The Real Story of Princess Diana's Would-Be Father-in-Law: From Street Salesman to Billionaire, Philanderer, and Rogue

Blockbuster Netflix series The Crown has turned its eye on the British royal family to the 1990s, and the era in which the family unspooled at dizzying speed. Queen Elizabeth's three children saw their marriages collapse in 1992, most visibly Prince Charles, heir to the throne, whose separation and ultimate divorce from Princess Diana attracted worldwide attention. In the ensuing years, Diana pursued life as a single woman. She perished in a 1997 car crash with her boyfriend Dodi Fayed, heir to the Harrods department store fortune.

Fayed has become such a pop-culture fascination—a linchpin of what could have been—that The Crown's latest season devotes an entire episode to his father, Mohamed Al-Fayed. Al-Fayed had a fascinating life on his own, propelling himself from a street vendor to a man who hobnobbed with controversial billionaires, was tracked by the CIA, and ultimately became one of the biggest moguls in the UK. Read on to find out more—and to explore secrets of the Royal Family, don't miss these The Biggest Royal Romance Scandals of All Time.

1

Humble Beginnings As Soda Vendor

The "Mou Mou" episode of The Crown opens in 1946, where a teenage Mohamed was selling Coca-Cola from a wheelbarrow on the street, the Telegraph reports. He also sold sewing machines door to door. In 1952, a friend introduced him to 17-year-old Adnan Khashoggi, the future billionaire arms dealer.

The two collaborated on Khashoggi's business selling furniture to Saudi Arabia, and Al-Fayed's salesmanship made him a major asset to the company. In 1954, he married Adnan's sister Samira, and she gave birth to Dodi the next year.

2

Father and Son Move to UK

With a loan from his business partner, Al-Fayed went to Europe, where he cosplayed as a member of the upper class, buying expensive suits while staying in five-star hotels. The aim was to convince potential clients that he knew luxury. His infidelity ended his marriage, and he was granted custody of Dodi—standard practice in Egypt at the time.

"In The Crown, Al-Fayed promises a newborn Dodi that he will be 'the greatest of fathers' but in reality, as Al-Fayed travelled the world building up his business, Dodi spent much of his early childhood living with Fayed's brother Salah," the Telegraph reports.

3

Networking Runs Amok

Once he was in London, Mohamed Al-Fayed's ingenuity really kicked in. According to the Telegraph, he befriended the ruling family of Dubai by pretending he was an exiled member of Egypt's royal family. The new connection reportedly allowed him to get a cut in building oil infrastructure in the nascent region and become a middleman in dealings between Saudi Arabi and Western nations.

Mohamed also spent time in Haiti, reportedly attempting to woo the country's dictator, "Baby Doc" Duvalier, into letting him build an oil refinery in the country. According to the Telegraph, Duvalier refused (there was no oil), and Mohamed left the country with more than $150,000 purloined from a local account.

Mohamed had other business successes, though: In 1984, he bought 30% of the House of Fraser, the company that owned the iconic British department store Harrods, then bought the remaining 70%. In 1979, he bought the Ritz hotel in Paris at a reported cost of $30 million. 

4

Father Orchestrates Son's Final Deal

In the new Crown season, Mohamed is shown being a matchmaker for his son and Princess Diana—he invites the recently separated Diana on a holiday aboard his yacht, makes sure Dodi will be aboard, "and arranges for the pair to fall in love as if fixing one of his business deals," the Telegraph says.

The romantic connection between Dodi and Diana happened in July 1997. On Aug. 31, 1997, both Dodi and Diana were killed in a car crash in Paris, where they had stopped en route to London after spending nine days on Mohamed's yacht. After the accident, Mohamed would spend years unsuccessfully trying to convince the public that his son and Diana had been murdered by government agents.

5

Son Had Sights on Royal Family

The Crown depicts Dodi as having a lifelong obsession with the British Royal Family, the Telegraph reports. He spent years trying to ingratiate himself with the family, and even before he and Diana began dating, would send Harrods gold cards to members of the family and vans full of gifts to Diana and her sons.

"Everybody knew what his game was," said one former royal aide. "He was a bit of a fish out of water but, as long as you dealt with him with a long spoon and your eyes wide open, he was no more of a rogue than a lot of other people who were hanging around London at the time."