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The Muslim World

King Abdullah dies, Salman Bin Abdulaziz is new King of Saudi Arabia

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah died on Friday Jan 23 and was replaced by his half-brother Salman Bin Abdulaziz as King and Custodian of the two Holy Mosques.

Global leaders paid tribute to the late monarch, seen as a cautious reformer who led his kingdom through a turbulent decade in a region shaken by the Arab Spring uprisings and extremism.

The royal court said in a statement that Abdullah, believed to be around 90, died at 1am local time, expressing its "great sadness and mourning".

Salman, 79, had been Defence Minister and previously Governor of the capital Riyadh.

Another of the late monarch's half-brothers, Muqrin, was named the new Crown Prince.

King Abdullah was laid to rest after Friday prayer in Riyadh. Besides the number of the royal family and the Saudi elite, a large number of people and foreign leaders gathered in the capital for the funeral.

Prominent among them were the Gulf rulers Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Funeral prayer was held at Riyadh’s Imam Turki bin Abdullah mosque.

Abdullah’s shrouded body was borne on a simple litter by members of the royal family wearing traditional red-and-white checked shemagh head gears. The body was quickly moved to nearby al-Od public cemetery where it was buried.

Citizens were invited to pledge allegiance to Salman at the royal palace. King Salman named the interior minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, as second in line to the throne. He also appointed one of his sons, Prince Mohammed, as defence minister.

Under Abdullah, who took the throne in 2005, Saudi Arabia has been a key ally of Washington in the Arab world, most recently joining the US-led coalition carrying out air strikes against the Daesh group in Syria and Iraq.

US President Barack Obama was quick to pay tribute to Abdullah as a valued ally.

"As our countries worked together to confront many challenges, I always valued King Abdullah's perspective and appreciated our genuine and warm friendship," Obama said in a written statement shortly after the monarch's death.

"The closeness and strength of the partnership between our two countries is part of King Abdullah's legacy."

Other tributes came in from Japan, India and France, whose President Francois Hollande hailed Abdullah as "a statesman whose work profoundly marked the history of his country."

During the next two days more foreign leaders flocked to Saudi Arabia paying their respects to King Salman as the normally gridlocked streets of Riyadh turned quiet on a day of mourning for his predecessor Abdullah.

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

US President Barack Obama cut short his visit to India to travel to the kingdom on Jan 27.

Earlier on Jan 25 Obama “called King Salman bin Abdulaziz from Air Force One to personally express his sympathies.

Other guests included French President Francois Hollande, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla, European royalty and Jordan’s King Abdullah II. Prince Charles and Prime Minister David Cameron came from Britain.

King Salman, declared on Jan 25 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.

Dignitaries greeted Salmon and his heir Crown Prince Moqren, 69, on Jan 25 at Al-Yamamah Palace, the royal court.

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran was among the guests, making a rare visit as Tehran tries to improve relations with Saudi Arabia.

Both Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko joined the well-wishers.

Others to arrive were Singapore’s Home Affairs Minister Teo Chee Hean arrived, as did Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, and Libya’s internationally-recognised Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani.

Salman, the new king, is widely expected to follow closely in Abdullah's footsteps, in foreign and energy policy as well as in making moderate reforms to the conservative kingdom.

Abdullah pushed through cautious changes while in power, challenging conservatives with moves such as including women in the Shura Council.

He promoted the kingdom's economic development and oversaw its accession to the World Trade Organization, tapping into the country's massive oil wealth to build new economic cities, universities and high-speed railways.

Salman is a stalwart of the royal family credited with transforming Riyadh during his half-century as governor from a backwater to a thriving capital.

Recent years have seen concerns over his health after operations on his back, but Salman took on an increasingly high-profile role as Abdullah's own health issues forced him from the limelight.

Challenges ahead

Abdullah named Muqrin as deputy crown prince last March, in an unprecedented move aimed at smoothing succession hurdles.

Muqrin, a former intelligence chief, was a trusted confidant of Abdullah with a reputation as a liberal.

A former air force officer born in 1945, Muqrin is the youngest son of King Abdul Aziz Bin Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia.

Since King Abdul Aziz's death in 1952 the throne has systematically passed from one of his sons to another.

The new king will face some major challenges, especially as falling oil prices cut into state revenues.

Saudi Arabia has managed to avoid the social upheaval that has shaken many of its neighbours in recent years, thanks in large part to massive public spending.

The country has amassed enormous financial reserves, but has already projected a huge deficit of $38.6 billion for this year.

Many Saudis turned to social media to mourn the king.

The broadcaster who read the announcement of his death wearing a dark robe and traditional shemagh head covering, Abdullah Al Shihri, said on Twitter it had pained him to break the news.

"I did not wish to announce this news," he wrote. "May God have mercy on Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz. Sincere prayers for his successor and crown prince." Another Twitter user, Shaima, said: "We didn't lose a king, we all lost a father".