RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Vice President Dick Cheney (search), accompanied by former President George H.W. Bush and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, paid respects Friday to new Saudi King Abdullah and offered condolences on the death of his half brother, the former king.
Reporters in the capital, Riyadh (search), were barred access to the American delegation, which was to have an audience with the new king after Friday prayers in the deeply conservative desert kingdom.
Oil-rich Saudi Arabia (search) is a major U.S. ally in the Middle East, and Abdullah has worked to repair ties strained by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, in which 15 of the attackers were Saudis. The Bush family has had close ties with the Saudi leadership for decades.
At King Abdullah's formal investiture Wednesday, Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said he expected U.S.-Saudi relations to continue improving, and he vowed a "total war" on terrorism.
Abdullah had served as de facto leader for a decade after King Fahd suffered a debilitating stroke. Top clerics Friday called on Saudis to join others in expressing their "bayah," or oath of allegiance, to Abdullah, which they said was every Muslim's religious duty.
Tens of thousands of Saudis — tribal chiefs, Islamic clerics, army commanders and commoners — have been pouring into the governor's palace here to pledge loyalty to Abdullah, vowing to "hear and obey" in a traditional Islamic ceremony sealing his status as monarch.
Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Seedes, the imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, went so far as to compare swearing allegiance to the new king to the oath taken by Muslims to their prophet Muhammad some 14 centuries ago.
"I urge all Muslims to take bayah because it is part of the creed and a religious duty," he said in a sermon broadcast live on Saudi television.
Al-Seedes said those who do not take the oath would go to their graves as non-Muslims.
Sheikh Abdul Mohsen al-Obeigan, a cleric who is close to the royal family, even called on women to take the oath, an unusual request since Islamic traditions make expressions of allegiance the duty only of men.