Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey has established an essay competition to honor the late Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, the Pentagon announced Monday.

The competition, to be hosted at the National Defense University over the next academic year, will focus on issues related to the Arab and Muslim worlds, according to the official DOD News.

"This is an important opportunity to honor the memory of the king, while also fostering scholarly research on the Arab-Muslim world, and I can think of no better home for such an initiative than NDU," Dempsey said in a statement.

Abdullah, 90, who ruled since 2005 and was the power behind the throne of his ailing predecessor, King Fahd bin Abdulaziz for a decade before that, died late Thursday and was succeeded by his brother and crown prince, Salman bin Abdulaziz.

Dempsey met the king in 2001, when he served as an adviser to the Saudi Arabian National Guard, which Abdullah commanded.

"In my job to train and advise his military forces, and in our relationship since, I found the king to be a man of remarkable character and courage," Dempsey said.

Though Abdullah was undeniably a key U.S. ally in the Middle East as head of his oil-rich kingdom, the official U.S. response to his death has also drawn criticism by dissidents in the Arab world and human rights groups.

President Obama is cutting short his visit to India to pay his respects to King Salman in Riyadh on Tuesday, and praise for Abdullah from U.S. officials has been effusive.

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy where women are treated like children under the law, religions other than Islam are forbidden and beheadings for even relatively minor crimes are common. As king, Abdullah pursued a reform program that was relatively liberal by Saudi standards, but glacially slow compared to expectations raised by the Arab Spring — or by international human rights standards.

"We have to question the integrity of those in the media and ruling classes who are now eulogizing King Abdullah as though he were worthy of admiration," the American Islamic Forum for Democracy said in a statement.