Tribal chiefs, clerics, princes and commoners pledge allegiance to new Saudi king
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) – Hundreds of tribal chiefs, Islamic clerics, princes and commoners pledged loyalty Wednesday to Saudi Arabia’s new King Abdullah, vowing to “hear and obey” in a traditional Islamic ceremony that seals his status as monarch after a decade as de facto ruler.Abdullah’s investiture strengthens his hand to push forward with what have been the hallmarks of his unofficial rule – limited steps toward reform and a crackdown on Islamic extremism and militants linked to al-Qaida.”I promise God and you that I will adopt the Quran as the constitution and Islam as the course, and that all my concerns will be to establish righteousness and justice,” Abdullah said in his first address to the nation as king. “I appeal to you to support me and help me carry this trust and don’t hesitate to advise me.”Western dignitaries flowed through a Riyadh palace to congratulate the 81-year-old Abdullah and express condolences for the death of his predecessor and half brother, King Fahd. Abdullah, in white robes and a cream-colored cloak, sat with Britain’s Prince Charles and Prime Minister Tony Blair as well as the king of Sweden and other European heads of state. One key meeting will be with Vice President Dick Cheney.Saudi Arabia is a major U.S. ally in the Middle East, and Abdullah has worked to repair ties strained by the Sept. 11 attacks, in which 15 of the attackers were Saudis.Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said he expected U.S.-Saudi relations to continue to improve and vowed a “total war” on terrorism.”We stand firmly against (terrorism) not only militarily with security forces, but also with an ideological plan dealing with the causes and roots of those who joined the evil-doers,” al-Faisal told reporters. Quoting Abdullah on terrorism, he said: “This disease must be rooted from the body of the politics of Saudi Arabia.”The allegiance ceremony – known as “bayah” – is key for Abdullah, who has been de facto ruler since Fahd suffered a debilitating stroke in 1995. Fahd died Monday at age 84.Abdullah is believed to have met some resistance on both reform and the fight against militants from hard-liners in the Islamic clergy and their allies in the royal family, though such squabbles are kept strictly behind the scenes.So far, reform steps have been severely limited, centered on the kingdom’s first election, held this year to pick local councils. But Abdullah faces pressure to allow a wider number of Saudis a say in government.Being monarch will likely boost Abdullah in pushing through his plans. He may also be helped by money: The kingdom’s coffers are overflowing with oil profits amid rising prices – spiking to $61 on news of Fahd’s death. After years of deficits due to low oil prices, Abdullah now has cash to please disgruntled members of the royal family.The kingdom’s grand mufti and other top Islamic clerics were the first to file by Abdullah, shake his hand and vow their loyalty to him as Saudi Arabia’s sixth king.The House of Saud has depended for legitimacy on the support of clerics from the kingdom’s strict Wahhabi version of Islam since Abdullah’s father, Abdul-Aziz bin Saud, welded the Arabian peninsula tribes into a nation under his name in 1932.Hundreds of tribal chiefs, royal family members, government officials and uniformed senior military officers – all men – lined up, some shouting “Long live the king” as they waited their turn to honor Abdullah. A palace servant swung an incense burner among them to bless the gathering, in a large marble-columned hall covered with silk carpets and graced by giant chandeliers.Each man shook Abdullah’s hand and pronounced, “I express my allegiance to you. I hear and obey, except in what would disobey God.”The “bayah” ceremony has its roots in the succession after the death of Islam’s prophet Muhammed in the 7th century, when the caliphs who followed him received the support of the Muslim community.Security was tight, with armed agents wandering the hall, wearing traditional white robes and red headdresses, toting automatic weapons and loops of ammunition.In theory, the ceremony was open to all citizens, but security forces closed off the neighborhood surrounding the palace, set up checkpoints and filtered those who wanted to come in. They checked ID cards, letting in those who were important and turning back others. Two helicopters hovered over the building.Some well-wishers pushed and shoved for a place in line or pleaded with guards to let them past. One young member of the royal family – thought to include thousands of princes – didn’t like the wait.”I’m a royal family member but I still have to wait in line to see my uncle. This is beyond comprehension,” said Prince Saud bin al-Hassan, 19, whose grandfather is one of Abdullah’s half brothers. “But at least we know that the king has the true support of the people.”Others waited outside in the blazing sun and 130-degree temperatures.”Look what God wills, the king really has some stamina,” Fahd Nasser al-Harashi, a 35-year-old high school gym teacher, said, sweating in the heat. “God give him health. I don’t know how he can greet so many people. It really shows he’s strong and capable of leading the country.”—–Associated Press Writer Adnan Malik contributed to this report from Riyadh.