In the end, the resting place for the ruler of one of the world's wealthiest nations was a sparse place. King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz was buried Tuesday among hundreds of identical graves, in a sprawling cemetery bordered by hovels of concrete and cinder block. A simple rock marked his interment under gravel and dirt. By sunset, only the curious peered in.
"God have mercy on him," one of the onlookers whispered, then moved on with a friend.
The burial of Fahd, whose long autumn of ill health ended Monday, was an altogether understated affair. Muslim leaders from around the world paid their respects to a king who ruled for 23 years and was a son of Saudi Arabia's founder, but there was no pomp, and little ritual.
In organizing the rites, members of the royal family adhered to the traditions of the conservative brand of Islam that has underpinned its rule. They also offered a metaphor for a complex country, where centuries-old customs are buffeted by change and tradition remains the beacon for navigating challenges ahead.
"There's nothing official, no military parade, no popular march," said Ahmed Mohammed Taha, 48, a teacher who watched the burial in al-Oud Cemetery, enclosed by a simple, tan stone wall. "The way I saw it, that's the way it's supposed to be."
For decades, the Middle East has witnessed funerals as spectacles. Many left memories that remain indelible: the millions in Iran who surged toward the corpse of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, with some in the mob knocking it to the ground; the scenes of anguish in Egypt as Gamal Abdel Nasser was buried in 1970, ending an era; the anxiety that engulfed Jordan when King Hussein died in 1999; the pandemonium that greeted the return of Yasser Arafat's body to Ramallah last year.
In the Saudi capital Tuesday, Muslim leaders from North Africa to Southeast Asia joined Saudi princes and residents at the Imam Turki bin Abdullah mosque in an affair that was most remarkable for being undistinguished.
Shrouded in a brown cape, Fahd's body was carried into the mosque atop a bier draped in a Persian carpet and placed in the middle of the hall. The thousands there offered prayers for the dead, broadcast live on Arab satellite television stations. As is customary, they were brief. Non-Muslims were not allowed; Vice President Cheney, French President Jacques Chirac and many of the other foreign delegations will pay their respects to Fahd's successor and half brother, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, on Wednesday.
The mosque was designed in the architecture of the ascetic, a contrast to the opulent and sometimes extravagant lifestyle of many of the royal family's princes. The largest in Riyadh, it is an unadorned compound, built of simple stone at sharp angles. Date-laden palm trees surround a courtyard of marble and granite. Simple wooden doors lead to the worship hall, where the dignitaries on Tuesday stood on red carpets trimmed in green.
Under intense security, Fahd's sons slowly carried his body outside and placed it in an ambulance. It took the body to the cemetery, an expanse of brown interspersed with a few bushes sprouting between rows of thousands of almost identical plots. In traditional robes and checkered head scarves, members of the royal family gathered over the plot, some carrying umbrellas under a sweltering sun. Snipers watched from nearby rooftops.
Fahd's brown cloak was removed and his body was lowered in a white shroud into an unmarked grave. Under the kingdom's Wahhabi traditions, grief is discouraged, as are tombstones, ornate mausoleums or flowers.
"The funeral is understated by design," said Aziz Abu Hamad, a Saudi political analyst in Riyadh. "It's very important that the leader of the community be buried in this way."
The modern Saudi state, which has the world's largest oil reserves, is the successor to an alliance forged in the 18th century between Mohammed bin Saud, a tribal leader, and Mohammed bin Abdul-Wahhab, a religious reformer who was bent on purging Islam of what he saw as heresies, profane innovations and folklore that adulterated God's message. The alliance still underpins the family's rule, endowing the monarchy with religious legitimacy.
With oil wealth that poured in during the 1970s and '80s, Saudi Arabia spread its conservative brand of Islam throughout the Muslim world. Inside the country, religious rhetoric still defines politics: Violence that has plagued the country since 2003 is often denounced as illegitimate under Islam.
That terrain will prove perhaps the most difficult for Abdullah to navigate as king. Popular inside the kingdom and viewed by many as a nationalist free of the corruption that blights some of his brothers, Abdullah is already encountering high expectations for change in a country that sits uneasily between old and new. Within his conservative family, he is seen as having at least the impulse of a reformer. Frustrated so far by relatives less inclined toward change, he will face fewer restraints as king. But some question whether he has the energy -- he is at least 80 -- or the institutions to liberalize the kingdom.
At each turn, analysts say, he will encounter a conservative religious establishment that is uneasy with the Saudi alliance with the United States and skeptical of reforms viewed as dictated by the West. For now, Abdullah, who has long cultivated a devout, even ascetic image, has better standing among that establishment than some of his brothers. But he also faces unrest stirred by Islamic radicals who have aligned themselves with Osama bin Laden, a Saudi native. If he intensifies efforts to rein in the radicals, analysts say, he could alienate elements of the religious establishment who may denounce the militants' turn to violence but not necessarily their ideas.
"The conservative backlash and the relations with the United States are the two main challenges for him -- how to deal with these competing or opposing forces nowadays" Abu Hamad said.
Those challenges still lay ahead Tuesday, as the country marked Fahd's funeral in the style of the country's founding. Unlike many Muslim states, Saudi Arabia did not declare a mourning period. Saudi flags, emblazoned with the creed "There is no god but God," flew at full staff. Businesses opened Tuesday, and by nightfall, traffic was snarled along Riyadh's main boulevards.
"There's grief, but it's not great," said Mahmoud Rabia, an 18-year-old student. "It's present in our hearts, but that's all."
At the cemetery, a gaggle of people crowded along one wall, climbing atop a container to peer inside before police dispersed them.
"This is the way a Muslim is supposed to be buried," said Mohammed Othman, a 27-year-old shopkeeper, standing across the street that takes its name from the cemetery. "In death, there's no difference between Muslims, no difference at all."
Eissa Salman, wearing the uniform of a security guard, walked down the street, past Othman's shop. He peered at the cemetery as a setting sun cast a soft light. Other kings, brothers of Fahd, were buried there, too.
"Death is the command of God for all people who live on Earth," Salman said. "No one lives forever." He shook his head and uttered the words that customarily greet death in the Arab world. "God have mercy on him," he said.