Obama, world leaders head to Saudi Arabia to offer condolences – Reuters


(Adds White House statement that Obama will visit)

RIYADH Jan 24 (Reuters) – U.S. President Barack Obama will
visit Saudi Arabia on Tuesday to meet its new King Salman after
the death of his predecessor Abdullah on Friday, testimony to
Riyadh’s important role in energy markets and the fight against
Islamist militancy.

Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Britain’s Prime
Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande and
Japan’s Crown Prince Naruhito will visit on Saturday and Sunday
to offer condolences.

Obama will cut short a visit to India to pay his respects
instead of Vice President Joe Biden, who had been scheduled to
fly in from Washington, the White House said on Saturday.

Muslim leaders paid their respects on Friday at Abdullah’s
funeral in Riyadh.

Some international human rights groups, meanwhile, have
called on Western leaders to condemn Saudi Arabia’s record of
crushing dissent and depriving women and foreign workers of
rights instead of praising its late king.

Salman takes charge in Saudi Arabia at a time of deep
uncertainty in the kingdom, surrounded by a region in tumult and
nervous about both Iranian influence and the spread of Islamist
militants.

The kingdom’s role in orchestrating Arab support for joint
action with Western countries against the Islamic State group
has won praise in Washington, while its role as biggest oil
exporter is particularly important at this time of market
instability.

Saudi jets have bombed IS targets in Syria, its top clerics
have issued repeated denunciations of the militant group despite
similarities between its ideology and Wahhabism, and the police
have detained thousands of militant suspects in the past decade.

Salman pledged on Friday to maintain the kingdom’s policies
and kept most of Abdullah’s cabinet, including the oil, finance
and foreign affairs ministers, in place.

Western countries also value the kingdom as an important
market for their defence industries and Salman quickly moved to
appoint his son Prince Mohammed, 35, as his own successor as
Defence Minister, responsible for big arms contracts.

Saudi Arabia observes no official period of mourning, in
keeping with the ascetic traditions of its official Wahhabi
school of Sunni Islam, but the royal court has announced that it
will receive condolences and pledges of allegiance until Sunday.

Late on Friday state television showed princes, Wahhabi
clerics, tribal chiefs, military leaders, major businessmen and
other dignitaries crowding the royal palace to kiss King
Salman’s shoulder or hand.

The king’s rapid appointments of half-brother Muqrin, 69, as
Crown Prince and nephew Mohammed bin Nayef, 55, as Deputy Crown
Prince, appeared to resolve for many years to come speculation
that succession disputes might destabilise the ruling family.

(Reporting By Angus McDowall Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

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