It was MI6. They killed Dodi and Diana. Absolutely,” said Mohamed Al-Fayed as I walked towards him across the lawn of his vast country mansion Barrow Green Court, near Oxted. Set on 16 acres of Surrey countryside, Fayed had bought the house in 1972 from Lord McAlpine, later Treasurer of the Conservative Party, and transformed it from its Georgian roots. Inside was a bizarre combination of toys and teddy bears and statues of naked nymphs and semi-nude Greek goddesses. His bedroom was dominated by a gigantic bed surrounded by paintings of more naked girls. And marble and gold dominated the interiors. Outside, the garden featured a large Arab-style white tent that Fayed used as his office and a meeting place away from the prying eyes and ears of his family.
The Egyptian owner of Harrods ushered me into the tent. It was 9 October 1997, six weeks after the death of Princess Diana and his son Dodi. Earlier that year I had been hired as the ghostwriter of Fayed’s autobiography. I was the author of MPs for Hire and Thatcher’s Gold, which appealed to Fayed’s grievance with the political establishment. Despite his courtship of the elites – sponsoring the Royal Horse Show at Windsor, donating to charities and investing in British business – he had been denied British citizenship. And so, he wreaked vengeance by claiming he paid two Tory MPs (Neil Hamilton and Tim Smith) to lobby for him in parliament and that the Ritz Hotel bill for defence minister Jonathan Aitken had been paid for by a Saudi arms broker.
The book was to be Fayed’s ultimate act of revenge against the establishment that rejected him. “Crooks and organised crime Mafia”, he called them, saying: “It is called the ‘Invisible Power’, right”. While I was aware of Fayed’s reputation for sophistry and hyperbole, the opportunity to be an eyewitness inside his raging war against the elites was irresistible. What I could not foresee was how my privileged access would coincide with his final desperate attempt to join the establishment by manipulating his son Dodi to marry Princess Diana. A courtship that would result in their tragic deaths.
Surrounded by banks of telephones and a fax machine inside the tent, I spent hours interviewing Fayed at Harrods, his flat on Park Lane and his castle in Scotland. The problem was deciphering the truth from the fantasy. Most of the time his answers to my questions were a combination of accuracy, wishful thinking, lies and conspiracy theories.
Dodi hangs up on father before calling engagement off with Diana in The Crown scene
Fayed’s unwillingness to accept uncomfortable truths was encapsulated in his relationship with his son Dodi. Multiple former employees agree that Dodi was spoilt, childlike, hopeless with money, lazy and decadent. Some saw him as kind, polite and generous, but everyone agreed that he used his wealth to buy friendship and affection. The playboy and aspiring Hollywood producer lived in a Peter Pan fantasy world of opulence and self-indulgence. Above all, he was totally dominated and dependent on his father.
Dodi endured an isolated and loveless childhood in Alexandria, Egypt, while his father built his vast fortune. His mother, Samira, was the sister of the Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi. Her marriage to Fayed was brief, turbulent and ended in divorce after he confessed to an affair. Dodi was barely one year old when he went to live with his father, but Fayed was often away on business trips and the absence of a real family had a profound impact. He constantly cried and screamed during the night. When there, his father would comfort Dodi in a shared bed, and spend over-generously on toys, mainly teddy bears and model aircraft, the next morning.
When I asked Fayed about his son after he died, he hinted at the problems. “He was my son,” he told me. “He made mistakes, you get upset, you give him hell, but he’s your boy, your blood. We were very close. I gave him everything. He slept in my bed at night in Egypt and London until he was 14 and then he went to school.”
Children and family were incredibly important to Fayed. And while Dodi’s inability to focus on anything infuriated his father, his pride and ego could not accept that his son was a failure. The truth about Dodi’s much-hyped credit as executive producer of the Oscar-winning movie Chariots of Fire was that his involvement was minimal. His father’s funding of the film was at the behest of a Hollywood executive and Dodi, according to Fayed’s biographer Tom Bower, spent most of that time snorting cocaine in London. “On a rare visit to the set where the ‘Chariots’ training scenes were being shot in Scotland, he even handed out cocaine to the cast,” stated Bower. “‘Get out!’, Puttnam [the actual producer] told Dodi. ‘Don’t ever come back again’.”
