Saudi Arabia to bury King Abdullah in unmarked grave today, in low-key funeral

Saudi King Abdullah at his private residence in the Red Sea city of Jeddah in June 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Saudi King Abdullah at his private residence in the Red Sea city of Jeddah in June 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia will bury King Abdullah in an unmarked grave on Friday, hours after it moved to ensure a smooth transition by appointing a new king and crown prince to quell fears of dynastic instability at a time of regional turmoil.

In keeping with Muslim traditions, King Abdullah's body, clothed in white and shrouded in a simple cloth, will be carried on an ambulance stretcher by relatives to rest in the mosque before being borne to the cemetery and buried in an unmarked grave.

Prayers in the mosque will be led by the new King Salman and attended by Muslim heads of state and other senior figures, including President Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi of Egypt, one of Abdullah's closest allies after the Arab spring uprisings. Non-Muslim dignitaries will visit to pay respects to the new monarch and crown prince, and other members of the Al Saud dynasty, in the coming days.

Later, following the evening prayer an hour after sunset, King Salman and Crown Prince Muqrin will receive pledges of allegiance from other ruling family members, Wahhabi clerics, tribal chiefs, leading businessmen and other Saudi subjects.

In the kingdom's strict Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam, ostentatious displays of grief are frowned upon: After previous deaths of Saudi monarchs and other top royals, there was no official period of mourning and flags hung at full mast.

Despite a surge of sorrowful messages from Saudis on social media, that religious constraint on public commemorations meant there were no signs in Riyadh early on Friday that the country's long-time ruler had died.

King Abdullah's successor, King Salman, now takes over as the ultimate authority in a country that faces unprecedented tumult in the region and difficult long-term domestic challenges compounded by the plunging price of oil. King Salman must navigate a white-hot rivalry with Shi'ite Muslim power Iran playing out in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Bahrain, open conflict in two neighbouring states, a threat from Islamist militants and bumpy relations with the United States.

Reputedly pragmatic and adept at managing the delicate balance of clerical, tribal, royal and Western interests that factor into Saudi policy making, Salman appears unlikely to change the kingdom's approach to foreign affairs or energy sales.

But by immediately announcing the appointment of his youngest half-brother Muqrin bin Abdulaziz as Crown Prince, King Salman decisively moved to end speculation about the direction of the royal succession and splits in the ruling family.

Many Saudis in a country with a young population will be unable to recall a time before King Abdullah's rule, both as monarch from 2005 and as de facto regent for a decade before that.

His legacy was an effort to overhaul the kingdom's economic and social systems to address a looming demographic crisis by creating private sector jobs and making young Saudis better prepared to take them. "I think (Salman) will continue with Abdullah's reforms. He realises the importance of this. He's not conservative in person, but he values the opinion of the conservative constituency of the country," said Mr Jamal Khashoggi, head of a news channel owned by a Saudi prince.

Oil prices jumped on Friday as news of King Abdullah's death added to uncertainty in energy markets already facing some of the biggest shifts in decades.