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World leaders head to Saudi to offer condolences to new king

Dignitaries from around the globe arrive in Saudi to meet King Salman
Mourners gather around the grave of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah at the Al-Oud cemetery in Riyadh on 23 January, 2015 following his death in the early hours of the morning (AFP)

Dignitaries and leaders from around the world were due to arrive in Saudi Arabia on Saturday to offer their condolences to its new King Salman, a day after the death of his half-brother King Abdullah.

Abdullah, who is often portrayed as a cautious reformer, died early on Friday aged about 90 after being hospitalised with pneumonia.

World leaders praised the late king as a key mediator between Muslims and the West, but campaigners criticised his human rights record and urged Salman to do more to protect freedom of speech and women's rights.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, Prince Charles and French President Francois Hollande were among the first leaders expected while US Vice President Joe Biden was expected to arrive in the coming days.

Since he took the throne in 2005, Riyadh has been a key Arab ally of Washington, last year joining the coalition carrying out air strikes against the Islamic State group.

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.

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.

Iran said its Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif would take part in an official ceremony in the Saudi capital on Saturday.

In the 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.

International condolences: from Tehran to Tel Aviv 

President Barack Obama paid tribute to Abdullah as a "valued" ally as the State Department indicated cooperation between Washington and Riyadh would continue.

Iranian officials, including President Hassan Rouhani, offered their condolences Friday.

Former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, known for his strong personal relations with the kingdom, called the country a friend and said: "For the deceased I ask for vast blessings from God, for his family and dynasty."

Referring to its new ruler, King Salman, Rafsanjani added: "For your excellency I wish success in consolidating the unity of the Islamic world, prosperity, coexistence and brotherhood of the two nations of Iran and Saudi Arabia under the lofty teachings of Islam."

A number of Arab states, including members of the Gulf Cooperation Council and Lebanon, declared a state of mourning over the Saudi king's death.

President Sisi of Egypt has expressed his sadness over the death of the monarch. 

"The Egyptian people will not forget the historic stands of King Abdullah towards Egypt and its people," a presidential statement said, as Cairo declared mourning to honour the passing of the King. 

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood movement – which Riyadh declared a "terrorist" organization last year - has also mourned King Abdullah, despite the Saudi monarch's backing of the military coup against former president Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected leader.

"Our sincere condolences to the ruling royal family & the people of Saudi Arabia on the death of King Abdullah. May Allah have mercy on his soul," the movement said on Twitter.

The Brotherhood's statement, however, is seen as in line with the Islamic tradition of not speaking ill of the dead during the days of mourning.  

The Palestinian movement Hamas mourned the death of King Abdullah, praising his "generous" support for the Palestinian people and "honourable positions" for their cause.

"The Hamas movement extends its sincerest condolences to Saudi Arabia, its monarch, government and people over the death of King Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said in a statement.

Israel's former president Shimon Peres Friday praised King Abdullah's role in putting forward the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which Israel had rejected.

"I'm not sure that we could have accepted all the items in the peace process but the spirit, the strength and the wisdom invested in it" led to a process that serves still as "a powerful base for making peace," the former Israeli president told reporters on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos.

King Abdullah II of Jordan and other Middle Eastern dignitaries left the Davos World Economic Forum on Friday, flying home early on news of the death of the Saudi king, event organisers told AFP.

Saudis turn to Twitter to mourn king

Many Saudis took to the internet to praise the deceased monarch but some, including campaigners for free speech and women's right to drive, were less flattering.

Abdullah was "loved by the Saudi people and the entire Muslim population. We did not lose a king today, we all lost a father," Ameera Al Taweel said in one of thousands of Twitter messages.

Saudi Army News, an official account, expressed condolences and said: "This Twitter account will stop tweeting for three days in mourning of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, may God rest his soul."

Many tweeted a hadith, or saying of the Prophet Mohammed, that death on a Friday means that one's life ended well.

Some talked of the development Abdullah fostered in the kingdom.

"Spending was generous and golden projects in all regions," wrote Naif al-Qarni.

In a country where official media are tightly controlled, the internet offers more freedom for Saudis to communicate.

But the kingdom's record on free speech was highlighted in the final weeks of Abdullah's rule by the case of Raef Badawi, a blogger sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in jail.

Badawi's Twitter account retweeted a comment on Abdullah's death saying: "God forgive him and have mercy on him."

A minority of those posting comments were unimpressed by the king's accomplishments.

He was "neither a reformer nor leader" Usamah Mohammad said in a tweet.

Abdullah is succeeded by his half-brother Salman, 79, whose Twitter account had already been updated.

"The official account of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, King of Saudi Arabia", it said, referring to the kingdom's hosting of Islam's holiest sites.