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Saudis Laying King Abdullah to Rest

The body of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz is carried during his funeral at Imam Turki Bin Abdullah Grand Mosque, in Riyadh, Jan. 23, 2015.
The body of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz is carried during his funeral at Imam Turki Bin Abdullah Grand Mosque, in Riyadh, Jan. 23, 2015.

Funeral services are underway in Saudi Arabia for King Abdullah, hours after the oil-rich Sunni-ruled kingdom moved to ensure a smooth transition by appointing a new king and crown prince.

Abdullah,one of the world's few absolute monarchs and a longtime U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism and Islamic extremism, died early Friday after a long illness. He was believed to have been 90.

His successor is his half-brother, Salman, crown prince and defense minister since 2012. He is thought to be 79.

The new king vowed in a nationally televised speech to continue the policies of his predecessor. "We will remain, God willing, holding the straight course that this country has walked on since its establishment by the late King Abdulaziz," he said.

Simple burial

Salman was to lead prayers at the funeral service for the late king. Abdullah's body, enrobed in white and covered with a simple white cloth, was brought to the Imam Turki Bin Abdullah Grand Mosque in Riyadh. He was to be buried in an unmarked grave at Al Oud cemetery.

Among the Muslim heads of state expected for the observance are Egypt's President Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi of Egypt, who, as Reuters reported, became one of Abdullah's closest allies after the Arab spring uprisings.

Other dignitaries will pay their respects in the coming days and weeks.

Among world leaders offering condolences, U.S. President Barack Obama offered the sympathies of the American people to the Saudi people and royal family. Obama said the king always was candid and had the courage of his convictions, including using the U.S.-Saudi relationship as a force for security and stability.

Meanwhile, Islamic militants and their supporters celebrated the king's passing.

"He sent his warplanes to kill Muslims in [Syria]. He imprisoned Muslim men and women and wherever there was a war against jihadis, he was the first," a jihadi supporter named Abu Azzam al-Najdi railed on social media, Reuters reported.

Twitter posters used hashtags that, translated from Arabic, mean "Death of a Tyrant," the news agency said.

Changing leadership

Salman on Friday named his nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef as the new deputy crown prince and his son, Mohammed bin Salman, as Saudi Arabia's new defense minister and head of the royal court. The new king also said he would keep most other ministers.

A half-brother of the king, Moqren, was named the new crown prince.

Abdullah ushered in modern era

King Abdullah officially ascended to the throne in 2005. But he actually had ruled since 1995, when his predecessor and half-brother, King Faud, suffered an incapacitating stroke.

Abdullah is believed to have been born in Riyadh in 1924 to an ultra-conservative family in which the traditions and hospitality of Islam were always stressed.

As he grew into adulthood, oil was discovered in the Saudi desert and the country grew into the world's top oil exporter, bringing vast wealth to royal family.

Upon taking control, Abdullah began unprecedented moves to modernize the conservative kingdom.

Women were given a voice in politics. This year, for the first time, they'll be allowed to vote in local elections.

Abdullah also established a Western-style university where students from both sexes openly mixed and shared classes.

Previously banned music could be heard on Saudi television and radio.

Foreign policy maverick

Abdullah was something of a maverick in his foreign policy. He proposed a peace deal in which Arab League states would recognize Israel if the Palestinians get their own state.

In a leaked U.S. diplomatic note, the king urged the U.S. military to attack Iran and "cut off the head of the snake" to stop it from building a nuclear weapon.

Saudi Arabia is one of the top suppliers of arms to the rebels fighting to overthrow the Syrian government. It is a leading member of the U.S.-led coalition fighting against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Saudi Arabia is part of the G20 economic bloc and the World Trade Organization.

Despite reforms at home and moderation abroad, human rights groups continue to assail Saudi Arabia. They say women are still denied many basic rights.

The king refused to support the Arab Spring movements that toppled dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

Dissent is not tolerated, free speech is muffled, and criminals still face extreme punishment such as beheadings.