The Prince of Wales and Prime Minister David Cameron are flying to Saudi Arabia today to join international figures paying respect in person to the royal family following the death of King Abdullah and flags have been lowered on key public buildings in London.
But the decision to fly them at half mast has drawn sharp criticism from some prominent politicians over abuses of free speech, women’s rights and the country’s role as cradle of Islamist extremism.
Abdullah, thought to be aged about 90, died on Thursday after two decades in power in the world’s biggest oil exporter. He has been succeeded by his 79-year-old half-brother, Salman.
In a statement to Salman, the Queen – now the world’s oldest monarch – said she was “saddened” to learn of the death.
She said: “Your distinguished brother Abdullah had devoted his life to the service of the kingdom and the service of Islam.
“He will be long remembered by all who work for peace and understanding between nations and between faiths.
“I offer Your Majesty my sincere condolences and I offer my sympathy to the Saudi people.”
Mr Cameron said that he was “deeply saddened” and that the ruler would be “remembered for his long years of service to the kingdom, for his commitment to peace and for strengthening understanding between faiths”.
Former premier Tony Blair said he was a “stable and sound ally … a patient and skilful moderniser” in a turbulent time in the region.
But the flags issue drew stinging criticism in the wake of Saudi Arabia’s recent public beheading of a woman and a sentence of 1,000 lashes due to be meted out to the creator of an online blog.
The leader of the Scottish Conservatives Ruth Davidson condemned the move as “a steaming pile of nonsense” and Ukip MP Douglas Carswell said it showed Whitehall officials held “immoral” values far from those of the British public.
Downing Street and other Whitehall departments – with Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace – were among prominent landmarks to put Union Flags at half mast yesterday after a request was sent out by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).
DCMS issued a notice that “all flags be half-masted from 8am yesterday until 8pm” although it said it was for devolved governments and individual town halls to decide whether to do so.
When Abdullah ascended the Saudi throne in 2005, he had already been the country’s de facto ruler for a decade after his predecessor and half-brother, King Fahd, was incapacitated by a stroke.
In the terms of the ultra-conservative Islamic kingdom, he was seen as a reformer, chipping away at some of the severe restrictions on women – allowing them seats on the country’s top advisory council and to attend mixed sex classes at the university he founded.
However there was a limit to how far he was willing – or able – to go, and Saudi Arabia remains the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive.
More recently, the sentencing of the blogger Raif Badawi to 1,000 lashes threw a spotlight on the kingdom’s harsh laws cracking down on any dissent against the ruling family.
Western governments – including Britain – have in turn been accused of turning a blind eye to such excesses in return for lucrative arms sales and the continuing flow of Saudi oil.
Following the 9/11 attacks on the United States in 2001, the kingdom was criticised as the cradle of a radical branch of Islam which gave birth to the extremism of al Qaida.
Abdullah eventually cracked down hard after al Qaida militants mounted a series of terrorist attacks aimed at toppling the monarchy.
In recent months however the Saudi authorities have been forced to deny they funded and exported an intolerant brand of Sunni Islam which gave rise to the brutal Islamic State insurgency in Syria and Iraq.