The Full Mohamed

Mohamed Fayed, controversial tycoon and sworn enemy of the British Establishment, is trying to clean up his image. He has, suggests Gareth Rubin, a long way to go
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The Independent Online

You can tell a lot about a man by the PR company he keeps. When Mohamed Fayed took action last month to clear some grime from his public image, he did so by hiring two men whose names are synonymous with the worst excesses of the gutter press. Max Clifford, purveyor of filth to the tabloids, and Phil Hall, recently sacked editor of one of the filthiest of them, the News of the World. Not an ideal choice, you might suppose, for a man seeking to build a reputation for wholesomeness and probity. But then Fayed is hardly an ideal client.

You can tell a lot about a man by the PR company he keeps. When Mohamed Fayed took action last month to clear some grime from his public image, he did so by hiring two men whose names are synonymous with the worst excesses of the gutter press. Max Clifford, purveyor of filth to the tabloids, and Phil Hall, recently sacked editor of one of the filthiest of them, the News of the World. Not an ideal choice, you might suppose, for a man seeking to build a reputation for wholesomeness and probity. But then Fayed is hardly an ideal client.

I met him shortly before his previous spin doctor, Laurie Meyer, vanished mysteriously from the Fayed payroll, leaving Clifford and Hall to take on one of the most thankless jobs in PR. As a good spin doctor should, Meyer had warned me off various subjects deemed likely to show his employer in a bad light; within minutes of my arrival in the chairman's office at Harrods, however, Fayed was on to one of them.

"I am convinced that MI6 have murdered Dodi and Diana," he told me, after some brief pleasantries. "A hundred per cent... They target me because they know I am not going to keep quiet because I know they killed my son and killed Diana. This is not nothing. To end people's life because Prince Philip - who grow up with a Nazi, right? The guy grow up with Hitler... This is the guy, he is Hitler of this country, Prince Philip."

Outbursts like this may have contributed to such recent difficulties for Fayed as Prince Philip's refusal to renew Harrods's Royal warrant; the Queen's coroner's decision - recently confirmed on appeal - to refuse his request for joint inquests into the deaths of Dodi Fayed and Diana, Princess of Wales; the Government's continuing refusal - also recently confirmed - to grant Fayed a British passport; and his impending prosecution for contempt of court over an article that appeared in his magazine, Punch, about GCHQ. And these in turn may have contributed to Fayed's apparent view - quoted by Max Clifford when The Independent broke the story of his recruitment two weeks ago - that he "has had a lot of problems caused by very bad advice".

But if Meyer is being privately blamed for Fayed's lack of popularity both with the Establishment and with the general populace, it's hard to see how even the most brilliant spinner can restore the image of a man whose publicly expressed world-view shows signs of an advanced persecution complex and whose preferred mode of communication is the intemperate rant. This is his take, for example, on another recent reversal: the out-of-court settlement in which Fayed handed over £1.4m to the widow of his bitter enemy, Tiny Rowland, in compensation for a series of unauthorised openings, in the mid-1990s, of Rowland's Harrods safe deposit box.

"Again you see all the media, the Establishment media, you know, the Mail on Sunday, the Evening Standard, the Telegraph is owned by Conrad Black, who I think is a [libel deleted]. He hire Dominic Lawson, who is a [libel deleted]. This is the way we are ruled. It is Nazi system, it is Fascist system, right?"

His fingers stab the air, making darting reflections in the gold mirror that dominates one wall of his plush, white-carpeted office. His round face is contorted in outrage. Only his dark-grey Savile Row suit retains its composure, together with his black tie. He has worn a black tie every day since his son died, and vows to do so until "the truth" about that fatal crash is revealed by the security services - which, he believes, are in ultimate control of the country. "What they do through the listening headquarters, GCHQ, they can bug you anywhere. They know where you going, what you doing, when you fart. They get all those politicians, they know if you are a faggot, if you go with prostitute like Archer. They know everything."

