In the world of diplomacy, the details of official gift giving can speak volumes. Recall that in 2009, President Barack Obama got off to an awkward start with the British when he sent back a bust of Winston Churchill that President Bush had kept on loan in the Oval Office. The British press took it as quite a snub. Obama then compounded the kerfuffle by bestowing upon the Queen of England an Ipod, and giving the visiting British prime minister a box of 25 movie classics on DVDs that won’t play on the British system.
Now, thanks to a recent State Department filing printed in the Federal Register, we have a list of gifts that Obama and his entourage received that same year, 2009, from foreign governments and donors around the world — all accepted on grounds that “non-acceptance would cause embarrassment to donor and U.S. government.” Prominent among them are gifts from Saudi Arabia. In an article headlined “Obama entourage showered with Saudi gifts,” the AFP does the math and reports that Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz gave Obama, his family, and members of his administration more than $300,000 worth of presents. These included a $132,000 ruby and diamond jewelry set and a $14,200 pearl necklace for Michelle Obama, thousands of dollars worth of jewelry for the Obama children, $34,500 worth of presents for Barack, and $108,245 worth of gifts for the White House staff.
Mind you, the Obamas and staff don’t get to keep these presents as personal property. That would be against the law. The gifts are turned over to the National Archives.
Nonetheless, these gifts were officially accepted, to avoid embarrassment. And one might suppose that in the minuets of diplomacy, a certain amount of thought went into the choosing of them. On those grounds, a friend took the time to look through the list — it’s fun to browse — and culled out the full roster of Saudi gifts. If the price tags reflect whom the Saudis value most, then for any tea-leaf, or maybe gold-leaf readers out there, here’s the curious hierarchy that emerges:
Michelle Obama: $146,200
The President: $34,500
The senior diplomatic interpreter, Gamal Helal: $23,400
White House “trip” director, Marvin Nicholson: $18,500
White House staff member (and former counsel to the 9/11 Commission), Peter Rundlet: $12,650
U.S. Charge in Riyadh, Peter Erdman: $12,000
National Security Council’s Puneet Talwar: $10,680
David Axelrod: $9,000
Rahm Emanuel: $8,485
Valerie Jarrett: $5,055
… and so on, down to…
The Kids: $3775 and $3,500
and finally, way down at the bottom, favored with nothing more than a “gold country plaque with display case,” the secretary of Defense, Robert Gates: $485