Riyadh (AFP) -World leaders converged on Saudi Arabia on Saturday to offer condolences following the death of King Abdullah, with US President Barack Obama cutting short a trip to India to pay respects.
One after another, foreign aircraft landed at a Riyadh military base where leaders from Africa, Europe and Asia descended a red-carpeted ramp to be welcomed by officials and served a traditional tiny cup of Arabic coffee.
Since Abdullah ascended 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 extremist group.
Obama “called King Salman bin Abdulaziz from Air Force One today to personally express his sympathies” ahead of his trip to Riyadh on Tuesday to meet new King Salman, the White House said.
Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, also made a rare visit to the regional rival to offer condolences, television pictures showed.
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 about the violence.
Other guests included French President Francois Hollande, Afghanistan’s 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.
They gathered at the Al-Yamamah Palace, the royal court, to line up and greet King Salman, who took the throne after the death of his half-brother on Friday, and his heir Crown Prince Moqren.
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.
Away from the palace and nearby roadblocks, shops were open and life continued with almost no indication that a new era had begun, except for billboards expressing condolences for Abdullah’s death.
The government declared Sunday a holiday so citizens throughout the country could mourn and pledge symbolic allegiance to their new monarch.
Abdullah, who died aged about 90 after being hospitalised with pneumonia, 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.
World leaders have praised him 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.
Other presidents and prime ministers were present on Friday for Abdullah’s traditionally simple funeral and burial.