Mohamed al Fayed sells his retail Mecca for £1.5bn

Only a few weeks ago Mohamed al Fayed, the 'Phoney Pharaoh', vowed he would never sell Harrods. Now he's done a £1.5bn deal to sell the store to the Qatari royal family.

Mohamed al Fayed loved Harrods so much that he planned to be buried there, mummified in a golden sarcophagus in a glass pyramid on the roof. Sadly, the £1.5bn sale of the store to the Qatari royal family will deprive us of that spectacle, says The Sunday Times. Yet only a few weeks ago, "the Phoney Pharaoh" vowed he would never sell his retail "Mecca", despite the many tempting offers dangled by would-be buyers. "I put two fingers up to them all," he declared.

The sale brings to an end one of the most colourful chapters in British business history, says The Observer. During his quarter century at Harrods, Fayed waged war on an establishment that had turned its back on him. Ever the showman (see below), he played every role from grieving father to "foul-mouthed hectoring bully". At first, the tragi-comic battle centred on Fayed's obsession with gaining a British passport. When thwarted, he proved "a formidable taker of Tory scalps", boasting that his exposure of corrupt ministers Neil Hamilton and Tim Smith and later Jonathan Aitken was instrumental in bringing down the Major government.

Following the 1997 Paris car crash, which killed his son, Dodi, and Princess Diana, Fayed's claims of government involvement stepped up a gear and he began a ten-year campaign to prove they were murdered in an MI6 plot masterminded by the Duke of Edinburgh and Prince of Wales. Having failed to convince the world, he installed a shrine at Harrods, complete with a bronze statue of the couple dancing beneath an albatross, labelled "Innocent Victims".

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"Few things are what they seem" in Fayed's world, says Henry Porter in The Guardian. When he started making waves in London in the 1970s, "he was so preposterous and his manners so coarse that few noticed his guile and demonic drive". He managed to deceive even Tiny Rowland no mean feat when he snatched Harrods from the grasp of the Lonrho boss in 1985.

Fayed and his brothers impressed investors with stories of their aristocratic Egyptian origins and great wealth. In fact, their father was a humble Alexandrian school teacher, and his son's first venture was selling Coca-Cola and sewing machines. The brothers founded an Egyptian shipping business, thereafter the details are murky. Fayed's biggest break, says his biographer Tom Bowers, was probably his marriage to the sister of international wheeler-dealer, Adnan Khashoggi. Certainly, by the early 1960s, Fayed had his fingers in innumerable pies in the Gulf and elsewhere. When he slipped anonymously into Britain in 1964, it was on a Haitian diplomatic passport issued by the notorious dictator Papa Doc Duvalier.

"Eccentric tycoons are often described as the last of their kind," says The Times. Knightsbridge will certainly be "a duller place" without Fayed.

Behind the teddy bears, a private fiefdom dealing in fear

The easy storyline about Fayed "more or less wrote itself", says Peter Peston in The Guardian. Mysterious Egyptian arrives and buys Britain's most famous store. "He must be a rotter. Tiny Rowland says so. And now look! He's subverting our standards of public life, moral duties, national interests (and all that stuff)." But that story, in essence, was back to front. It wasn't Fayed who invented the rules: lobbyists, MPs and tycoons of industry told him how to behave. "They wore pinstriped suits, but they had greasy palms. He didn't do it to them: they did it to him." As such, Fayed's anger at the rotten heart he found in Britain's establishment was real and unflinching.

For the few who stayed the course either at Harrods or at Fayed's other trophy asset, Fulham FC Mohamed al Fayed was a generous boss, says The Mail on Sunday. And he certainly revitalised Harrods. Some saw his "Egyptianising" of the place as tacky, but the store's success during his tenure suggests "he had a pretty good feel for what its customers want", says Management Today. The Qataris may be planning to extend the brand to Shanghai, but it's doubtful if they'll have "the same instinctive feel for retail".

Perhaps our collective memories are too short. Fayed might have doled out teddy bears, but the operation he ran was coloured by fear and sexual harassment and he employed lawyers and security men to ensure he got his way, says The Observer. And how, says Henry Porter in The Guardian.

As Bower's biography revealed, Fayed's private army of ex-SAS soldiers at his Surrey home were issued with Walther PPK handguns and had access to pump-action shotguns. After crossing Fayed over an article, "we were left with the eerie sense that we had been dealing with... a fiefdom operating quite independently from the rest of Britain, with a security service, an armed police force and a tyrant in command".