Riyadh (AFP) – Saudi Arabia’s elderly King Abdullah died on Friday and was replaced by his half-brother Salman as the absolute ruler of the world’s top oil exporter and the spiritual home of Islam.
Global leaders paid tribute to the late monarch, a cautious reformer who led his kingdom through a turbulent decade in a region shaken by the Arab Spring uprisings and Islamic extremism.
The royal court said in a statement that Abdullah, believed to be around 90, died at 1:00 am local time, expressing its “great sadness and mourning”.
Another of the late monarch’s half-brothers, Moqren, was named the new crown prince.
In his first public statement as the new ruler, the 79-year-old King Salman vowed to maintain a steady course for the conservative kingdom.
“We will remain with God’s strength attached to the straight path that this state has walked since its establishment,” Salman said in televised remarks.
He called for “unity and solidarity” among Muslims and vowed to work in “the defense of the causes of our nation”.
Salman moved quickly to consolidate his hold on power and settle succession issues, naming the interior minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, as second in line to the throne and one of his own sons, Prince Mohammed, to replace him as defense minister.
Abdullah was to be buried Friday following afternoon prayers, with citizens then invited to pledge allegiance to the new monarch at the royal palace.
Officials did not disclose the cause of Abdullah’s death, but he was hospitalized in December suffering from pneumonia and had been breathing with the aid of a tube.
Under Abdullah, who took the throne in 2005, Saudi Arabia has been a key ally of Washington in the Arab world, most recently joining the U.S.-led coalition carrying out air strikes against the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.
President Barack Obama was quick to pay tribute to Abdullah as a “valued” ally.
“The closeness and strength of the partnership between our two countries is part of King Abdullah’s legacy,” Obama said in a statement shortly after the monarch’s death.
Vice President Joe Biden said on Twitter he would lead a delegation to Saudi Arabia “to pay respect and offer condolences”.
Other tributes came in from foreign leaders, with French President Francois Hollande hailing Abdullah as “a statesman whose work profoundly marked the history of his country”.
The presidency said Hollande would travel to Saudi Arabia to “offer his condolences” but that the exact timing of the trip had yet to be decided.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said he was “deeply saddened” and that Abdullah would be remembered for “his commitment to peace and for strengthening understanding between faiths.”
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also postponed a planned trip to Somalia to attend the funeral.
As the top producer in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, 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 percent since June.
Oil prices surged Friday following Abdullah’s death, amid uncertainty over whether the new king would maintain that policy.
But the chief economist of the International Energy Agency said he did not foresee major policy shifts.
“I do not expect any significant change in the oil policy of Saudi Arabia and I expect and hope that they will continue to be a stabilization factor in the oil markets,” Fatih Birol told AFP in Davos.
Saudi Arabia is also home to Islam’s holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, and its role as a spiritual leader for Sunni Muslims has seen it vying for influence with Shiite-dominated Iran.
Tehran nonetheless offered condolences over Abdullah’s death, saying Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif would travel to Riyadh to take part in official ceremonies.
Behind his thick, jet-black mustache and goatee, Abdullah had a shrewd grasp of regional politics.
Wary of the rising influence of Islamist movements, Saudi has been a generous supporter of Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi since the army’s ouster of Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt declared seven days of official mourning for Abdullah.
Saudi Arabia has also played a key role in supporting opposition to Iran-backed President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, allowing U.S. troops to use its territory to train rebel fighters.
Salman is widely expected to follow closely in Abdullah’s footsteps, in foreign and energy policy as well as in making moderate reforms to the deeply conservative kingdom.
Abdullah pushed through cautious changes while in power, challenging conservatives with moves such as including women in the Shura Council, an advisory body.
He promoted the kingdom’s economic development and oversaw its accession to the World Trade Organization, tapping into the country’s massive oil wealth to build new cities, universities and high-speed railways.
But Saudi Arabia is still strongly criticized for a dismal human rights record, including the imprisonment of dissidents. It is also the only country in the world that does not allow women to drive.
“The Saudi regime seems insensitive to human rights and human dignity and unfortunately they are also protected by many Western countries because they have oil and because they are seen as allies in the fight against terrorism,” the head of Amnesty International, Salil Shetty, told AFP in Davos.
Salman is a stalwart of the royal family credited with transforming Riyadh during his half-century as governor from a backwater to a thriving capital.
Since the death in 1952 of the kingdom’s founder, King Abdul Aziz bin Saud, the Saudi throne has passed systematically from one of his sons to another.
Abdul Aziz had 45 recorded sons and Abdullah, Salman and Moqren were all born to different mothers.
The new king will face some major challenges, especially as falling oil prices cut into state revenues.
Saudi Arabia has managed to avoid the social upheaval that has shaken many of its neighbors in recent years, thanks in large part to massive public spending.
The country has amassed enormous financial reserves, but has already projected a huge deficit of $38.6 billion (34.4 billion euros) for this year.