Under the reign of King Fahd, Saudi Arabia extended its religious influence globally. Part of this expansion resulted from Fahd's need to bolster his religious credentials, given his reputation for gambling on the French Riviera and enjoying the good life in his many palaces in Europe. His palace in Marbella, Spain, had a hundred rooms; he owned a $50 million yacht; and his Boeing 747 was fitted with chandeliers, an elevator, gold bathroom fixtures, and a sauna. Fahd was known for his experience and his competence, but reports of his personal indiscretions proliferated. There were stories that in his youth he drank scotch freely, ordered pounds of caviar, and frequented the nightclubs of Beirut.
Appearances matter for Saudi kings. After all, Fahd, like all Saudi monarchs before him, was also the imam, or religious leader, of the Wahhabi movement. In the early 1960s, King Saud's tarnished religious reputation roused the ulama and eventually led to his ouster. In addition, there were widespread rumors of the royal family's corruption, that Fahd and his brothers earned under-the-table commissions from many of the kingdom's arms purchases. The British newspaper the Observer alleged, for example, that $300 million in commissions was paid as part of the sale of seventy-two Tornado aircraft to the Royal Saudi Air Force in the mid-1980s. Fahd was also increasingly dependent on the American military, given the threat posed by Iran and, to a lesser extent, the Soviet-backed regime in South Yemen.
So in order to retain a free hand in foreign affairs, King Fahd's government had to satisfy the needs of the Wahhabi clerics. Saudi Arabia, therefore, embarked on a massive campaign to bring Wahhabi Islam to the world. Between 1982 and 2002, 1,500 mosques, 210 Islamic centers, and 2,000 schools to educate Muslim children were established in non-Muslim countries alone. Staggering sums of money were involved. According to internal Muslim World League documents, in just a two-year period in the 1980s, the Saudis apparently spent $10 million on mosque construction in the United States. Academic chairs for Islamic Studies were donated at Harvard Law School and at the University of California-Santa Barbara. The Saudis supported Islamic research institutes at American University (in Washington), Howard University, Duke University, and Johns Hopkins University. Islamic academies went up in Moscow and in Washington, D.C.
At the core of this campaign to spread Wahhabi Islam—and thus Saudi influence—were the Islamic charities and organizations; under King Fahd, Saudi Arabia continued to lavishly endow these charities. The Saudis donated billions to the Muslim World League, which had been founded under King Faisal. In addition, the Saudi royal family launched donation campaigns for al-Haramain—an international charitable foundation whose stated purpose was to promote 'correct beliefs' in the hearts of Muslims—as well as for the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO) and the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY). The Muslim Brotherhood refugees who had sought asylum in Saudi Arabia provided critical manpower for the international efforts of several of these organizations, particularly the Muslim World League. The Saudi clergy, including Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Baz, maintained their own Islamic support networks as well.
These Saudi charities allowed the kingdom to spread its political and especially, religious agenda worldwide in the 1980s and 1990s. For example, the charities were pivotal conduits for funding the most extreme Palestinian organizations, including Hamas (the Islamic Resistance Movement). Hamas was a natural Saudi ally, having grown out of the Gaza branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1987.