The unexpected success of Chariots of Fire should have transformed Dodi’s life as a successful film executive. But he squandered the opportunity on expensive junkets and showering gifts on actors like Brooke Shields and Koo Stark with no chance of earning back his reckless spending. His father was furious and abruptly halted his son’s £150,000 per month allowance. Their relationship was frozen.
And yet when I asked Fayed about his son’s career, he could not bring himself to acknowledge the fallout. “Dodi enjoyed the fantasy of making movies,” he told me. “He took several courses in film production and finance in Los Angeles.” “Did he have a problem with money?” I asked. “Never,” lied Fayed. “He was level-headed, and people take advantage, but everybody makes mistakes.”
Ultimately, Dodi was a gentle, kind but dysfunctional Playboy whose vulnerability and quiet charm appealed to famous glamorous but troubled women. In early 1997 the most famous troubled woman was Princess Diana. Mohamed Al-Fayed had long courted Diana and regarded himself as a surrogate father. “She grew up with no family,” he told me. “She had selfish parents. Her mother and her father were absent, left her with nannies… She was looking for the right man who could compensate for what she missed during her childhood. Unfortunately, her husband [Prince Charles] was married to her because she was beautiful, provided an heir and then he left, had fun and continued with his old life. She was there as an incubator.”
But Fayed’s motives were far from altruistic. For the previous decade, he believed sponsoring polo matches, donating to their favourite charities and selling shirts to Prince Charles through his shop Turnbull and Asser would result in social recognition. But when this strategy failed, he turned on them. “I met Prince Charles a few times”, he told me. “He has a lot of nice things about him but has the wrong people around him and he listens to them. I call them the ‘Uppers’ – people who talk through their nose, snobs… The problem is he grew up in boarding schools away from his family.”
After the Diana-Charles divorce, Fayed regarded himself as the Princess’ confidante and protector. They first met in 1986 when they were introduced at a polo tournament sponsored by Harrods. She found his mischievous sense of humour and eccentricities refreshing in contrast to the formal, detached manner of the courtiers. “I know he’s naughty but that’s all,” she once remarked. He even allowed Diana and her sons late shopping trips at Harrods.
“I gave her advice about people approaching her, wanting to make business and exploit her,” he told me. “People were trying to cash in, do interviews and I told her it was the wrong thing… She regretted the interview with Martin Bashir – definitely. It was not good for her image.” Instead, he encouraged Princess Diana to focus on charities.
By the Summer of 1997, I was busy writing the manuscript. Titled Fire with Fire, I focused on Fayed’s career battles – from his impoverished upbringing in Alexandria, to his first business deals with Khashoggi, his “fake Sheikh” persona in Haiti, his epic and ferocious business war with Tiny Rowland over his ownership of Harrods and his secret payments to Conservative MPs.
Suddenly my access to Fayed stopped and I could not understand why. Then on 18 July 1997, the newspapers solved the mystery for me. Princess Diana had accepted the tycoon’s invitation for a family holiday in St Tropez. Dodi’s father had ordered him to fly to the Riviera and join the Princess and her sons. When I later asked Fayed if he arranged the holiday as a catalyst for the romance, I found his answer disingenuous.
“Dodi was a grown-up guy,” he told me. “I didn’t interfere in his life. If Diana liked him and they fall in love, this is life… I told my son. Just go out and enjoy… Diana was alone and suffering. She needed support, security and guidance because there were so many wolves and crooks surrounding her. She stayed in my guest house with her boys, and she was especially close to Prince William.”
