World leaders pay respects on Saudi day of mourning

Ian Timberlake
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French President Francois Hollande (right) expresses his condolences to Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz at the Diwan royal palace in Riyadh, on January 24, 2015

French President Francois Hollande (right) expresses his condolences to Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz at the Diwan royal palace in Riyadh, on January 24, 2015 (AFP Photo/Yoan Valat)

Riyadh (AFP) - More foreign leaders flocked to Saudi Arabia paying their respects to King Salman on Sunday, as the normally gridlocked streets of Riyadh turned quiet during a day of mourning for his predecessor Abdullah.

The latest arrivals included Japan's Crown Prince Naruhito, Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani, Belgium's King Philippe, Libya's internationally-recognised Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani, and President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela.

From across the Arab and Muslim worlds, from Europe, Asia, and America, presidents, prime ministers and sheikhs have flown in to express condolences.

It is a recognition of the Islamic kingdom's power as the world's leading oil exporter, a political heavyweight in a region threatened by extremist violence, and as home to Islam's holiest sites.

Salman, 79, acceded to the throne on Friday after Abdullah's death at the age of about 90.

US President Barack Obama announced he would cut short a visit to India to travel to the kingdom on Tuesday.

Saudi Arabia has long been a key United States ally and since last year has been part of the US-led coalition carrying out air strikes against the Islamic State jihadist group.

Salman, a half-brother of Abdullah who reigned for almost a decade, declared Sunday a nationwide holiday "to provide comfort and facilitation to all citizens in offering condolences" and allegiance to the new monarch, the official Saudi Press Agency said.

- Low-key mourning -

Dignitaries greeted Salmon and his heir Crown Prince Moqren, 69, on Saturday night at Al-Yamamah Palace, the royal court.

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif of Shiite-dominated Iran was among the guests, making a rare visit as Tehran tries to improve relations with its Sunni regional rival.

Both Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko joined the well-wishers, even as pro-Kremlin rebels announced a major new offensive on a strategic government-held Ukrainian port.

Other guests included French President Francois Hollande, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Jordan's King Abdullah II. Prince Charles and Prime Minister David Cameron came from Britain.

Outside, a helicopter patrolled and four lanes of cars -- everything from luxury Bentleys to everyday models -- inched towards the palace grounds carrying Saudi well-wishers past guards with pistols strapped to their thighs.

Away from the palace and nearby roadblocks, life continued with shops open and almost no indication a new era had begun, except for billboards expressing condolences for Abdullah's death.

A low-key way of mourning and Abdullah's burial in an unmarked grave reflect the kingdom's adherence to the austere teachings of 18th century Muslim scholar Mohammed bin Abdul Wahhab.

"What is not encouraged in sharia is to be hysterical" in grief, said Khalid al-Dakhil, an independent political analyst and expert on Wahhabism.

He was referring to Islamic sharia law that governs religious and secular duties in the kingdom.

- Global tributes -

Millions of Saudis would likely visit local government headquarters to offer condolences and allegiance, Dakhil said, but others would pledge "just in their hearts".

That is exactly what one woman living in eastern Saudi Arabia did.

"Of course I pledged allegiance but with my heart, like my husband said I should," said the woman, the wife of an imam in the conservative kingdom. She declined to be named.

An unemployed graduate, who gave his name only as Waleed, said:

"If I pledge or not, will it make a difference?"

He joked that if he finds work he will express allegiance "maybe next year".

Youth unemployment was 28 percent in the first half of last year, according to official data cited by Jadwa Investment.

World leaders have praised Abdullah as a key mediator between Muslims and the West, but activists criticised his human rights record and urged Salman to do more to protect free speech and freedoms for women.

Salman pledged to keep the kingdom on a steady course and acted to cement his hold on power with key appointments.

Saudi Arabia has been the force behind a refusal by the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to slash crude output in support of prices, which have fallen by more than 50 percent since June.

Salman is widely expected to follow Abdullah's foreign and energy policies as well as moderate reforms.

Abdullah built new cities, universities and railways.

The Al-Hayat newspaper carried full-page advertisements pledging support for Salman and condolences on the death of Abdullah.

A cartoon in the daily pictured a Saudi couple in tearful prayer before a smiling Abdullah waving from a framed portrait.

"Rest in peace and may you go to paradise," the couple said.