Panetta visits Saudi Arabia to offer condolences on death of Saudi crown prince

"The president wanted me to express his personal regrets at not being able to be here, but wanted all of us in this delegation to convey to you not only our sorrow for your loss, but also our best wishes to you in your new position and to reaffirm the great relationship and partnership that the United States has with the great nation of Saudi Arabia," Panetta said Wednesday.

Salman, formerly defense minister, was named crown prince and heir to the kingdom's thrown Monday, reported The Associated Press.

Through a translator at a meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, he told Panetta he appreciated "this step from a friendly nation."

Nayef, Saudi Arabia's Interior minister, who oversaw the kingdom's domestic intelligence, police force and border security organizations, died Saturday at the age of 78. He was a key U.S. ally in fighting al Qaeda, and according to reports was next in line for the throne.

“I was deeply saddened to learn of the crown prince's passing over the weekend. During his nearly four decades as Minister of Interior, Crown Prince Nayif worked tirelessly for the protection of the Kingdom and the Saudi people. His visionary leadership and courage were instrumental to the gains we have made together against terrorism and extremism, and helped save Saudi and American lives," said Panetta in a statement released Tuesday.

The Defense secretary also praised Nayef for his role in strengthening the relationship between the United States and Saudia Arabia.

Panetta said he came away from an in-person meeting in Riyadh with the late minister "impressed" with his dedication to his country and commitment to combating terrorism. 

President Obama called King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia Wednesday to offer his "personal condolences" and express his appreciation for the crown prince's "many contributions over decades of service," according to a statement by the White House. 

During the call the president also congratulated Abdullah on the appointment of Salman as Crown Prince, said the White House statement.

Read more on the White House reaction to the death of Nayef on DEFCON Hill.