I found the notion Fayed did not influence or manipulate Dodi’s relationship with Diana as risible. But he was not always in control. He told me of one episode about their relationship that angered him deeply. One evening the couple had dinner at his Park Lane apartment and Diana invited a clairvoyant. “I am against these types of people,” he told me. “I don’t know why she had the itch to talk to fortune tellers. You can be influenced by such people who tell you what’s going to happen to you. Then it sticks in your brain and then all the time you are in a state of panic and you don’t know what to do. Why didn’t she tell Diana she is going to be murdered or be killed? I later shouted at Dodi and he said Diana wanted to see the fortune teller and so he just kept her company.”
I met Dodi on Sunday 17 August 1997, two weeks before the fatal crash. Princess Diana was on holiday in Greece with her friend Rosa Monckton, courtesy of Fayed’s Gulfstream private jet. I was interviewing his father in the tent and his son came in. I found Dodi shy and polite, but lacking in curiosity and humour. My impression from his demeanour was that unless you were wealthy or a celebrity he was not interested. Fayed asked whether he had spoken to “her” and he replied, “not yet” and left.
My thoughts on the reality of Dodi’s relationship with Diana are based on what I saw and was told at the time. Yes, the couple had a summer romance. Dodi bought a diamond engagement ring and planned to propose, Fayed told me, and the couple were to marry in October and move into the Duke of Windsor house just outside Paris.
But when I pressed him on whether Dodi had actually proposed, he just said: “They were very close and were going to live together.” And, of course, none of us know if Diana would have accepted the proposal – unlikely but not impossible. As for the other big rumour at the time? No, I don’t believe she was pregnant.
Like most people, I heard the unbearably sad and shocking news of Diana and Dodi’s death early on Sunday morning, 31 August 1997. At 12.45pm, Fayed had been called by a bodyguard and immediately flew by helicopter from his Surrey mansion to France. He was in a state of shock but surprisingly calm. “When you are faced with such devastation, what are you going to do?”, he later told me. “You try and digest the situation but it’s God’s wish.
“You just have to stand tall and believe in God. But losing Dodi was very painful, like having one of my legs chopped off. Diana suffered a lot in her life, especially in her marriage, but I believe she died very happy. I believe we go to another life and world, and you live with what you have done in life.”
In the days before the funeral, Fayed received condolence letters from the Queen, Prince Edward, Princess Michael of Kent and Duchess of Gloucester but nothing from Prince Charles, Andrew or Phillip. “It showed their hypocrisy,” he told me. “They are the stuffy people who advise the crown who come from another planet and live in the 18th century. It was the British people who sent me thousands of letters. They appreciated Dodi who gave Diana the happiness she was looking for. It is the ordinary people that count. They gave me comfort in my grief.”
I was not convinced by Fayed’s passionate alignment with the masses. He portrayed Princess Diana as anti-establishment and hence a kindred spirit. “She was never one of them. She was one of us,” he told me. But while Diana undoubtedly connected emotionally with ordinary people, she was from impeccable aristocratic stock. And my overriding memory of spending hours with Fayed was his burning resentment at being rejected by the British establishment. He was desperate for recognition by the ruling class.
Meanwhile, I had submitted my manuscript as Fayed’s ghostwriter but it was not well-received. His advisers expected a memoir chronicling the tycoon as a brilliant entrepreneur – not a series of epic controversies with British political, royal and commercial elites. The book was rejected and never published.
Like many parents of children who die young in tragic accidents (Dodi was 42), Fayed resorted to delusional conspiracy theories that his son and Princess Diana were murdered. The last time I saw Fayed on 29 October 1997, he could not make up his mind whether it was MI6 or MI5 or some members of the senior royals or other aristocrats on Diana’s side, or a combination of all of them who orchestrated what he insisted was a state-sponsored “assassination”.
During my conversations, Fayed was always prone to conspiracy theories, usually fantasies about politicians conspiring against him. He could not acknowledge the brutal truth that he authorised the decision for Dodi and Diana to leave the Ritz Hotel that night, the driver was allegedly drunk and speeding in an attempt to avoid the chasing paparazzi. For Fayed to accept such an unpalatable reality would have meant a recognition of his own culpability. The reality was just too painful.