King Fahd laid to rest

RIYADH (Agencies) — King Fahd was laid to rest in an unmarked desert grave Tuesday after his body, wrapped in a simple brown robe, was borne from a prayer service by his sons.

His Majesty King Abdullah, US Vice President Dick Cheney and other world leaders headed to Saudi Arabia to pay their condolences and honour Crown Prince Abdullah’s accession to the throne as the sixth king of the wealthy oil power.

King Abdullah was accompanied by Their Royal Highnesses Princes Feisal, Hamzah and Hashim.

Also, Her Majesty Queen Rania, accompanied by Princess Noor Hamzah, extended her deepest sympathy to Princess Jawhara Bent Ibrahim, the wife of the late King. The Jordanian delegation included Prime Minister Adnan Badran, Senate President Zeid Rifai, Royal Court Chief Faisal Fayez, Lower House Speaker Abdul Hadi Majali, Chief Islamic Justice and King’s Adviser for Islamic Affairs Izzeddine Khatib Tamimi, King’s Adviser Ahmad Hilayel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs-of-Staff General Khaled Sarayreh.

Saudis lined up after the burial to pay respects to the 81-year-old Abdullah, a day before tribal leaders, top clerics and officials swear their loyalty to him in a traditional Islamic investiture ceremony.

Western leaders — including France’s Jacques Chirac — were expected to meet with Abdullah separately Wednesday to congratulate him and express their condolences for Fahd’s death.

King Abdullah, who has been the de facto ruler for the past decade during Fahd’s illness, has worked to seal a bond with US President George W. Bush after US-Saudi ties were strained by the September 11 attacks. He has waged a crackdown against Al Qaeda-linked militants for the past two years and started initial steps of democratic reform.

The investiture ceremony — an Islamic tradition known as “bayah” — will seal what the royal family has been eager to show as a swift and orderly handover of power, the first in 23 years, in a kingdom beset by worries over the future.

Security was tight during Tuesday’s funeral ceremonies for Fahd, who died early Monday at the age of 84.

Anti-terrorist forces with automatic weapons, backed by armoured vehicles, lined up outside Riyadh’s Imam Turki Ben Abdullah Mosque where a prayer for the dead was held before the burial. The entire neighbourhood was closed off and shops shut.

Security agents in green berets circulated among the heads of states from Islamic nations and Saudi princes who packed the mosque. Mourners were asked to leave their own prayer rugs and other items outside as they entered the mosque, where they were given others to use.

Snipers overlooked the Al Oud cemetery where Fahd’s body was buried.

Austerity was the theme for the ceremonies for one of the world’s richest monarchs, who had multiple private palaces in Saudi Arabia, Europe and the Middle East. Ceremonies were simple, despite the presence of royals — including the emirs of Gulf nations and the sultan of Brunei — and presidents of Islamic and Arab powerhouses like Egypt, Syria and Pakistan.

King Abdullah and about 300 male family members, some carrying colourful umbrellas to ward off the punishing sun, gathered for the burial at Al Oud cemetery, a desert plain with patches of brush among piles of dirt and small uninscribed stones to mark the graves.

King Fahd’s body, wrapped in a white shroud, was lowered into the grave by his sons amid silence among the mourners.

Islam stresses the equality of all people in death, frowns on weeping and other public displays of grief and discourages the visiting of graves.

Earlier, the heads of state and dignitaries crowded the Imam Turki Mosque for the prayer for the dead, along with thousands of Saudi princes decked out in red headdresses, white robes and their best brown and black cloaks, embroidered with gold and doused with perfumes.

King Fahd’s body was brought in, wrapped in his plain brown cloak on a wooden plank carried by his sons, and placed in the middle of the mosque amid the crowd. The mourners, including King Abdullah, stood for a special prayer for the dead, some with tears in their eyes.

The crowd raised their arms and chanted “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great” during the two-minute prayer.

Afterward, King Fahd’s body was carried back out to an ambulance for a procession of cars to the cemetery.

King Abdullah sat in a chair in the mosque, greeted by Saudis and heads of state — including the Iraq’s Kurdish president and Shiite Muslim prime minister. Some kissed King Abdullah’s right shoulder in a traditional sign of respect, others kissed his cheeks or shook his hand.

Among them was Saad Hariri, the son of Lebanon’s slain former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, who was a close family friend of Fahd and was assassinated in a bomb blast in Beirut in February.

“This year has been bad. With the death of His Majesty King Fahd, I’ve lost two fathers,” Saad Hariri said, tears in his eyes.

Elsewhere, King Fahd’s female relatives held a “majlis” or “council” to receive condolences from women, in accordance with Wahhabism’s strict segregation of the sexes. King Fahd had at least three wives and five daughters in addition to his seven sons.

Saudis flocked to honor King Abdullah, lining up at the royal court after the burial. Saudi and pan-Arab newspapers were packed with poems and tributes to the late king and vows of loyalty to King Abdullah.

“Saudi Arabia bids farewell to King Fahd on his way to paradise,” proclaimed a large front-page headline on the Saudi daily Al Jazeera.

Businessmen, government agencies and private individuals took out full page condolence advertisements with large photos of the late monarch. Satellite TV stations seen across the Arab world, many of them Saudi-owned, had wall-to-wall Fahd tributes.

Wednesday’s “bayah” ceremony is crucial, a traditional Islamic ritual by which the people personally give their consent to the new absolute ruler. With it, Abdullah — who has been limited by his unofficial status as leader — gains the legitimacy of a full king.

In theory, the ceremony is open to all citizens to express their fealty. But like Tuesday’s events, it will probably be limited to the most powerful figures — tribal chiefs, the Islamic clerical hierarchy, government officials, princes and businessmen — for security reasons. Saudi Arabia’s third king, Faisal, was assassinated by a nephew during a public audience in 1975.

When King Fahd’s death was announced early Monday and Prince Abdullah was named king, King Fahd’s brother Prince Sultan was made the new crown prince — next in line for succession.

The transition smooths over a potential long-term rivalry between King Abdullah and the circle of King Fahd’s full brothers known as the Sudairi Seven, after their mother. All are sons of Saudi Arabia’s founder, Abdul-Aziz Ben Saud, who had numerous wives.

The Sudairi Seven dominate the government’s most powerful posts. While they will stay in their positions, King Abdul-Aziz’s grandsons are looking for position, with an eye on the still unclear succession in the years ahead when King Abdullah and Prince Sultan’s aging generation moves aside.

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