Heads of state from around the world jetted into the Saudi capital of Riyadh amid tight security today to attend the funeral of King Fahd, the oil-rich country’s ruler for almost a quarter of a century who died yesterday from a long illness.
King Fahd, the country’s absolute monarch since 1982 until he was debilitated by a 1995 stroke, died early yesterday aged 84 after nearly two months in a Riyadh hospital.
His half brother, the former Crown Prince Abdullah, was quickly installed as the successor to the Saudi throne and will lead the procession of thousands of mourners attending prayer and burial services for Fahd in Riyadh’s Old City.
Saudi officials said there would be no state funeral for Fahd – a tradition they say is not part of the kingdom’s strict version of Islam known as Wahhabism.
Saudis woke today to daily newspapers filled with stories and eulogies to Fahd, who because of ill-health played little role in running the country’s affairs during the past decade, handing over day-to-day control to Abdullah.
The English-language daily Arab News praised Fahd’s commitment to Arab and Islamic unity, but said the late king would take to his grave the “disappointment” of not being able to solve the Palestinian crisis despite a Saudi peace proposal offered in 2002 to Israel.
“It is a sad day for us, but the loss of Fahd is a harsh reality that we have to face,” said Khaled Saleh, a 30-year-old hotel customer relations manager.
Another Riyadh resident, Abdullah al-Dokry, 30, said he was “worried about the future of our country” and said “more energetic people are needed to take us into the future.” Abdullah is 81 and his successor as crown prince, half brother Sultan, is 77.
“These are tough times for us,” said al-Dokry.
Security forces erected multiple checkpoints and locked down the motorcade route from the city centre to the airport, where Saudi officials in flowing robes and traditional Arab head-dresses waited in searing summer heat to greet arriving presidents from Arab countries, Afghanistan and African states such as Senegal.
Western leaders and dignitaries including Prince Charles, French President Jacques Chirac and Australia’s governor general will also arrive in Riyadh to pay their respects to Fahd. A US delegation will also attend.
Thousands of forces have been deployed to the capital, including several hundred police and anti-terrorism personnel in and around the 6,000-capacity Mosque of Imam Turki bin Abdullah, where a pre-burial funeral service for Fahd will be held later today.
Saudi Arabia has been on high alert for terror attacks during the past two years amid a violent campaign waged by Islamic militants allied to Saudi dissident and al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, who has vowed to topple the ruling royal family for its close ties to the US.
Shops and roads in a 200 metre area around the Imam Turki bin Abdullah mosque were closed by police, who used sniffer dogs and X-ray devices to check any cars stopping in the area to attend the prayer service.
Most of the mourners expected to crowd the mosque, Riyadh’s largest Islamic shrine, will come from among the Saudi royal family itself, which is believed to include more than 10,000 princes.
Fahd’s body will be taken by ambulance from the King Faisal Specialist Hospital where he died to the mosque in the Deira neighbourhood of Riyadh’s Old City, at which a short prayer service will be held.
Shortly after, an ambulance will ferry his body to the al-Oud cemetery some 3 miles away, where his three predecessors as king – half brothers Saud, Faisal and Khaled – are also buried, along with commoners.
There are no gravestones or tombs for any of the kings, only piles of dirt and a simple stone at each grave with no name or inscription.
Countries from all over the globe have sent their condolences following the death of Fahd, who as Saudi’s ruler has controlled the world’s largest oil reserves and been custodian of Islam’s two holiest shrines in Mecca and Medina.