And what they know, he believes, is not very edifying. "[Politicians] are trash of the trash. We have gone from one crooked political party to the other. Margaret Thatcher, she has [libel involving Swiss bank accounts deleted]. I never trusted her. Very slimy, very weird, and her husband too.

"And the bloody Government is not the Labour Party, is just a bunch of sex maniacs. You get somebody like Mandelson, a [libel deleted]. And you bring him back? ...I destroyed the Tory Party and I'm going to destroy the Labour Party. They are not the party that appreciate, right? Because without my contribution in exposing the Tory Party, they are not having this majority in House of Commons. And when they are in power, they are shitting on me. Is this gratitude?"

This hostility is unfortunate: in other circumstances, Fayed and New Labour might have been natural bedfellows, for he is nothing if not an enemy of the "forces of conservatism". He rails against "those people still living in the hallucination of the imperial, the colonial age", and complains that "they -" the conspiracy against him always involves "they" - are driven by racism. "They won't accept my son - dark hair, naturally tanned..."

One can sympathise with such complaints, and one would be inhuman not to sympathise with a man who has had his son snatched from him as Dodi was. But his very public habits of abuse and misrepresentation make it hard for even the most well-disposed listener to avoid becoming alienated. I ask him if he believes that "the truth" will ever out. "I am hoping," he says. "Because I am a great believer in God and to eliminate two innocent people who caused them no harm... Diana's last few days, few months only happy time her life. She is so shit and hell with the Royal family and Prince Charles. You can't just do things to someone who give his life to the country. I pay hundreds of millions in taxes."

In fact, the tax question is cloudy. During his libel trial against Neil Hamilton, it emerged that Fayed had paid no British income tax at all for the first 25 years he lived and worked in the UK. But this is the trouble with Fayed: that, as the DTI's notorious report on him put it over a decade ago, he inhabits "an Alice in Wonderland world" in which "lies were the truth and... the truth was a lie". Question Fayed even for a few minutes about his origins and you may elicit a string of "facts" quite at odds with the truth as it is generally accepted. Examples over the years have included his birth date ("1933" rather than 1929); his social class (an old shipping magnate family rather than one headed by a schools inspector); his birthplace (the non-existent "al-Fayedia", supposedly named after his ancestors, rather than Cairo); and indeed his name (the often used "al" prefix, which in Egypt designates the head of a family and is borne by nobility, is entirely his own addition).

Yet the atmosphere of his fantasies - suggesting a life lived in a world of spooks, conspirators and impostors - is surprisingly realistic. In 1964 a CIA report described a mysterious "Kuwaiti" in Haiti who was doing deals with the brutal, voodoo-obsessed dictator "Papa Doc" Duvalier. He "strikes one as being friendly and evil at the same time", remarked the report's author. This was Fayed, a former door-to-door salesman, working on a scheme to improve the harbour facilities in Port-au-Prince which culminated in his leaving the island in a hurry and Papa Doc proclaiming that he wanted Fayed found and brought back dead or alive.

After this, Fayed had enough capital to start dealing on a scale that would eventually make him one of Britain's richest men. He had also learnt a valuable lesson: that all it takes to beat the next man is nerve. That nerve has sustained him to this day, enabling him to shrug off that damning DTI report, to beat off his bitterest rivals, and to challenge the highest powers in the land in the highest courts in the land. And the curious thing is that, such is his self-belief, his rantings can sometimes sound almost noble. Laying into MI5 and MI6, for example, he says: "They out of control completely. They go and build that great headquarters for over £600m and people are dying and crimes everywhere and poverty-stricken in all the inner-cities. I do all what I can: tens of millions going out in charity work."

