Mohamed Al Fayed makes his grand entrance to The Crown’s lavish universe in the fifth-season episode “Mou Mou,” which rewinds seven decades to the businessman’s humble beginnings selling Coca-Cola in the slums of Egypt. The flashback is ironic given that the controversial figure—who restored Paris’s Ritz hotel and revamped London’s Harrods department store in the ’80s, allegedly manipulated the brief romance between his son Emad “Dodi” Al Fayed and Princess Diana in the ’90s, and sensationally accused the British royal family of plotting to kill the couple in the ’00s—spent much of his life trying to stamp out his actual origin story.
When Al Fayed and his brothers began their takeover battle for Harrods in the early 1980s, they claimed to descend from an established Egyptian family who were shipowners, landowners, and industrialists for over a century. It wasn’t until 1990 that the UK’s Department of Trade and Industry revealed the truth: that Al Fayed, who had spun yarns about a coddled childhood with an English nanny and an elite education at “the Eton of the Middle East,” was actually the son of a humble schoolteacher who grew up in Alexandria. The Observer referred to Al Fayed as “the Phoney Pharaoh,” and Tom Bower, who wrote an unauthorized biography about Al Fayed, claimed that the controversial businessman had also shaved four years off of his age and added the Al to his name for a whiff of imperiousness.
As for that “family fortune” he had used to buy the department store? The report suggested that much of the money had come from the Sultan of Brunei, possibly without his knowledge, given that the Sultan had granted Fayed “wide powers of attorney” in the 1980s. (Al Fayed has always maintained that the money was his. The sultan denied giving money to the Al Fayeds to buy Harrods and said that if the power of attorney was used for other purposes, it was done without his knowledge or authority.) The investigators in the DTI report concluded, “It may be no more than coincidence that this vast increase in disposable wealth followed quickly on the admission of Mohamed to the sultan’s confidence. It is, however, a very powerful coincidence.”
The Crown’s “Mou Mou,” which relied in part on Bower’s 1999 biography of the businessman for its Al Fayed story line, buffs out many of the rough edges and allegations Al Fayed has fielded over the years. Instead, it presents him as a charming scamp who fostered a childhood fascination with the crown and who relates to Diana as an establishment outsider. The episode intertwines his fictional story with that of Sydney Johnson, the Duke of Windsor’s beloved valet whom Al Fayed later hired to work for him, and that of Diana, just as she is feeling as isolated and alone as ever.
Al Fayed was himself an outsider because he was repeatedly rejected for British citizenship. Explains best-selling royal historian Sally Bedell Smith, “He’d been applying for citizenship and had been rejected. He felt that the establishment was out to get him, and so what better way of getting back at the establishment than forging a relationship with Diana? And that’s what he did.”
“Everything comes back to the fact that he couldn’t get a passport,” agrees Bower in a separate conversation, referencing Al Fayed’s bitterness over what he viewed as classist snobbery. Both he and Bedell Smith say that Al Fayed hoped to align himself with the monarchy in the hope that it would give him credibility by proxy, or as The Guardian described it, “the social acceptance he crave[d].”