Stranger in the House of Fayed

Diana, Princess of Wales, is taking her second holiday in a month as the guest of the Fayed family. An intimate guest, some are saying. What is the mutual attraction? By Glenda Cooper
`We are very good friends. That is all I wish to say." But when Dodi Fayed, son of Mohamed Al Fayed makes that sort of statement about Diana, Princess of Wales, the odds against her marrying again immediately drop from 6/4 to even money.

"Di's New Man" screamed yesterday's tabloid headlines. Dodi Fayed was described as the archetypal playboy of the western world, a Sandhurst graduate dressed in immaculate suits with a penchant for escorting the world's most beautiful women - Brooke Shields, Britt Ekland, Koo Stark and Tina Sinatra, to name a few.

But while the Princess may have fallen for the playboy, the interesting thing is how she has fallen for the Fayeds as a whole. After all, this is the second time the Princess has enjoyed a holiday with members of the Fayed family in less than a month. Her first trip last month, to the Fayed yacht moored off St Tropez, was described as "irresponsible", "unwise" and "controversial".

There, Diana played a cat and mouse game with the press, bizarrely racing up to a speedboat full of journalists while clad in a leopard-skin swimsuit, allegedly to announce her sons had urged her to quit Britain and warning that the world was "going to get a big surprise". The comments were later denied.

This time, the press was only tipped off that she had been cruising off Corsica and Sardinia with Dodi and another woman after rumours started that paparazzi photographers had snapped the two of them kissing and cuddling.

Many were bewildered yesterday that Diana would choose to spend so much time with such a controversial family - headed by a man who arguably did as much as the Tories themselves to bring down the previous government, who has been denied a British passport after a critical Department of Trade and Industry report said Mohamed and his brother Ali had "dishonestly misrepresented their origins, their wealth, their business interests".

On the other hand there are several reasons why the Princess should feel close to the Fayeds. She is said to have known Dodi for 10 years. Diana's beloved father Earl Spencer was a Harrods devotee and her former stepmother, Raine, Countess de Chambrun, is a director of Harrods International, the shop's duty free arm. The Fayeds have given money to charities, usually those connected with children, another of the Princess's priorities. And Mohamed Al Fayed and Diana also share one other great trait: despite their presence at the heart of the establishment they are both seen as outsiders.

Diana was said to have enjoyed her first stay on the Fayed yacht because it was "the first real break the three [she and the two Princes] had enjoyed with a normal family". But by any stretch of the imagination the Fayeds are not what most of us would call a normal family. One commentator said yesterday that when the social history of this decade is written "Mohamed Al Fayed will have played an extraordinary part".

In 1994 the Fayed brothers had owned Harrods for almost 10 years, had lived here for 20 and had given large amounts to charity. They thought they should be awarded British citizenship. But under the British Nationality Act of 1981 applicants were required to be of good character and after the DTI report officials decided not to recommend them for British passports.

Mr Fayed pursued his revenge. He was at the centre of the cash for questions scandal, claiming that he gave MPs Neil Hamilton and Tim Smith cash in brown envelopes. Tim Smith admitted this was so; Neil Hamilton still denies this but lost his seat at the last election: the ensuing scandal helped tar John Major's election campaign.

Mr Fayed also played a central role in the downfall of Jonathan Aitken, tipping the Guardian newspaper off about his stay at the Paris Ritz the same weekend the captains of the Saudi arms industry happened to be in Paris, with some of the main players staying at the hotel.

Whatever her views on these matters, the Princess must see much that is appealing about Mohamed Al Fayed, given her complaints in the past about the cold formality of the Royal Family. While Mr Fayed's love of loud shirts with clashing clip-on ties, his crude and earthy presence and constant expletives may not sound completely up Diana's street you cannot imagine summer holidays with the Royal Family at Balmoral being a barrel of laughs.

Talking of the trip to St Tropez one commentator told the press yesterday: "Mohamed is a really great family man and he really made Diana and the boys feel at home. She felt so relaxed and happy at the end of it that she wanted to fly straight back out." This is in stark contrast to the "Squidgy" tapes, in which, describing times at Balmoral, Diana said that she nearly burst out "blubbing" over lunch.

"I can see absolutely why you would like Mohammed Al Fayed if you were a little bit lonely or a little bit desperate," says one acquaintance. "He does avuncular almost to the point of absurdity. It's all that hugging sort of thing. He sucks people in to his ambit. He's quite a small man but with a large presence. If you had no friends - and I suspect Diana probably doesn't - you could see why he would be a great guy to be on your side."

Mr Fayed greets people as if he has known them for years and also likes to play a sort of idiot savant role, mastering the trick of making other people feel cleverer than him.

"While the English like to show off 150 per cent of their intelligence, often giving the impression of more than they have, Mr Fayed only shows 3 per cent and that is why he is such a good business man."

But perhaps their strongest link is their shared sense of being outsiders within the Establishment. Mr Fayed may own the Sloanes' favourite corner shop, Harrods, and the Paris Ritz, but he is still unable to get a British passport and is treated with suspicion. And John Major may have said when the Prince and Princess separated that there was no reason Diana could not become Queen - but following her divorce, and the famous Panorama interview in which she raised doubts about the Prince of Wales's suitability to be king, the probability becomes more and more remote.

Diana's recent actions have been attacked: she had to cancel her attendance at a recent land mines meeting at the House of Commons for fear she was threatening the political neutrality of the Royal Family; she was criticised for taking Prince Harry to see a film about the IRA when he was under- age, and she had to reprimand one of her staff who told journalists that the Princess had been angry that former nanny Tiggy Legge-Bourke had attended a picnic at Prince William's school, Eton.

One newspaper commented yesterday with admirable understatement: "[People] will suggest that Mohamed Al Fayed is not the ideal royal father-in-law." No doubt the Fayeds are jubilant that the friendship of Diana is again allowing them to cock a snook at the Establishment. Diana probably feels the same way.

Further reading from Virgin Net

The Unauthorised Princess Di Page douglasb52/index.html

In case you've forgotten what she looks like in a swimsuit. As if.

Discussion Group: royal gossip


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Bachelor of the Month bachelor/index.html

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The Independent Online news/independent/index.html

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