What the Egyptian mogul’s fictional portrayal tells us about identity, ambition, and panache.

In recent weeks, I was stuck in a TikTok loophole watching The Crown’s new season edits. The season focuses on Diana’s last years and sheds light on the Al-Fayeds, an Egyptian family once close to the royal sphere that became a source of much gossip in the press. The stories my parents told me about Princess Diana led me to believe that Arabs liked her because she was dating Dodi Al-Fayed – the son of a Muslim Arab entrepreneur, Mohamed Al-Fayed. Indeed, Mohamed Al-Fayed was even more acclaimed in the region, especially for his business accomplishments and how he “made” it – becoming the prime example of a success story. Al-Fayed’s rags-to-riches storyline took up the entire third episode of season five.

© All rights reserved to Netflix – The Crown Season 5

Al-Fayed appears to be an ambivalent character for multiple reasons. As a child, he sold Coca-Cola on Alexandria’s streets in the 1940s, with an apparent flair for bargaining, in his best interest. As a street vendor, he met the former Duke and his wife while they were visiting Egypt and was instantly enchanted by their opulence and splendour. Throughout the episode, we see Al-Fayed’s fascination with the British crown.

At home that evening, he told his parents about his encounter with much enthusiasm that wasn’t reciprocated. His father viewed the monarchs as invaders, while Al-Fayed saw them as modern examples for ambitious kids like himself. When Al-Fayed spoke, I was reminded of that Arab uncle we all know who praises colonization for bringing “modernity and order” to our lands. Many of us can relate to the conversation in some ways since it illustrates the Foreigner’s Complex, or Oqdet Al-Khawaja. The Foreigner’s Complex is a tendency to love and reduce anything Arabic, especially when Western alternatives are available.

© All rights reserved to Netflix – The Crown Season 5

Following his departure from Egypt, Al-Fayed exhibited an internalized hatred for his poverty-stricken background. He claimed that he had received a British education from an English nanny and was a descendant of a wealthy family working in land farming, cotton harvesting, and other industrial pursuits. The lies about Al-Fayed’s past led to him being nicknamed “the Phoney Pharaoh” by many media outlets. I found these introductory scenes to Al-Fayed’s life somewhat relatable. When I was younger, I also idealized the US and UK for their modernism, ‘quest for human rights’, cool fast-food chains, and ‘laidback’ attitudes and fashion. Al-Fayed and I must have been attracted to the same thing – the glamour of the ‘Modern West’ often associated with The Kennedys and The Windsors.

Over time, Al-Fayed developed a strong admiration for the British Crown and slowly entered the realm of royalty through various business ventures and strong connections. In 1979, he even acquired the prestigious Ritz Palace in Paris, which required extensive proof of funds and a good bank reputation.

During negotiations, Al-Fayed spoke in English to Madame Ritz, who doubted his competence and professional integrity, as well as the idea of selling her palace to the Egyptian mogul. As the scene progresses, reticent behaviors persist, and Al-Fayed suddenly begins talking in his native language. A strange turning point was taking shape. Speaking Arabic to Madame Ritz gave Al-Fayed a sense of pride and vigor. It was almost an act of defiance against her contemptuous attitude.

© All rights reserved to Netflix – The Crown Season 5

The Foreigner’s Complex was evident in his character’s portrayal from the beginning, but this scene undoubtedly gives a new image of Al-Fayed, with his heritage and language central to his personality. Ironically, and despite all his efforts, Al-Fayed was denied British citizenship twice. In a 1995 interview for Vanity Fair, he said:

« I can still hear the prejudice, the racists at the core of the upper class. I live with my Egyptian passport, which is the most fantastic civilization and the most fantastic country in the world »

The Crown’s fifth season offered a fascinating look at the Royals’ lives in the 1990s, along with a semi-relatable character. Between the Foreigner’s Complex, the passive resistance to one’s origins, and the courage and perseverance of Arab immigrants, Al-Fayed is reminiscent of one’s complex relationship with one’s identity, background, and historical figures. In many ways, it served as a reminder that even if you acquire mansions, dress like aristocrats, and frolic with the elite, the West will still remind you that you are an outsider.

Yasmine is a Tunisian-Italian freelance writer based in Amsterdam. Her writings are strongly inspired by her North African upbringing and culture, and her thoughts on identity and diasporic nostalgia. You will mostly find her reporting on societal phenomena in the MENA region, often in relation to digital culture, art, and fashion