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Saudi capital turns quiet for day of mourning

Allegiance ceremonies began on Friday night at a palace in a historic quarter of Riyadh. Photo/ AFP

Allegiance ceremonies began on Friday night at a palace in a historic quarter of Riyadh. Photo/ AFP

RIYADH, Jan 25 – The normally gridlocked streets of the Saudi capital were quiet on Sunday after King Salman declared a day of mourning for his predecessor Abdullah, and more foreign leaders made their way to the kingdom.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was travelling to offer condolences to Salman, who 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 US ally and last year joined the US-led coalition carrying out air strikes against the Islamic State jihadist group.

Obama “called King Salman bin Abdulaziz from Air Force One today to personally express his sympathies”, the White House said on Saturday.

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

It is a recognition of the conservative 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, 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.

– Traditional ritual –

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Allegiance ceremonies began on Friday night at a palace in a historic quarter of Riyadh.

An AFP reporter saw hundreds of people lined up outside waiting to enter.

They rubbed cheeks and kissed the hands of the goateed Salman, 79, and his heir Crown Prince Moqren, 69.

On Saturday ceremonies moved to the Al-Yamamah Palace, the royal court, where foreign dignitaries greeted Salman and Moqren.

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 were among the well-wishers, even as pro-Kremlin rebels announced a major new offensive on a strategic government-held Ukrainian port.

Poroshenko had to interrupt his attendance to chair an emergency meeting on the violence.

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.

Outside, a helicopter patrolled overhead 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.

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– Global tributes –

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

He succumbed to pneumonia.

Even before he became king in 2005, Abdullah had been a force for a decade after King Fahd suffered a stroke.

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

“Saudi Arabia is a partner, both economic and political,” Hollande said before his arrival in Riyadh with Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

Salman, 79, pledged to keep the conservative Muslim kingdom on a steady course and acted to cement his hold on power.

Clearing 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 Moqren.

Salman also appointed as defence minister one of his own sons, Prince Mohammed.

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

Maduro, the Venezuelan leader on his way to offer condolences, was in Riyadh just two weeks ago to discuss the price slump which has added to his country’s economic woes.

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

Abdullah pushed through cautious changes, challenging conservatives with such decisions as including women in the advisory Shura Council.

He oversaw accession to the World Trade Organization, and built new cities, universities and railways.

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

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

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

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