - the reason that he is among the richest men in Britain - is that people always underestimate him. He plays the innocent buffoon so that they never notice his patience and calculation, both of which were deployed with considerable success in his son's wooing of Diana, Princess of Wales.

There can be no doubt that when she accepted an invitation to take Princes William and Harry to the Fayed yacht and home in the south of France, he experienced a delicious sense of vindication. His business practices had been condemned by a Department of Trade and Industry report, and, weeks before, Sir Gordon Downey, the parliamentary ombudsman, had been none too kind either. Yet the Princess bestowed her favour on his household, and then did him the very great honour of having an affair with his playboy son.

This was everything the old man could have hoped for, a triumphant revenge climaxed by the possibility of a great alliance. It was all going according to plan. No expense was spared. Jets and helicopters, cars and security men were put at the disposal of the loving couple, and as the summer passed, it appeared that Diana might actually have fallen for Dodi, even though there were worries about his history of deals in Hollywood and his record as a philanderer of international class.

There was nothing the press could do. Even when Kelly Fisher emerged to accuse Dodi of two-timing her, the Princess remained loyal to him, choosing to believe his side of the story. Everything looked ripe - for marriage at best, or a long relationship at least.

Either could only have improved Mr Fayed's standing in the country. He must have hoped that it would end in marriage. Indeed, Mr Cole let be known subsequently that Dodi had renounced his life as a seducer and given Diana a very large ring.

On the threshold of his greatest moment, Mr Fayed's plans came to a hideous end. There is a terrible cruelty to this finale, and over the course of last week he must have reflected on the malign fate that caused his son and Diana to be killed, and wondered whether his desire to be accepted was worth it after all.

Mr Fayed may never win the acceptance that he craves, but it is perhaps time to give him a British passport. He and others have suffered enough in his attempts to become a citizen. Then he must be left to run his store in peace. There will be little need to hear from him or Mr Cole in the future, except, maybe, when they answer the questions that are likely to arise from what we hope will prove to be a scrupulously independent investigation in Paris.

Henry Porter is London editor of 'Vanity Fair', which is currently defending a libel action brought by Mohamed Al Fayed.