08/02/2005, 00.00
SAUDI ARABIA
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King Fahd laid to rest amidst tight security and public indifference

Dignitaries from 36 countries attend the funeral, but locals shrug off the event: "He didn't do anything for us".

Riyadh (AsiaNews) – In an austere ceremony, King Fahd of the House of Saud was laid to rest today. After being taken from the King Faisal Specialist Hospital, the body—draped in a brown robe—was carried in a stretcher into Riyadh's central mosque. Here, most mourners prayed; others exchanged greetings, views and condolences.

Fahd's body was then taken to al-Oud cemetery, where his father Abd-al-Aziz—the founder of the Kingdom in 1932—is buried.

Following Wahhabi custom, the most puritanical in Islam, the grave is unmarked to avoid temptations of idolatry. Similarly, flags at half-mask were not allowed since the Saudi flag carries a quote from the Qu'ran and placing it at half mask might be construed as belittling the word of Allah.

The funeral was carried out by the male members of the al-Saud family and tribe, confirming women's marginal place in Arabia. Women in the Saudi Kingdom cannot leave home alone; they must be accompanied by husband or brother.

Heads of state, of government and foreign ministers from at least 36 countries came for the ceremony to express their condolences to the Saud family and the new king, Abdullah.

Jordan's King Abdallah, Syria's President Assad and Iraq's President Talabani were among them. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas arrived last night.

Thousands of soldiers and security officers were deployed, a metre from one another, around hospital, cemetery, mosque and even prayer room.

Although most public buildings were closed, but many stores stayed open. But downtown Riyadh was off-limits to car traffic and drivers had to be patient to negotiate their way out of traffic jams elsewhere in the city.

Heavy police deployment was not only due to the presence of foreign leaders but also to fears of possible attacks or anti-monarchy demonstrations.

The general public had little sympathy for King Fahd. "He didn't do anything for us," one person told AsiaNews.

Given its dictatorial hold on power, its corruption (with 40 per cent of oil revenues going to Saud family members), the lack of freedom of expression, the high unemployment (20 per cent of the labour force), there is no lost love between the royal family and much of Saudi society.

Religious freedom deserves a chapter of its own, above all for the country's six million foreign workers especially if they are Christian and Hindu.

Not only are the latter denied the right to own prayer kits, holy books and even pray in the privacy of their homes, but so are those Muslims whose traditions that do not conform to Wahhabi beliefs and practices. This is sorely true for Sufism, once strong in Saudi Arabia, now dead for all intents and purposes.

Many devout Muslims accuse the Saud family of having betrayed Islam. Nothing in the Qu'ran justifies banning Christians from praying. And torture, which is commonly practiced by Saudi police, has nothing to do with Sharia Law—it is just an instrument of dictatorial rule.

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