World leaders head to Saudi after king’s death

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World leaders headed to Saudi Arabia Saturday to offer condolences following the death of King Abdullah, with US President Barack Obama cutting short a trip to India to pay respects.
Obama had been scheduled to visit the Taj Mahal but cancelled that following the death of Abdullah and will travel to Riyadh on Tuesday to meet new King Salman, the White House said.
Since Abdullah took the throne in 2005, Saudi Arabia has been a prime Arab ally of Washington, and last year joined the coalition carrying out air strikes against the Islamic State jihadist group.
Other dignitaries arrived in Riyadh on Saturday to pay respects, including Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, on a rare visit to the regional rival.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, Prince Charles and French President Francois Hollande were among other leaders expected to fly in to offer condolences.
Abdullah was a cautious reformer who led the Gulf state through a turbulent decade in a region shaken by the Arab Spring uprisings and Islamic extremism.
He died on Friday at the age of about 90 after being hospitalised with pneumonia.
World leaders have praised the king as a key mediator between Muslims and the West, but campaigners criticised his rights record and urged Salman to do more to protect freedom of speech and women’s rights.
Gulf rulers, and leaders including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, were among those who attended Abdullah’s traditionally simple funeral at Riyadh’s Imam Turki bin Abdullah mosque on Friday.
Africa was also represented, with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
President Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon and other leaders from the continent arrived on Saturday to pay respects.
On Friday the late king’s body, wrapped in a cream-coloured shroud, was borne on a litter by members of the royal family wearing red-and-white checked headgear.
The body was quickly moved to nearby Al-Od public cemetery and buried, in a grave marked only by a book-sized plain grey stone.
Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas and Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak arrived later to deliver condolences, as did Iraqi President Fuad Masum.
Masum had met with Abdullah last November, helping to repair long-strained relations between the neighbours.
On Friday evening hundreds of Saudis queued to enter a royal palace where they rubbed cheeks and kissed the hands of their new leaders, in a symbolic pledge of allegiance.
Mourning ceremonies were planned for Saturday and Sunday evenings at another palace, official media said.
– Valued ally –
Obama paid tribute to Abdullah as a “valued” ally as the State Department indicated cooperation between Washington and Riyadh would continue.
Salman pledged to keep the conservative, oil-rich Muslim kingdom on a steady course and moved to cement his hold on power.
In his first public statement as king, Salman, 79, vowed to “remain, with God’s strength, attached to the straight path that this state has walked since its establishment”.
He called for “unity and solidarity” among Muslims and vowed to work in “the defence of the causes of our nation”.
Moving to clear uncertainty over the transition to the next generation, he named his nephew, Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 55, as second in line to the throne behind Crown Prince Moqren, 69.
That helps to solidify control by his Sudayri branch of the royal family.
Salman also appointed one of his own sons, Prince Mohammed, as defence minister of the world’s leading oil exporter and the spiritual home of Islam.
“In spite of all the earlier articles and fears surrounding the succession, the Saudi royal family handled the succession without even a hint of crisis, and laid the ground work for the future,” wrote Anthony Cordesman, of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Since the death in 1953 of the kingdom’s founder, King Abdul Aziz bin Saud, the throne has passed systematically from one of his sons to another.
As the top producer in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, Saudi Arabia has been the driving force behind the cartel’s refusal to slash output to support oil prices, which have fallen by more than 50 percent since June.
Ali al-Naimi remains the kingdom’s oil minister, and the International Energy Agency’s chief economist said he did not foresee major policy shifts.
“I expect and hope that they will continue to be a stabilisation factor in the oil markets,” Fatih Birol told AFP.
– Royal family stalwart –
Saudi Arabia is home to Islam’s holiest sites, and its role as a spiritual leader for Sunni Muslims has seen it vying for influence with Shiite-dominated Iran.
Tehran nonetheless offered its condolences and dispatched Zarif.
Behind his thick, jet-black moustache and goatee, Abdullah had a shrewd grasp of regional politics.
Wary of the rising influence of Islamist movements, Saudi Arabia has been a generous supporter of Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi since the army ousted Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt declared seven days of official mourning for Abdullah, and sent its prime minister to the funeral.
Riyadh has also played a key role in supporting opposition to Iranian-backed President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, and will allow US troops to use its territory to train rebel fighters.
Salman is widely expected to follow closely in Abdullah’s footsteps, in foreign and energy policy as well as in making moderate reforms.
Abdullah pushed through cautious changes, challenging conservatives with such moves as including women in the advisory Shura Council.
He promoted economic development and oversaw accession to the World Trade Organization, tapping into massive oil wealth to build new cities, universities and railways.
But the kingdom is still strongly criticised for a dismal human rights record, including the imprisonment and flogging of dissidents. It is also the only country in the world that does not allow women to drive.

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