President Obama often receives curious gifts from foreign dignitaries. There was the time he got 20 baseball caps with his face on them from Zanzibari President Ali Mohamed Shein. And that other time Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk gifted a $500 deluxe package of items related to the video game “Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings.”
But when the State Department published its annual accounting of gifts from foreign notables to American government officials on Wednesday, what stood out wasn’t so much the “What the heck is that?!?” as the “Wait, they gave how much?!?”
That’s because, throughout 2014, Saudi King Abdullah and top kingdom officials spent a fortune on gifts for Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters — roughly $1.35 million on the list.
The accounting was made public the day before Thanksgiving, with Americans poised to dive into the gift-buying season.
The first thing to know is that these gifts aren’t bribes. If Obama wants to keep anything he gets from another world leader, he has to pay fair market value for it and take it with him when he leaves office. Otherwise, U.S. law stipulates that the president must turn over everything to the National Archives or other institutions for storage or display. A quick look through this year’s list suggests he did not opt to hold on to any presents.
Obama is wealthy — book sales and investments, on top of a $400,000 annual salary, have made the onetime college professor financially quite comfortable. But it’s hard to imagine him putting up the cash to keep the “gold and silver men’s wristwatch with leather band,” valued at $18,400, that he received from the Saudi king on Jan. 14, 2014. Or the $67,000 needed to own another timepiece, a “white gold men’s wristwatch with leather band,” that the monarch gave him on April 15, 2014 (no word on whether it was inscribed “happy tax day”). And then there was the “48-inch gold-plated brass replica of the Makkah Clock Tower on marble base,” presented March 28, 2014, and coming in at a cool $57,000, roughly what a median American family earns in a year.
Impressive? Not when compared to the gifts the Saudi king, who died in 2015, gave Michelle Obama.
On Jan. 14, 2014, Barack Obama might have been admiring the watch he wasn’t going to keep, but the first lady got a “diamond and emerald jewelry set including necklace, earrings, ring and bracelet.” Value? $560,000.
On April 15, 2014, she received an identically described set, but this one was worth $570,000.
Malia and Sasha weren’t left off the Saudi king’s list. On Jan. 14, 2014, they received “diamond and emerald jewelry set including earrings, necklace, ring, brooch, and wristwatch. Diamond and ruby jewelry set including earrings, necklace, ring, brooch, and wristwatch.” Price tag: $80,000.
It may seem odd to give away items that the recipient almost certainly won’t keep, but presents like these apparently play a small but not insignificant role in global diplomacy. In each case, under the heading “circumstances justifying acceptance,” the State Department says “nonacceptance would cause embarrassment to donor and U.S. government.”
Later in 2014, the Saudi minister of the National Guard, Prince Miteb bin Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, gave the first family a lavish care package of sorts that included a 10-inch model palm tree made of silver and gold, set on a green marble base, a number of robes and “two bottles of perfume named for the King of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” The State Department estimated its worth at $39,915.
The perfume, like alcoholic beverages given to the president, was “handled pursuant to the United States Secret Service policy.” The Secret Service did not immediately return a Yahoo News request to describe that policy.