Archive for Friday, June 26, 2009

Middle Eastern leaders top gift-givers

June 26, 2009

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President Barack Obama takes off a gift of a gold necklace called the King Abdul Aziz Order of Merit, Saudi Arabia’s highest honor, for safekeeping after it was given to him by Saudi King Abdullah at the start of their bilateral meeting at the King’s Farm in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in this June 3 file photo. When U.S. presidents and diplomats meet with leaders, they often receive lavish gifts — which they can’t keep.

President Barack Obama takes off a gift of a gold necklace called the King Abdul Aziz Order of Merit, Saudi Arabia’s highest honor, for safekeeping after it was given to him by Saudi King Abdullah at the start of their bilateral meeting at the King’s Farm in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in this June 3 file photo. When U.S. presidents and diplomats meet with leaders, they often receive lavish gifts — which they can’t keep.

— When U.S. presidents and their diplomats meet some Arab leaders, they come away with more than an earful about foreign policy. They also get exquisite baubles, objects of gold, robes, art — even a papier mache Santa Claus.

A new list of gifts bestowed by foreign leaders on U.S. officials shows particularly lavish treats from the Arab world. One eye-popper: a diamond ring, locket and musical instrument worth more than $212,000 from Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, longtime U.S. nemesis, to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

He gave the gifts a personal touch, including likenesses of his face.

Alas, it’s only the thought that counts.

Rules forbid U.S. officials from keeping most gifts given by foreign representatives. They have to turn them over to the government. Most gifts given to a president quickly end up in a warehouse, only a sampling of them to emerge years later in a presidential library.

Great gifts

Superb bicycles given to former President George W. Bush last year went to federal storage, according to the State Department list released Thursday. Gift perfume never graced a VIP’s wrist. Wine and cigars, after being courteously received, almost certainly were never consumed.

The list covers gifts given Bush and his officials, along with some from earlier years of his administration that were reported later.

President Barack Obama is on the list, as a senator. During Obama’s July 2008 visit to Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai gave him a $60 Jesus statue as well as two rugs, a vase and a silver palm tree figurine valued at $200 each. Following protocol, Obama turned the gifts over to the State Department.

The Saudi medal of honor Obama received in his presidential visit to the kingdom this month is likely to end up in archival storage, just as did one given Bush. The new State Department report shows Bush’s medal and a silver and gold replica of the Saudi palace — together worth $32,000 — in the federal inventory.

The globe-trotting Rice was showered with sparkling gems and exotic scents: Lalique Crystal perfume from the French, Guerlain perfume from the Armenians.

Arab hospitality

In the Arab world, hospitality and generosity are greatly valued and even poor people will press gifts or admired personal belongings on guests. The richer the person, the greater the hospitality and giving.

Enter King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

He gave more than $750,000 in gifts to Bush, Rice, lower officials and others connected with the White House. Elizabeth Cheney, daughter of then-Vice President Dick Cheney, received $85,000 in diamonds and rubies from the king. In a distinct change of pace, he also gave her three pairs of Dr. Scholl’s clogs.

She, too, could not keep the largesse. It all went to archival storage.

In just one episode last year, the king gave Rice a jewelry set, robe and scarf valued at more than $230,000.

Rice was well received by Gadhafi, too, in a time of restored diplomatic relations.

The locket he gave her during her visit contained his photograph. He also presented another State Department official with an $800 Rado watch with a photo of himself on the watch face.

Elsewhere, the United Arab Emirates ambassador gave Bush a variety of Christmas decorations worth over $700, including the papier mache Santa. As with Karzai’s Jesus statue for Obama, several leaders from the Islamic world made goodwill gestures across cultural and religious lines.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II gave the U.S. ambassador, David Hale, a $12,500 Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Jumbo watch, one of the showcase timepieces among many handed out.

Special cases

Many gifts from around the world reflect the brand-name tastes of the powerful as well as home-country pride of product.

Bush got a $972 Vicuna scarf from Peru and a $5,195 Bang & Olufsen BeoLab 4000 sound system from Denmark. A Singapore official contributed a $579 OSIM uSqueez calf and foot massager and Creative Zen MP3 player.

The glittering inventory features Tiffany pens, Waterford crystal, Givenchy cologne and leather, and Zandstra rollerblades. Qatar’s armed forces chief dispensed TechnoMarine wristwatches and more to U.S. military commanders.

A small percentage of gifts ends up on display in government offices or presidential libraries. In some cases with inexpensive items, the recipient may be able to buy it from the government.

Consumable gifts to the president, such as food and drink, run into special security obstacles.

Ten Fuente OpusX cigars from Panama, among the most prized, were not left with Bush. The list shows they were “handled pursuant to Secret Service policy.” That probably means the trash bin.

One of the most striking gifts: cash. A representative of the Holy See gave the U.S. ambassador to Switzerland $2,700 in Swiss francs in November. The money was being transferred to the General Services Administration, the State Department said.

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