World leaders converge on Saudi Arabia after King Abdullah's death

RIYADH (AFP) - World leaders converged on Saudi Arabia on Saturday to offer condolences following the death of King Abdullah, with US President Barack Obama cutting short a trip to India to pay respects.

One after another, foreign aircraft landed at a Riyadh military base where leaders from Africa, Europe and Asia descended on a red-carpeted ramp to be welcomed by officials and served a traditional tiny cup of Arabic coffee.

Since Abdullah ascended the throne in 2005, Saudi Arabia has been a prime Arab ally of Washington, and last year joined the coalition carrying out air strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Obama "called King Salman bin Abdulaziz from Air Force One today to personally express his sympathies" ahead of his trip to Riyadh on Tuesday to meet new King Salman, the White House said.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also made a rare visit to the regional rival to offer condolences, television pictures showed.

Both Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko were among the well-wishers, even as pro-Kremlin rebels announced a major new offensive on a strategic government-held Ukrainian port.

Poroshenko had to interrupt his attendance to chair an emergency meeting about the violence.

Others guests included French President Francois Hollande, Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani, Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla, European royalty and Jordan's King Abdullah II. Prince Charles and Prime Minister David Cameron came from Britain.

They gathered at the Al-Yamamah Palace, the royal court, to line up and greet King Salman, who took the throne after the death of his half-brother on Friday, and his heir Crown Prince Moqren.

Outside, a helicopter patrolled overhead and four lanes of cars - everything from luxury Bentleys to everyday models - inched towards the palace grounds carrying Saudi well-wishers past guards with pistols strapped to their thighs.

Away from the palace and nearby roadblocks, shops were open and life continued with almost no indication that a new era had begun, except for billboards expressing condolences for Abdullah's death.

The government declared Sunday a holiday so that citizens throughout the country could mourn and pledge symbolic allegiance to their new monarch.

- On 'the straight path' -

Abdullah, who died aged about 90 after being hospitalised with pneumonia, was a cautious reformer who led the Gulf state through a turbulent decade in a region shaken by the Arab Spring uprisings and Islamic extremism.

World leaders have praised him as a key mediator between Muslims and the West, but activists criticised his rights record and urged Salman to do more to protect free speech and freedoms for women.

"Saudi Arabia is a partner, both economic and political," Hollande said before his arrival in Riyadh with Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

Other presidents and prime ministers were present on Friday for Abdullah's traditionally simple funeral and burial.

Salman, 79, pledged to keep the conservative, oil-rich Muslim kingdom on a steady course and moved to cement his hold on power.

He vowed to "remain, with God's strength, attached to the straight path that this state has walked since its establishment".

Moving to clear uncertainty over the transition to the next generation, he named his nephew, Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 55, as second in-line to the throne behind Crown Prince Muqrin, 69.

Salman also appointed one of his own sons, Prince Mohammed, as defence minister of the world's leading oil exporter.

"The Saudi royal family handled the succession without even a hint of crisis, and laid the ground work for the future," wrote Anthony Cordesman, of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Since the death in 1953 of the kingdom's founder, Abdul Aziz bin Saud, the throne has passed systematically from one of his sons to another.

While mourning Abdullah, the royal court announced good news about the health of Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal. He "underwent, successfully, a surgery" on his back in the United States, the official Saudi Press Agency said.

- Regional mediator -

As the top producer in the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Saudi Arabia has been the driving force behind the cartel's refusal to slash output to support oil prices, which have fallen by more than 50 per cent since June.

Ali al-Naimi remains the kingdom's oil minister, and the International Energy Agency's chief economist said he did not foresee major policy shifts.

Nicolas Maduro, president of OPEC member Venezuela, said Saturday he was on his way to Riyadh to convey his condolences - two weeks after visiting Saudi Arabia seeking a cut in crude output.

Behind his thick, jet-black moustache and goatee, Abdullah had a shrewd grasp of regional politics.

Saudi Arabia is home to Islam's holiest sites, and its role as a spiritual leader for Sunni Muslims has seen it vying for influence with Shiite-dominated Iran.

Wary of the rising influence of Islamist movements, Saudi Arabia has also been a generous supporter of Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi since the army ousted Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Sisi arrived in Riyadh on Saturday, after Egypt declared seven days of official mourning for Abdullah.

Riyadh has also played a key role in supporting opposition to Iranian-backed President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, and will allow US troops to use its territory to train rebel fighters.

The kingdom has led regional concern over instability in its southern neighbour Yemen, where witnesses said Huthi militiamen who control the capital had encircled the parliament building overnight Thursday following the resignation of the president.

Yemen's parliamentary speaker was still fly into Riyadh on Saturday.

Salman is widely expected to follow closely in Abdullah's footsteps, in foreign and energy policy as well as in making moderate reforms.

Abdullah pushed through cautious changes, challenging conservatives with such moves as including women in the advisory Shura Council.

He promoted economic development and oversaw accession to the World Trade Organization, tapping into Saudi Arabia's massive oil wealth to build new cities, universities and railways.