RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia’s new king joined in prayers Friday before the simple burial of the country’s late ruler, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, even as attention shifted to the new map of royal succession that puts a younger generation closer to the throne.
King Salman acted quickly to clarify the top tier of the Saudi hierarchy, seeking to project stability and resolve at a time when the country faces challenges on multiple fronts, including threats from Islamist militants and a political breakdown in neighboring Yemen.
Salman’s decisions also acknowledged an important generational shift underway in the kingdom, as he named the country’s 55-year-old interior minister as the deputy crown prince. That puts him just behind Salman’s younger brother, Prince Muqrin, 69, in line for the throne.
The appointment of the interior minister, Mohammed bin Nayef, represents the first time the succession ranks have grown beyond the sons of the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz, to the generation of his grandchildren.
The move underscores the country’s demographic realities. Close to half of Saudi Arabia’s population is under 25 years old, and the young often straddle two worlds: ultraconservative rules at home and freewheeling ideas online.
The Arab Spring upheavals across the region in 2011 did not directly touch Saudi Arabia, but the speed and scope of the changes forced by young protesters did not go unnoticed by the Saudi elite.
“We will continue adhering to the correct policies which Saudi Arabia has followed since its establishment,” Salman said in his first address after taking the throne.
The message suggested to Western allies that there would be no major shifts in policy — and hinted to the country’s youth that Salman would stick with Abdullah’s pattern of slow-yet-steady reforms. The changes under Abdullah’s nearly decade-long rule included creating greater educational options for women and granting women the right to vote in local elections planned for later this year.
But everything in Saudi Arabia must first pass through the powerful Islamic religious establishment, which gives the House of Saud legitimacy to rule in the land of Islam’s holiest sites. The country’s morality police remain a potent force, and some reforms remain out of reach, such as lifting a ban on women driving.
Saudi Arabia’s strict codes have faced global condemnation, most recently for the sentencing of a blogger to 1,000 lashes for posts deemed insulting to Islam. The public punishment has been suspended after one round of flogging.
Salman’s speech further suggested that he will seek to continue Saudi Arabia’s increasing role in regional affairs, which has occasionally put it at odds with Washington. In one key break with their U.S. allies, Saudi leaders expressed dismay when Washington opted not to launch airstrikes against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2013.
“The Arab and the Islamic nations are in dire need of solidarity and cohesion,” the 79-year-old king said.
Salman takes charge amid an array of challenges. Saudi Arabia is deeply worried about the apparent collapse of the government in neighboring Yemen and the rise of rebels believed backed by Iran, the main regional rival of Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi leadership has also pressed for greater international aid for Syrian rebels seeking to topple Assad.
Inside the kingdom, Saudi officials have stepped up security measures and surveillance on suspected Islamist militant cells.
The death of Abdullah, 90, was announced early Friday in Saudi Arabia. He had been undergoing treatment for pneumonia.
In the capital, Riyadh, Salman took part in prayers Friday with royal family members before the burial of Abdullah, whose body was wrapped in a simple shroud and placed in an unmarked grave in accordance with the kingdom’s conservative Islamic traditions.
The ceremonies and burial were attended only by family members and an inner circle of aides and friends, who still numbered in the hundreds. Pallbearers from his family carried a litter holding the king’s shrouded body to the public al-Oud cemetery, a sandy field with small, undecorated marker stones within sight of shabby apartment blocks.
The cemetery was guarded by soldiers stationed around the perimeter. Crowds stood for hours as military helicopters hovered overhead.
Graffiti sprayed on the cemetery wall said in Arabic: “Death is a door through which everyone must pass.”
“I’m so sad about this; he was a good king,” said Ibrahim al-Dosry, 29, a Saudi man who stood in a crowd near the cemetery entrance. “It is our duty to be with the king in his last moments.”
Dosry and others watched as a steady stream of shiny black SUVs, Range Rovers, Bentleys and other luxury cars carrying royal family members and other dignitaries drove by, escorted by police cars with flashing lights.
Tributes from around the world poured in for Abdullah, a key Western ally. The White House announced that Vice President Biden would lead a U.S. delegation to Saudi Arabia in the coming days to pay respects to the king’s family.
Salman, meanwhile, took further steps to consolidate the ranks of Saudi leadership.
He appointed his own son, Mohammad bin Salman, to succeed him as defense minister and to the position of head of the king’s royal court, replacing Abdullah’s longtime chief.
While that does not place Mohammad bin Salman in the direct line of succession to the throne, it solidifies the power of Salman’s closest relatives inside a royal family that is riven by political maneuvering.
Khaled al-Maeena, a columnist for the Saudi Gazette newspaper, said Saudi tradition sets aside three days for mourners to pay condolences and pledge support to the new king.
That began Friday night as hundreds of top officials, tribal leaders and family members attended a ceremony at a Riyadh palace to offer their allegiance to Salman. Maeena said people outside Riyadh would go to regional governors’ offices to make that pledge.
“It’s not like he’s Caesar,” Maeena said. “It’s just for people to show that they are with him.”
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