This much is true. Fayed is one of Britain's biggest philanthropists, typically giving away more than £500,000 a year. He used to give anonymously, but now he wants the British to know what he has done for them - and to feel ashamed for what they have let happen to him and their nation. "They will bring this country to what would be Bangladesh. This is the way if there is no constitutional changes. The people who pay taxes, who are the masses of this country, want to leave this hallucination. But these people who want titles. This is finish 200 bloody years ago. Why you creating the class system? There is nobody better than anybody, we are all human. What creates this racism is the Royal household and political parties - they are just another façade."

The newly polished table reflects his angry face. Has his hard-won façade of wealth ever brought him any happiness? Perhaps; but, if so, it is scant consolation today for the grief and anger he feels over the death of Dodi.

Now on his second marriage, to a former Finnish model, Fayed is a fierce protector of what is left of his family, surrounding them with armed guards at all times. But what remains a mystery is why he, and they, want to live in Britain at all. "I don't want citizenship," he says, speaking of the issue on which he has spent millions in legal fees. "I carry Egyptian passport - Egypt was the greatest civilisation, when the British was wearing animal skins. Is a matter of formality. They have not the courtesy - why? Because MI6 told them not to give me the nationality..."

Suddenly he stops mid-flow, and his eyes narrow a little as they view me. He knows he is getting off the point he wanted to make, and that the image he is projecting is perhaps not quite what the spin doctor ordered. "You want to show me the article before? I just like to see..."

And here we get to a bewildering paradox about Mohamed Fayed. He behaves for the most part as though oblivious to the possible effect of his words and actions on other people; yet he is also deeply sensitive about his image - and is prepared to go to some lengths to protect it. More than one writer who has fallen foul of him has encountered a trick whereby the journalist or biographer in question receives a telephone call from a supposedly disaffected Fayed employee who offers to sell him papers that prove a shocking scandal in Fayed's past. If the journalist agrees and hands over the cash, he or she is liable to be arrested instantly for receiving stolen goods.

This same sensitivity has presumably led to the departure of Laurie Meyer, and to the hiring of Clifford and Hall - neither of whom, it should be said, is exactly a novice when it comes to dirty tricks. Can the new spin doctors hope to rehabilitate their monstrous employer? Hall is diplomatic. "I think he's a character," he laughs. "And there aren't enough characters around nowadays. I think," he adds, "that he has been treated unfairly by the press, especially over Princess Diana." Hall neglects to mention in this context that, during the last year of his editorship alone, the News of the World variously pilloried Fayed as a "habitual liar", a "briber of politicians", a "sexual harasser of women" and an "ace safe-cracker"; blamed his "overbearing arrogance" for the deaths of Dodi and Diana; attacked his "sickening attempts to wheedle his way in" with Prince William and Prince Harry with "bungs" and "bribes"; accused him of "polluting public life"; and called for his prosecution over the Rowland safe-box break-ins

Yet in Fayed's world - and in the world of Clifford and Hall, for that matter - awkward details and inconvenient facts are there to be ignored. Perhaps, therefore, they are well-suited - and well-suited, too, to an age in which shrugging off and brazening out are widely considered essential life-skills for public figures.

But maybe Fayed's world is not a thing that it is wise to try too hard to understand. Perhaps, like a certain kind of optical illusion, it makes sense only if you are standing in a certain place. He certainly seems oblivious to the presence of his listeners when he is ranting at full throttle. Lost in his own sense of injustice and outrage, he is at once absurd and acute, monstrous and deeply human. And he puts so much time and energy into having the last word in every battle that it seems churlish to deny it to him now: "I am not religious man. But I am great believer in God. Every religion direct you to one cause - to be conscientious, to hurt nobody and to be generous. And this is most important principle to me. Whatever things you make, God bless us with angel souls and evil souls. If you are evil, God all the time will direct you to disasters. If you good in life you have no worry and you have angel take care of you all the time. I don't care whatever you do, if they insult me. You live with your conscience. Leave the other bastards, the racists, the atheists, the people who have 'motives', you know. God is the great.

"This what I believe in. And you know, I fight so many battles. In the end I am the winner." *