Harrods, London's ultimate English store, braces for takeover by Egyptian family

Is nothing sacred? Three Egyptian brothers have lodged a compelling bid to take over that most quintessentially English of stores, Harrods. And they are expected to succeed. Standing majestically in London's Knightsbridge, Harrods has for eight years been the focus of a bitter ownership battle. Up until now, a huge Africa-based conglomerate, Lonrho, has been the strongest contender.

But it now seems that Mohammed, Saleh, and Ali al-Fayed, all based in Switzerland, are set to clinch a deal that would give them Harrods for 615 million ($670 million). They already own more than 51 percent of shares in the House of Fraser, the Harrods parent company, and the House of Fraser board favors the takeover. Only last-minute intervention by the Monopolies Commission or by Norman Tebbitt, the secretary of state for trade and industry, would be able to stop the bid by the brothers, who say they have ambitious plans for Harrods.

Some upscale shoppers aver that Fortnum and Mason in Piccadilly has much more class than Harrods. And there are dozens of boutiques scattered thoughout London's chic West End that compete with Harrods' quality merchandise. But Harrods' tradition of high quality, abundant variety, and good service is difficult to equal.

If you want a diamond tiara or a can of coffee, an exercycle or a fiberglass trimaran, a three-piece suit, or a pair of cotton socks, you can get it at Harrods. The store's pet shop can sell you a poisonous snake or a supper dish for Fido. In fact, there's nothing Harrods will not get you if you want it and can pay the price.

The al-Fayed brothers know a good buy when they see it. The brothers own the Ritz Hotel in Paris. They also own a bank in Texas, ships plying the waters of the Persian Gulf, and diverse property interests in New York. There have been rumors that the family is acting as a front for the oil-rich Sultan of Brunei, but Mohammed al-Fayed, the eldest brother, firmly rejects this notion. He says the family is acting on its own behalf.

Nor does he concede that al-Fayed ownership would mean the decline of English standards at Harrods. The family, he notes, has not lived in Egypt for 25 years. Mohammed's son went to Sandhurst Military College. Ali has an English wife.

What will happen to Harrods if it becomes an al-Fayed possession?

There are plans to make room for better displays. A new restaurant may be built. And the brothers hope to use the Harrods name on a wide range of products that would be sold worldwide. Beyond that, however, the emphasis would be on keeping Harrods English.

Inevitably, many Londoners raised their eyebrows about the takeover. One newspaper here illustrated its coverage of the bid with a picture of a sphinx with the name ``Harrods'' printed on its throat. But the brothers are convinced that, if their bid succeeds, customers will notice little different except a steady improvement in the store -- all to an English standard.

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