US President Obama hails late Saudi King as 'candid' and courageous friend

US President Barack Obama (left) shaking hands with Saudi King Abdullah on June 3, 2009. -- PHOTO: AFP
US President Barack Obama (left) shaking hands with Saudi King Abdullah on June 3, 2009. -- PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP/Reuters) - United States President Barack Obama on Thursday paid tribute to late Saudi King Abdullah as a bold leader who took courageous steps to pursue peace in the Middle East and a valued friend.

"As a leader, he was always candid and had the courage of his convictions," Mr Obama said in a written statement, describing his "genuine and warm friendship" with the King.

"One of those convictions was his steadfast and passionate belief in the importance of the US-Saudi relationship as a force for stability and security in the Middle East and beyond.

Mr Obama also saluted the late king's commitment to close US-Saudi ties.

"As our countries worked together to confront many challenges, I always valued King Abdullah's perspective and appreciated our genuine and warm friendship," said Mr Obama.

"The closeness and strength of the partnership between our two countries is part of King Abdullah's legacy," the statement added.

The president also praised King Abdullah's efforts to foster peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

"He took bold steps in advancing the Arab Peace Initiative, an endeavor that will outlive him as an enduring contribution to the search for peace in the region."

At home, Mr Obama said the King was "dedicated to the education of his people and to greater engagement with the world".

King Abdullah died early on Friday and his brother Salman became king, the royal court in the world's top oil exporter and birthplace of Islam said in a statement carried by Saudi state television.

During King Abdullah's nearly decade-long reign - which spanned the Arab Spring and multiple wars that roiled the Middle East - Saudi Arabia and the United States remained staunch allies.

The 41st US president George H. W. Bush hailed a "dear friend and partner" whom he described as a "wise and reliable ally".

King Abdullah, believed to be around 90 years old, was hospitalised in December suffering from pneumonia and had been breathing with the help of a tube.

He died on Thursday at 10pm GMT and will be buried on Friday following afternoon prayers, according to the Saudi government.

It was not immediately clear if Mr Obama would attend the funeral.

Members of the US Congress also paid tribute.

Republican Senator John McCain described King Abdullah as an "important voice for reform in Saudi Arabia".

"He pushed for the modernisation of the education system, curbed the authority of the religious police, and extended women the right to vote and run in municipal elections."

King Abdullah's half-brother Salman, 79, has been named king.

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