Friday, January 23, 2015

Egypt hails late Saudi king as 'just' leader, declares week of mourning

Saudi King Abdullah dies, new ruler is Salman

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah died early on Friday and his brother Salman became king, the royal court in the world's top oil exporter and birthplace of Islam said in a statement carried by state television.

King Salman has named his half-brother Muqrin as his crown prince and heir.

"His Highness Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and all members of the family and the nation mourn the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, who passed away at exactly 1 a.m. this morning," said the statement.

Abdullah, thought to have been born in 1923, had ruled Saudi Arabia as king since 2006, but had run the country as de facto regent for a decade before that after his predecessor King Fahd suffered a debilitating stroke.

At stake with the appointment of Salman as king is the future direction of the United States' most important Arab ally and self-appointed champion of Sunni Islam at a moment of unprecedented turmoil across the Middle East.

Abdullah played a guiding role in Saudi Arabia's support for Egypt's government after the military intervened in 2012, and drove his country's support for Syria's rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad.

King Salman, thought to be 79, has been crown prince and defense minister since 2012. He was governor of Riyadh province for five decades before that.

By immediately appointing Muqrin as his heir, subject to the approval of a family Allegiance Council, Salman has moved to avert widespread speculation about the immediate path of the royal succession in the world's top oil exporter.

Long term challenges
Abdullah pushed cautious changes in the conservative Islamic kingdom including increased women's rights and economic deregulation, but made no moves towards democracy and was a hawk on policy towards rival Iran.

King Salman has been part of the ruling clique of princes for decades and is thought likely to continue the main thrusts of Saudi strategic policy, including maintaining the alliance with the United States and working towards energy market stability.

During his five decades as Riyadh governor he was reputedly adept at managing the delicate balance of clerical, tribal and princely interests that determine Saudi policy, while maintaining good relations with the West.

In the long term Saudi rulers have to manage the needs of a rapidly growing population plagued by structural unemployment, and an economy that remains overly dependent on oil revenue and undermined by lavish subsidies.

Saudi Arabia, which holds more than a fifth of the world's crude oil, also exerts some influence over the world's 1.6 billion Muslims through its guardianship of Mecca and Medina, Islam's holiest sites.

Most senior members of the ruling al-Saud family are thought to favor similar positions on foreign and energy policy, but incoming kings have traditionally chosen to appoint new ministers to head top ministries like oil and finance.

In a country where the big ministries are dominated by royals, successive kings have kept the oil portfolio reserved for commoners and insisted on maintaining substantial spare output capacity to help reduce market volatility.


Saudi's next heir a close confidant of Abdullah

Prince Moqren, named last year as second in line to the Saudi throne, was a trusted confidant of the late King Abdullah with a reputation as a liberal.

Born on September 15, 1945 in Riyadh, Moqren is the youngest of the 35 sons of Abdulaziz bin Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia.

He graduated from Britain's Royal Air Force College and served in the Saudi air force until taking on political roles from 1980.

He was governor of the northern province of Hail, and then of Medina in the west.

In 2005, Moqren was appointed head of Saudi intelligence, a post that helped the prince build a network of international contacts.

In 2012, King Abdullah named him as counsellor and special envoy, and the following year appointed him second deputy prime minister.

Diplomats say Moqren was very close to Abdullah and was frequently entrusted with sensitive assignments.

He has been involved in key foreign policy issues, including in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Yemen, and is known for his open hostility to Iran, Saudi Arabia's Shiite-dominated arch rival across the Gulf.

In an unprecedented move, Abdullah named Moqren as deputy crown prince in March 2014, making him second in line to the throne behind then-Crown Prince Salman.

Analysts say that if Moqren becomes king he is likely to press ahead with the limited economic and social reforms launched by Abdullah in the deeply conservative kingdom.

"Moqren may mark the start of a more accelerated reform programme at home," said Frederic Wehrey, Gulf expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"There is already a great deal of pressure from technocrats and the youthful citizenry for the kingdom to modernise domestically if it is going to compete on the global stage," he said.

Moqren's naming as deputy crown prince was opposed by some members of the royal family, with a quarter of the members of the Council of Allegiance that decides on succession issues reportedly voting against him.

Moqren's mother was Yemeni and he would set a precedent if he accedes to the throne by becoming the first king born to a non-Saudi mother.

Twice married and the father of 15 children, Moqren presides over several associations and social organisations, like many other royals.

Moqren is known for his modesty, and interest in agriculture and astronomy. He is also a staunch supporter of developing e-government services in the ultra-conservative kingdom. 


Saudis swarm Twitter to mourn king

Joining a swarm of Saudis taking to social media on Friday, veteran news broadcaster Abdullah al-Shihri said he would have preferred not to deliver the official announcement that King Abdullah was dead.

"I did not wish to announce this news," said Shihri, who wore a dark robe and traditional shemagh head covering to deliver the announcement from the royal court.

"May God have mercy on Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. Sincere prayers for his successor and crown prince," he wrote.

The ailing Abdullah died early Friday aged about 90, after almost a decade on the throne.

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."

Rights group Amnesty International said earlier that Saudi Arabia had postponed for a second time on medical grounds Badawi's flogging, which had been due to resume on Friday. He has already received 50 lashes.

Campaigners for women's right to drive referred only in passing to the king's death, saying on their Twitter account: "For all creatures whether big or small -- nothing remains but your deeds and your grave -- and only God lasts forever".

They posted a picture of the king but then followed it with photographs of Loujain Hathloul and Maysaa Alamoudi, two women's rights activists detained since early December.

Saudi Arabia, with a population of about 29 million including around 20 million Saudis, is the only country where women are not allowed to drive.

Abdullah had challenged conservatives with moves such as including women in the Shura Council, an advisory body.

A minority of those posting comments were unimpressed by his 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.

Obama hails late Saudi King as 'candid' and courageous friend

US President Barack Obama on Thursday paid tribute to late Saudi King Abdullah as a bold leader who took courageous steps to pursue peace in the Middle East and a valued friend.

"As a leader, he was always candid and had the courage of his convictions," Obama said in a written statement, describing his "genuine and warm friendship" with the king.

President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi declared a week of mourning in Egypt for Saudi King Abdullah who passed away on Friday, praising him as a just leader who had devotedly defended pan-Arabism and Islam.

"The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Arab nation has lost one of its most prominent leaders," read a presidential statement released shortly after the death of the king at 1am on Friday morning.

"History will record the numerous achievements of the deceased to defend Arabism and Islam with honour, justice, pride and courageousness," read the Egyptian statement.

The statement also hailed the late king's support for Cairo, saying, "Egyptian people will never forget King Abdullah's historical stances towards Egypt and its people which reflected wisdom and deep conviction of Arab unity."

"high-level sources" said that President El-Sisi, who was currently in Switzerland for a global economic meeting, has cut short his visit and fly to the oil-rich Gulf kingdom to take part in the funeral on Friday afternoon, and pay respects to the royal family.

Following the death of Abdullah, 90, which was announced on Saudi state television, the throne has passed to his brother Salman.

The late monarch was one of El-Sisi's closest regional allies, offering him vocal support when he came to power following the ouster of president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, and providing Cairo with cash aid and petroleum products.