Thousands to say farewell to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah – CNN

(CNN)Thousands are expected to gather at the Grand Mosque in Riyadh on Friday to say farewell to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud, a cautious reformer who succeeded in securing broader freedoms in the conservative kingdom but fell short in gaining greater independence for women.

Abdullah died Thursday, several weeks after the state-run Saudi Press Agency said he was suffering from pneumonia and had been admitted to the hospital. The royal court didn’t release an exact cause of death. He was 90.

To ensure a smooth transition, the kingdom quickly appointed his 79-year-old brother, Salman bin Abdulaziz, to the throne.

Who is Salman bin Abdulaziz?

Ahead of the funeral services — to be held Friday afternoon at Riyadh’s Imam Turki Bin Abdullah Grand Mosque — condolences and remembrances poured in from all corners of the globe.

    “To God we belong and indeed to him we shall return,” said the homepage of the English-language Saudi newspaper Arab News on Friday.

    Bahrain, Jordan and the Palestinian territories declared days of mourning. The U.N. Secretary General praised Abdullah for his Arab Peace Initiative to end the Arab-Israeli conflict. And U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said he will lead a delegation “in the coming days” to pay respect.

    “King Abdullah’s life spanned from before the birth of modern Saudi Arabia through its emergence as a critical force within the global economy and a leader among Arab and Islamic nations,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in a statement.

    A cautious reformer

    King Abdullah became king of the oil-rich nation, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, in August 2005. But he had been running Saudi Arabia since 1996, after his half-brother King Fahd’s stroke.

    In the context of the kingdom’s conservative circles, Abdullah was seen as reformer and often came up against the more hard-line clerics.

    Since ascending to the throne, Abdullah took steps toward broader freedoms and invested some of the country’s vast oil wealth in large-scale education and infrastructure projects.

    “He was really quite (an) extraordinary figure. He was probably the most progressive and liberal minded king of Saudi Arabia since King Faisal, which is a long time ago, in the early 1970s,” CNN’s Fareed Zakaria said about Abdullah, who he described as “much loved.”

    “I had the opportunity to meet with him once and what you got a sense of was somebody who really was determined to move his country forward,” Zakaria said. “It’s a conservative country and a conservative society — and he kept emphasizing that to me — but he was very clear in the direction he wanted to go.”

    However, resistance from conservative factions hindered some of his efforts, leaving many women in particular disappointed by a lack of progress toward greater independence.

    What’s next?

    Under Abdullah’s leadership, the country slowly squashed al Qaeda, capturing or killing its leaders in the kingdom, forcing the remnants underground and sidelining radical preachers.

    It also took a more prominent role in international affairs.

    Last year, it became the lead Arab nation in a U.S.-led coalition to eradicate the ultraradical ISIS group in Iraq and Syria.

    Analysts are predicting a smooth political transition despite the many challenges facing Saudi Arabia, including Iran, the rise of ISIS, the crisis in Yemen, and the drop in oil prices.

    Saudi Arabia has 16% of the world’s known oil reserves, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The country is widely seen as the leader of OPEC and has a large influence on energy prices and political stability in the Middle East.

    “Remember, the last time the price of oil fell like this, the Soviet Union collapsed,” said Zakaria. “That said, the successor is a very competent man.”

    He added: “I don’t expect any major shift, but it marks a big change, and we’ll have to see what the new king is like.”

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