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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 August 2005, 18:28 GMT 19:28 UK
Analysis: The Saudi way of death
By Martin Asser
BBC News

King Fahd's grave in Riyadh
The stark grave is indistinguishable from any in Oud cemetery
The late King Fahd's funeral may have come as something of a shock to those unfamiliar with Saudi religious practices.

One of the world's wealthiest and most extravagant monarchs - who in life resided in a string of lavish palaces - was buried in an unmarked grave in a public cemetery.

After a 23-year rule, there was no mourning period in Fahd's homeland, government offices stayed open and flags remained at full mast.

The reason is that the House of Saud practises one of the strictest codes of Islam - known as Wahhabism - in which followers try to emulate precisely the behaviour of the Prophet Muhammad and avoid anything seen as un-Islamic "innovations".

Public displays of grief are frowned upon by a religious establishment which views every aspect of life and death as a submission to God's supreme will.

That means funerals are very austere and puritanical in character, with a strong impression of egalitarianism in death.

Indeed, somewhere in Riyadh's Oud cemetery, where King Fahd was buried on Tuesday, lie the equally anonymous graves of his predecessors as head of the oil-rich kingdom carved out by their father, Abdul Aziz Bin Saud.

Homage ceremony

For all its pomp and prestige, the Saudi monarchy still ostensibly upholds the codes of the accessible tribal chieftains that its members originate from.

Therefore the main palaces are theoretically "open to the public", with any citizen able to walk through an open door and gain access to those in power.

King Abdullah receiving well-wishers at bayaa ceremony
The bayaa ceremony is a carefully orchestrated formality
The traditional "bayaa" ceremony, in which the populace confers legitimacy on a ruler by paying homage, also keeps up the impression that the old ways survive.

Hundreds of well-wishers have been visiting King Abdullah - Fahd's ageing half-brother and de facto ruler since 1995 - in Riyadh to pledge allegiance.

This display of support is replicated across the country with regional governors - most of them Abdullah's relatives - standing in.

However, it would take a considerable suspension of disbelief to accept that the bayaa is anything like an open process of popular participation, rather than a stage-managed event by the Saud dynasty and the ultra-conservative Wahhabi clerical establishment which provides its religious legitimacy.

Critics of US policy in the region will decry Washington's endorsement of this process - Vice Present Dick Cheney is flying in to pay his respects - on the same day that another leader takes office under another self-styled Islamic system - one rejected by the US but which actually includes voting - in Iran.

Tunes changed

If the official ceremonial has been kept strictly Wahhabi in nature, the Saudi print media and Saudi-owned Arabic TV have made some obvious changes to mark Fahd's passing.

Prayers said over body of King Fahd before burial
Fahd was buried in the last Abaya, or robe, which he wore in life
Local TV has been broadcasting Koranic verses - not an unusual event in Saudi Arabia - but there has also been unprecedented access to the funeral and investiture process for television cameras.

It appears that the regime is keen to embrace and harness the power of media coverage, rather than reject it as in the past.

The Saudi dynasty is using every available tool as it tackles a vicious campaign from al-Qaeda-linked militants, and growing pressure for reform from within and without.

There has been little public grief - though whether through Wahhabi conviction or indifference it is hard to tell.

However, newspapers have been packed with tributes, with businesses, government agencies and private citizens paying for full-page condolence adverts showing photos of the late monarch.

Meanwhile the Saudi-owned pan-Arab entertainment channel Rotana, with its usual diet of music videos showing nubile Lebanese or Egyptian pop stars and dancers, has certainly changed its tune.

The network has been broadcasting just a picture of King Fahd and playing Koranic recitations.


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
Watch King Fahd being laid to rest in Riyadh



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